It's perfectly fine to be confused by the strangeness of life, Margo — sometimes it's even admirable. In about a month, you will be born. Margo, my daughter, my first child. Tiny, barefooted little girl, brave inside your watery shelter for now. Protected from an ocean-wide disease, a constituency of fever.
Someday, you will ask me about the world you were born into, about how it felt to be a person in the spring of 2020, as a global pandemic hurled our planet into "Night of the Living Dead," sparing nobody, not even Tom Hanks — Forrest Gump, Sheriff Woody, the only man capable of portraying Mister Rogers. He caught the virus.
Nobody is immune to tragedy or pain, Margo.
All it took to ruin everyday human life on a global scale was a spiky virus called COVID-19, the highly infectious disease caused by the novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which possibly originated from an animal of some kind in Wuhan, China. The virus attacks respiratory cells, hijacks them, then converts them into disease production mills.
More often, in public, people wear surgeon's masks and shift their eyes. Apparently the masks do little good. But people are scared. People are dying all over the world. The worst of it hasn't even hit America. Hospitals — vulnerable — brace for the onslaught of infected people. People are terrified. The virus lurks everywhere. The virus could be anywhere. You cannot see it, but you can feel the anxiety and paranoia it causes, as if the virus itself were in the air all around you. A smithereen curtain of tumor yellow. Cellophane that suctions over your mouth and constricts your breathing.
So, all month, I've had "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana stuck in my head:
With the lights out, it's less dangerous.
Here we are now, entertain us.
I feel stupid and contagious.
Here we are now.
Reid Wilson diagrams the path of an outbreak in his book, "Epidemic," focusing on the spread of the Ebola virus from 2014-16, and all the unbelievable stories and inconceivable coincidences that made it one of the deadliest diseases known to man.
The book takes the stylistic and metaphorical form of a spark that builds into flame, then eventually into an all-encompassing force of nature. He writes:
Every fire starts with a spark. Every spark, under the right circumstances, can become a conflagration burning out of control, consuming everything within its path — a house, a forest, a people, a country.
The COVID-19 inferno started with a 55-year-old man from Wuhan, China, a city of 11 million people, last November. It quickly spread through the region via a seafood market that sold live animals. The timing of it all is tragically impeccable. By early January, the coronavirus had become a health concern throughout Hubei province, but it was contained enough that people went about their lives. This aligned perfectly with Chunyun, the 40-day travel season in celebration of the Chinese New Year.
The holiday sees Chinese people from around the globe return home, to spend time with friends and family. It is the largest human migration on earth, with nearly 3 billion people traveling through China then returning to every curve of the world.
By late January, the World Health Organization designated the coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Within a month, the virus metastasized further, spurring a global emergency unlike anything we had ever seen.
In the time it took me to write the introduction to this article, five new countries/territories/areas reported outbreaks of COVID-19.
In total, 175,000 cases, roughly 6,500 dead, across 158 nations and territories.
1 Corinthians 15:52: ''We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.''
Or, in this case, in the droplets of a sneeze, through tiny lifeforms infecting the air. Early on — a month ago — as COVID-19 spread, people erroneously compared it to the influenza. Sometimes infected people remain asymptomatic. Otherwise, they exhibit flu-like symptoms. Fever, difficulty breathing, runny nose, and a dry, windless cough. It quickly became apparent that the virus was highly contagious, far more than we expected.
It spread too fast, we were lagging. We have struggled to keep pace, to understand the virus' behavior. Epidemiologists and virologists didn't know how long the virus could remain in the air and on surfaces. Worse, nobody seems able to agree on a reliable fatality rate, the percentage of infected who die or survive, depending how you see it.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, "Globally, about 3.4 percent of reported COVID-19 cases have died."
In an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, President Trump balked at that number.
"I think the 3.4 percent number is really a false number," he said. "Now, this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations ... personally, I'd say the number is way under 1 percent."
The actual percentage is a combination of the two. It accords to each country, each region, and the severity of the outbreak in those areas. More cases of the coronavirus means a higher death rate. Fewer cases, a lower death rate.
As of Monday, March 16, there is no vaccine.
Life in 2020
Early on, as the COVID-19 ravaged various countries, we, in America, were largely distracted. By the soap-opera histrionics of an election year and an especially viperous one at that.
