“The face of London was now indeed strangely altered,” Daniel Defoe wrote of an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665 that would eventually claim the lives of nearly a quarter of that city’s population.
New York, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, is also a city transformed. Though the death toll, thankfully, is nowhere near as high as that suffered by 17th-century London, hospitals and medical workers are overwhelmed, and anxiety and loss stalk the nearly empty streets. The city that never sleeps — a city known for its crowds, its cacophony, its frenetic pace — is suddenly, in the words of the Rolling Stones’ new single, “a ghost town,” where everyone is “shut up all alone.” The sidewalks, especially after a rain bath, are startlingly clean, and traffic, both car and pedestrian, has vanished. On a recent walk from SoHo to the Upper West Side, I saw probably fewer than 20 people — police officers, deliverymen on bikes and a couple of dog-walkers.
Grand Central looked like a beautiful, deserted movie set, as did Rockefeller Center. The Grand Army Plaza and the Flatiron district resembled colorized postcards from the last century. Other neighborhoods possessed the unnerving stillness of paintings by de Chirico, Magritte or Hopper. The silence was punctured only by the sporadic scream of ambulances, the lonely scrape and rattle of a skateboard here and there, and the roar, now and again, of people taking advantage of the empty streets: small convoys of bikers on choppers, sport bikes and ATVs rumbling down Fifth Avenue and through Times Square; solitary riders of electric unicycles and electric scooters zipping up the middle of Sixth Avenue, and every once in a while, brightly colored muscle cars — a vintage red Corvette convertible, a turquoise late-model Mustang — zooming through Midtown with drivers trying to hit every green light from the top to bottom of Manhattan, or perhaps imagining themselves to be Will Smith in “I Am Legend” or Tom Cruise in “Vanilla Sky.”
As with 9/11, many New Yorkers reached for metaphors borrowed from movies and books to try to convey the surreal mood of the city. If Trump’s presidency made many of us feel we were living in the Orwellian world of “1984” (with Big Brother trying to define a new reality in which 2 + 2 = 5), the coronavirus pandemic spurred some housebound readers to pick up Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” (arguably the first apocalyptic novel in much the way that “Frankenstein” can be regarded as the first modern horror novel), Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain” and Stephen King’s “The Stand.” Scholars dissected plague references in Shakespeare plays like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Macbeth” and “King Lear” (in which the king calls his daughter Goneril “a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, / In my corrupted blood”) and they compared depictions of the plague in such fiction and nonfiction accounts as Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” Samuel Pepys’s diaries and Camus’s “The Plague.”
In this time of crisis, we are reminded that literature provides historical empathy and perspective, breaking through the isolation we feel hunkered down in our homes to connect us, across time zones and centuries, with others who once lived through not dissimilar events. It conjures our worst nightmares (Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”). And it highlights what we have in common with people in distant cultures and eras, prompting us to remember that others have not only grappled with traumatic events that slammed home the precariousness of life, but have also experienced some of the same things we are dealing with today. Writers, chronicling the plagues that repeatedly afflicted London in the 17th century, remarked on the silence that descended upon the city (Pepys noted in a letter that “little noise” was to be heard “day or night but tolling of bells” for burials); the shuttering of businesses, theater and sport events; and nervous efforts to use weekly death counts to try to ascertain whether the disease curve was flattening or ascending. Quacks peddled “antipestilential pills” and an “incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before,” and then, as now, the wealthy fled to country homes to escape the plague-ridden city streets, while the poor had no choice but to continue working there in low-paying, high-risk jobs. Boccaccio’s “Decameron” — a series of fictional tales recounted by characters who have fled Florence to escape the Black Plague, which decimated the city in 1348 (killing, it’s been estimated, half the population) — provides what is now a sadly familiar account of “the deadly havoc” a pandemic can leave in its wake, as well as an appreciation of the consolations of storytelling, and the human capacity for recovery and renewal.
At the same time, books make us aware of the gifts bestowed by historical progress. Though science has yet to produce a vaccine for Covid-19, we understand the process of disease transmission in ways that people in earlier centuries did not, and quarantine is no longer the alarming thing it was in 17th-century London, when the ill and their families were confined to their homes for 40 days — their doors marked with a red cross and guarded by watchers. There was no Purell back then, no Clorox wipes or Lysol spray, no grocery deliveries from Fresh Direct and Whole Foods, no Netflix or Roku to help pass the time. The only way people could “converse with any of their friends,” Defoe wrote, was to shout through an open window.
