Thoughts from the CoronaVirus Epicenter
Updated: May 2, 2020
I am looking at these pictures. They were taken on the day I found a mask in a store near where I live. I had been looking for surgical masks all week. I ordered N95 masks on Amazon, but I wanted the surgical masks for daily use. That week, a couple of my staff at work had fallen ill from the Flu. I wanted a mask to wear at work, just in case I heard someone else get sick. When I finally found one sold for 3 for a dollar, I wore it the following day. On the bus. On the train. There were a handful of people wearing masks in NYC then, mostly Asian, like the Asian couple on the train with their luggage. These pictures are dated January 29, 2020. In the time of CoronaVirus, that seems like a long time ago.
Just last week, the hashtag #hysteria was trending on Twitter and Facebook. People--in panic--were buying cartloads of toilet paper from big shopping markets like BJs. I am certain when I posted the pics above on my Facebook that people thought the same of me. Although I wanted to wear the mask for the Flu, I also bought it to save it for the Coronavirus. Since I had been posting regularly about the Coronavirus, people on my list assumed I was wearing it for that purpose. The assumption didn't really bother me. I am the type who never cares what others have to say. But I found it curious that pre-Pandemic, I could basically divide people I know into a few types: those who tastefully mock, those who ignore, and the worst, those who argue with a bag of their own truths, "But the Flu."
"But The Flu" was thrown at my face more often than not. It seemed to be the favorite counter point of many against the severity of CoronaVirus. The Flu kills thousands, so why are we worried about the CoronaVirus? They wrote. Explaining to people that The Flu is first, a known virus, second, with a vaccine, and third, not as high a death rate was moot. People seem to have made up their minds that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. It was part lecture, part attempt to outsmart, and part attempt to spout false positivity. The danger was, because of what's happening in China, it was already becoming known that the mortality rate of CoronaVirus was higher than the Flu by at least 20%. Nobody seemed to get that a new virus coming into our human system was a tremendous problem, especially a virus we know very little about. Plus, once it becomes ENDEMIC--like The Flu--in our human society, how will it change the way we live? Are we even ready for that? How will CoronaVirus interact with the killer Flu? What will a President who loves to spout lies do?
Strangely enough, or maybe expectedly, we heard the same rhetoric from IMPOTUS as he tried to downplay the gravity of the problem. I also heard it at work from someone in a higher position, publicly and proud, repeated like a mantra straight out of the temple of pseudo-science. I thought people were so deep in their bubbles they couldn't see what was about to come. I thought I was the blind character turned prognostic in the Asian movie, The Eye.
Once Upon a Wuhan
Over two months ago I started following the virus in China and sharing posts on Facebook and Twitter. There was only one other person doing the same thing on my Facebook. Both of us (Thanks, Ninotchka Rosca) were sharing information and piecing together through posts what's happening in Wuhan. Early in January, it started getting worse in China, and on January 23rd, Wuhan was locked down. Unfortunately, at least 4 million already left town to travel elsewhere in China, and out into the world. But the tweets from Wuhan were devastating. From these tweets, one could already see what might happen once the virus left China and traveled around the world. After all, as they say, viruses know no borders, no politics, no law.
The Humanity of it All
What makes people believe what they want to believe? What blocks people from seeing a tsunami that's coming their way? What makes us easily project our own denials to a reality that is happening so close to us? It's not access to information or news. We are not without information flow. Italians also didn't see CoronaVirus coming. By the time they caught wind of reality, it was already too late. In two weeks, their whole system crashed. But even that didn't alarm people in the U.S. Around the same time, writers all around the U.S. were preparing to attend the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference in San Antonio, Texas. Even if one of the directors resigned because the organization didn't cancel the conference in light of the health emergency declared by the Mayor of San Antonio, writers still flocked the conference. I thought these were highly pragmatic and intelligent people. What compelled them to go into a war zone where an unseen enemy lingered and awaited to attack?
In January, I started preparing my family. I have family in New Jersey, here in NY, and in California. My mother, whom I consider to have extreme foresight, also rallied members of my family to get masks and sanitizers. She even took a picture of hers and sent it to us by text. I don't know if the rest of them ever did the same thing. It's hard to sound alarms with people who don't have the same experience in life. They will never know our frame of reference or understand why we are acting the way we do. It's especially difficult to explain to the younger generation whose bubbles and comfort zones prevent them from seeing a wide range of perspective. My father of course survived a concentration camp during World War 2. He taught all of us the language of survival. But survival has a lot of subtexts. One of them is
foresight. It's that ability to smell what's coming because the patterns are all there for us to connect.
Knowledge is Power
I always thought social media was a divine gift for people like me who love to read and consume information and have an uncanny ability to manage loads of information. Many can't handle the toxicity of social media. I won't deny that. There is a lot of that going on, but there's also a lot of stories happening that could prepare us for the worse to come. And stories are always useful, however toxic. Wuhan was a story. A story many didn't read and heed.
I am grateful to the people of China. They posted tweets against the government's wishes. They posted pictures to show us what might happen here. They posted their truths. They posted their dead. They posted themselves bare and suffering. They taught me to prepare. I sent the same message to some people who were willing to listen.
And now, March 22, 2020, I am caught in the epicenter of a pandemic in the U.S. I am in New York City. In Queens. Epicenter of epicenters. The American story would be coming from here. The tragedies will arise from the ashes around the block. Many of them didn't know what got them. Many still don't have the information that could save their lives. It seems such a long time ago when I took those selfies on the train. A few of us were wearing masks then. And so much has happened since.