By most accounts, Trump was rounding out his first — and perhaps only — term. So far, his presidency had been a nonstop bighorn ram fight, headbutt after headbutt after headbutt. Incompatible arguments between Trump and his enemies. Both sides, Trump and anti-Trump, remained loyal to themselves and hostile to anyone else, an airtight exclusion of unity. The stature and renown of Trump's presidency varied — often humorously — depending on where you got your news. The legacy media saw disaster and collapse in Trump, and made it their duty to surveil the man, ready for the moment that would earn him a second impeachment.
Trump and his followers, in turn, saw "winning, winning, winning," and a news media that was hostile and sulky. Trump made it his duty to heckle and goad the media. At Trump rallies, the WiFi password in the press pen is "!!TRUMP2020!!" Meaning that any journalist who reports on Trump rallies is forced to type !!TRUMP2020!! in order to get any work done. On Air Force One, Trump keeps the TVs in the press cabin tuned to Fox News.
But none of that matters now.
As of Monday, there were 3,155 coronavirus cases in 49 states, with at least 62 deaths. Every state and territory except West Virginia.
Decades from now, we will likely think of this as an era of tumult and upheaval and insecurity, balancing disagreement and convenience. Believe it or not, Margo, this is an age of revolution. Do people realize when they're inside a Renaissance? Well, I think we are in one such transformative period. When every day swarms with advancement and innovation.
Americans are just and fair, Margo. You will fit right in.
Oddly, COVID-19 could be the terrifying event that unites us, in an old-world kind of way. Yet, the isolation of mandated social distancing could lead to a social recession, a widespread bout of loneliness, isolation, boredom. It's a paradoxical dynamic that journalist Sebastian Junger writes about in his book, "Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging." Junger, who first achieved success with "The Perfect Storm" then as a war correspondent, documentarian, and author, has had a life filled with catastrophes. "Tribe" is the culmination of all that tragedy and combat:
Humans don't mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It's time for that to end.
A month ago, I stopped posting these weekly stories. Partly because my wife was seven months pregnant and we spent February moving from Fort Worth, Texas, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to be closer to family, and, as I've mentioned before, Oklahoma is my favorite state in the nation. A dusky, hill-steeped, pink-sunset-crowned Cinderella.
Before the move, I wrote six or seven stories over a three-month period, with the hope that I could run them while I was busy with the move. But they all fell apart. Flimsy things. For the first time in a while, I had a story rejected. A few days later, I fumbled another story, this time for radio.
Language is power, Margo. If you have language, you have the world.
At the time, in the chaos and fever of my life, it felt like I'd lost my claim to language, my creative wildness. Which is especially terrifying when your job depends on the strength of your claim to language, your ability to cull the words everyone always needed.
Writer's block is not an option for me.
I was exhausted. But, upon arriving in Tulsa, renewed in a good wholesome kind of way. Came through the other side. Where I was surprised to see that there were people waiting there. And I received some lovely emails and DMs:
"Where ya been? Die hard fan over here... where's the press?"
Thank you, Neil. I needed the pep talk. Who knows how the next six months will play out, but, for now, I've got plenty to write about. Because, Margo, you will find that there are variances of grace. It's about living with Agape, universal love, spiritual and unconditional.
1 Corinthians 13: 11-12
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Through a glass darkly
First, COVID-19 spooked Wall Street. Even people who don't know a thing about the stock market — I am no expert myself — noticed the early pinches of disruption that worsened with the spread of the highly contagious virus. On Sunday, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to nearly zero percent, the second emergency rate cut in two weeks. For reference, the last time the Federal Reserve made such dramatic cuts was December 2008, at the height of the financial crisis.
Via conference call, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said:
Families, businesses, schools, organizations and governments at all levels are taking steps to protect people's health. These measures, which are essential for containing the outbreak, will nonetheless understandably take a toll on economic activity in the near term.
Dominos. One falling on the next, down a line, until the whole row has spilled into wreckage.
The cruise ship outbreaks were an early glimpse at COVID-19's rampant spreadability. Any amount of person-to-person contact increased the spread, we were told. The most effective prevention was social distancing, coupled with vigorous hand-washing and avoidance of hand-to-face contact.
By the hour, the parameters of social isolation tightened, the restrictions intensified. Laxity causes needless deaths. Our best option was to commit to social distancing — everyone; the agreement had to be thorough and widespread.
Last Friday, President Trump suspended all cruise ship sailing for at least 30 days.
Social distancing requires that people avoid travel, avoid crowds and large gatherings, avoid hugs and kisses and handshakes, and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from anyone who is sneezing or coughing. "Do not," the experts said, "get too close to others."
All of which is inevitable when you're on a plane. So the airline industry took a massive hit. At first, the running joke was, "If you've ever wanted to have a plane to yourself for dirt-cheap, now is the time." But the grimness kept going so people cooled it with the dark humor.
Trump instituted a travel ban on most countries in Europe. The entire country of Italy went on lockdown, following the alarmingly high spread of the virus. On Sunday, there were 368 COVID-19-caused deaths in Italy, the highest in a single day. Among the events canceled was Venice Carnival, which is itself a perfect symbol for the "Twilight Zone" spookiness of the pandemic.
The State Department urged Americans to avoid travel, raising the global health advisory to level 3, the second highest. The Defense Department issued a 60-day ban on service members and their families traveling to countries affected by the virus.
Last week, thousands of K-12 schools in a dozen states and Washington, D.C., closed, affecting more than 15 million children, roughly a quarter of the school-going population. Colleges moved classes online. New York University, Columbia University, Princeton University, University of Florida, Harvard ordered all on-campus undergraduate students to leave their dormitories for the remainder of the semester.
The Washington National Cathedral was one of the many religious institutions to be shuttered. Zoos. Cemeteries. Conferences, summits, conventions. The GLAAD Awards.
Five Republican congressmen, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, underwent self-quarantine after a person they had interacted with at the Conservative Political Action Conference was diagnosed with the virus. Louisiana delayed its presidential primary two months. Both Democratic presidential candidates — Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden — canceled campaign events. President Trump called off rallies in Nevada, Colorado, and Illinois. Literally hours before this story ran online, I received an email from the board of the White House Correspondents' Association informing all press corps members that they are "reducing the number of seats available in the White House briefing room to accommodate social distancing guidelines as best as practicable."
All month, companies have encouraged employees work from home. Mercury Studios, home of Glenn Beck Radio, BlazeMedia, and TheBlaze was among them, an entire media ecosystem, empty.
Earlier, through my home-office window, I caught a glimpse of the Tulsa skyline and heard the quiet highway rumble that is usually louder. In the backyard, dark yellow leaves slow-danced with breakneck curvature. But then a towering breeze gutted them, shredding their wings.
Here we are, now entertain us
Every public, communal form of leisure and escape receded like a hermit crab into an old plastic cup.
As one Twitter user quipped: "Oh sweet, I was wondering how every corporation I've ever given my email to was handling COVID-19."
Starbucks. California Gov. Gavin Newsom closed all bars in the entire state. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti took it a step further, closing all movie theaters, restaurants, nightclubs, and gyms until at least March 31. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Lots of politicians did. Too many to keep track of, like the rest of the updates related to this catastrophe.
Many libraries shut their doors indefinitely. The Louvre Museum in Paris, home of "The Mona Lisa," site of the The Carters' mesmerizing "Ape S**t" video. The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The Boston Marathon. March Madness, a staple of American sport, was canceled. English Premier League, the most elite soccer league in the world, postponed the season to early April, after Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta contracted COVID-19. Leagues in Spain, Italy, France, Germany followed suit, including the UEFA Champions League.
NASCAR originally planned to hold races without fans in attendance, but as the virus spread, they decided to postpone. New York International Auto Show. Disneyland. Universal Studios. SeaWorld. E3, the largest gaming convention in the world. ComicCons. Even RuPaul's DragCon.
St. Patrick's Day parades were canceled in most major cities, including Dublin and Cork, in Ireland. The Tucson Festival of Books.
The NBA suspended all games a month shy of playoffs, after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive for the coronavirus, days after he mocked the virus during a news conference.
To be fair, he seems truly to feel bad about it.
The PGA. The NHL. The MLB. The MLS.
Nobody knows how long the pandemic could last. So the 2020 Summer Olympics has become an uncertainty. Will Tokyo be safe by late July?
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo — the largest indoor livestock exhibition and rodeo in the world, held annually at the 72,000-seat NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, adjacent to the Astrodome, where for the entire month of March, roughly 2 1/2 million people from all over the world gather for Houston's signature event — canceled.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned "gatherings with 500 people or more." Unbelievably, New York City grounded to a halt. Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall. Broadway suspended all performances for 32 days, longer than the shutdown following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Cancelations and bans came at every level of every industry. The music industry as a whole took swift action. Live Nation Entertainment and AEG Presents. Left and right, concerts cancelled. The Who. Cher. Madonna. Pearl Jam. Michael Buble. Slipknot. The 35th annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Even Billie Eilish, who swept all four of the major categories at this year's Grammy Awards.
Coachella, and its country music counterpart iHeartCountry Festival, postponed six months. South By Southwest, the crown of the industry, was canceled. A wise decision, but also one that will likely set music back at least an entire year, affecting thousands of musicians, vendors, artists, filmmakers, producers, promoters, recruiters — an enormity of funding and money lost, opportunities missed.
Comedy tours by Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, and Trevor Noah. Late-night talk shows. Same with "Price is Right." "The Amazing Race," "Survivor," and "The Bachelorette." ABC's "The View" taped without an audience. And the film industry. At every level. High-brow: Tribeca Film Festival. Low-brow: Fast & Furious. Even the new James Bond film, the aptly titled, "No Time to Die."
You shouldn't go too long without some humor, Margo, especially when times get dark.
If the timeline of known life were a year, with the creation of our our universe on Jan. 1 of Year One, and today at 12:00 of Jan. 1 of the next year, the evolution of modern humans — which, in real time, took 200,000 years — would begin at 11:52 of Dec. 31, 8 minutes before midnight of the new year. The birth of Christ would take place in the last 4 seconds of the year. Columbus arriving in America would happen 1.2 seconds before midnight.
Margo, I am afraid to say that the Earth, which I know you will love, cannot exist forever. Best case, the planet will sustain life for another 1.5 billion years or so. Which is hopefully enough time to find our way to a freshly habitable planet, which is kind of sad when you think about it, leaving everything behind.
In 7.5 billion years, the Sun will engulf Earth, and every trace of us and our time here will vanish. Then, eventually, the Sun will die. Then the rest of the stars, until the last star burns out.
Motion is life, Margo. Life is a motionable force, a living creature. And black holes invalidate motion. They are the vultures of the galaxy.
So much of life involves pointless endeavors or a misapprehension of time. Launch off into the unknown, see where you land. Probably, it will improve you, to have embedded in a new somewhere. So, for now, the satellite-rocked sky undulates above us, perfect and solemn and pale blue silver with white drifting clouds. Lopsided, full of floating airplanes, luminous, as processions of geese drift across each bellnote shadow.
The next killer outbreak
A couple years ago, Reid Wilson appeared on Glenn Beck's radio show. In preparation, I was assigned Wilson's book, "Epidemic: Ebola and the Global Scramble to Prevent the Next Killer Outbreak." It's the story of Ebola, as I mentioned above-head, but it's also an examination of how governments can do better, particularly the United Nations and the World Health Organization, especially in a time when international borders blend, and people are connected globally more easily than ever.
Wilson writes, "The global heath chain is only as strong as its weakest link."
Overall, I enjoyed the book, and came up with solid questions for Wilson's interview. As news of COVID-19 spread this year, I returned to Wilson's book and that list of questions.
Check out the last one:
Reid, you note that, while the Ebola virus has an extremely high mortality rate, it has a low transmissibility, whereas a disease like Zika is the opposite. We were lucky with Ebola. You write that a disease which is both highly lethal and highly transmissible would be catastrophic, especially if it happens somewhere that is hostile toward Americans. We've most likely faced the end of the Ebola virus. We have a cure and strategy. What's next? What can we do to stop the next outbreak? And what will the next pathogen look like? A flu strain from China? You write that we're unprepared for the next outbreak. What's the solution?
Last Thursday, at midnight, I drifted along empty highways to the grocery store, and stocked up for doomsday.
Frozen meat pies, water, milk, eggs.
Back outside, in the whipping breeze and the empty parking lot, the night hurled into a fresco of violet. Full-moon stillness. The underscent of rain, a cascade of waiting. The vibrato simplicity to each red light. All that quiet. That plunge and "Welcome" banner. A reedy whisper to the air, when the birds were asleep. An occasional monotonous drone.
The outdoors had become depopulated. How long would life be haunted like this?
In "Tribe," Sebastian Junger wrote,"If you want to make a society work, then you don't keep underscoring the places where you're different — you underscore your shared humanity."
Margo, right now you are the size of a honeydew melon, four pounds of life eager to grow and expand. You are secretive but always moving, and, recently, find yourself without adequate space, all writhe and elbow, not realizing that an entire civilization awaits you.
Entire histories and premonitions. Legacies, sports, etiquette, decorum. An ancestry of human achievement, of language, of literature and art and music, an artistic lineage that extends farther and deeper than any one person could ever know, vested in truth, and despite all our second-guessing.
Humans are collectors, Margo. So never miss a chance to be wholesome or kind.
Thanks for reading. New stories come out every Monday. Check out my Twitter. Send all notes, tips, corrections to email@example.com