Among the many casualties of Covid-19 is our perception of time. Without jobs or classes, weekdays and weekends blur into one long Möbius strip of time, spent in gym clothes we no longer wear to the gym. Unable to make plans (travel plans, business plans, wedding plans, even lunch plans), we are forced to live in a continuous present. And yet, some days we feel we’ve been transported to a world imagined in a futuristic novel — maybe not Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” quite yet, but let’s say William Gibson’s “The Peripheral” or Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” Even Lawrence Wright’s apocalyptic new thriller, “The End of October,” starts off with a premise that sounds uncannily like recent headlines: An outbreak of a deadly new disease in Asia quickly turns into a global pandemic, leaving economic and social devastation in its wake.
Other days, we find ourselves in a time warp defined by old movies, old TV series (like “Law & Order” from the Jerry Orbach era and “Grey’s Anatomy” from the Sandra Oh and Patrick Dempsey era) and reruns of classic sports games. New York’s WFAN reran games from the Yankees’ 2009 World Series run, while ESPN is airing “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ road to their sixth N.B.A. championship in 1998.
For that matter, the coronavirus crisis has heightened the nostalgia that had already become a defining feature of culture during the opening decades of the millennium — what Simon Reynolds called “retromania,” an obsession with “revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments” that was spurred by the disorienting pace of social and technological change, and the easy online availability of music, video and text from decades past. Trump’s three and a half years in the White House have made us nostalgic for normality, for politics with at least a baseline of decency, diligence and decorum. And now in lockdown, we are wistful for the daily lives we led only a few months ago — days when we went to dinners and birthday parties, movies and plays and ballgames, when we didn’t need to put on a mask to go grocery shopping or take a walk in the park.
The coronavirus has accelerated other social dynamics as well. It’s fueled debilitating economic and social inequalities already exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis. It’s amplified our dependence on technology for everything (from staying in touch with family and friends to attending school and holding business meetings) while augmenting the sense of real-world isolation created by our existing addiction to social media. A kind of toxic stress test, Covid-19 has cast a glaring light on the weaknesses in our health care infrastructure and social safety nets — institutions Trump has willfully undermined — even as it’s called attention to another casualty of Trumpian ignorance and impetuosity: the sort of international cooperation that’s direly needed to grapple with a worldwide pandemic.
While the coronavirus crisis has intensified our sense that time has slowed to a crawl (making the prospect of one or two more months of isolation feel like a year), it’s also spawned the kind of uncertainty and chaos that creates acute adrenal exhaustion — similar to that produced by Trump’s never-ending cascade of lies and partisan attacks, which threaten to normalize the outrageous and numb people to the very real threats posed to our democracy.
The coronavirus crisis has italicized the horrifying costs (measured in actual deaths) of the president’s contempt for science and expertise and the government agencies meant to handle such emergencies. It’s also underscored the consequences of Trump’s eagerness to spread misinformation about everything from the magnitude of the threat posed by the virus, to untested and potentially dangerous treatments. His cavalier subversion of trust in the government and sowing of divisiveness, partisanship and confusion are particularly dangerous in the midst of a crisis: The main lesson of the 1918 flu pandemic (which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide), the historian John M. Barry wrote in “The Great Influenza,” is that “those in authority must retain the public’s trust” and “the way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.”
If 9/11 changed what Don DeLillo once called “the rules of what is thinkable,” Covid-19 has made us aware that for all our technological prowess, we are still alarmingly susceptible to human folly and error, and the most primitive threats devised by nature. Indeed, prescient books like Laurie Garrett’s “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance” and David Quammen’s “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” suggest that human activity (from reckless encroachments on far-flung ecosystems, to the overuse of antibiotics, to the creation by air travel of new transmission vectors) is making us more vulnerable than ever to new diseases, much the way that human activity has catalyzed climate change.
While the coronavirus may not be as lethal as the bubonic plague (which one study compared to nuclear war), it has resulted in the same arc of denial and fear and perseverance chronicled by Camus in his great 1947 novel “The Plague” : government efforts to downplay the threat, giving way to mounting deaths and a strict quarantine; a shared sense of isolation vying with a “sense of injustice” kindled by profiteering and for the poor, further suffering and deprivation.
Weeks into quarantine, New York is a strange combination of the normal and not-normal, the ordinary and the surreal, the mundane and the unnerving. Most of us know someone — a friend, a relative, a colleague or neighbor — who’s sick or died or who’s lost a job or who’s struggling to take care of both aging parents and young children while working from home. On a positive note, we’ve become aware of the people and services we long took for granted — the medical and emergency service workers on whom our lives depend, and the delivery people, warehouse employees, truck drivers, grocers and food supply workers who make our new shelter-in-place lives possible. At the same time, we worry that our growing reliance on online behemoths like Amazon and chain stores like CVS and Walmart will further undermine the small mom-and-pop shops that give neighborhoods in New York and other big cities a small-town intimacy.
For stores and restaurants already reeling from absurdly high rents, and for us, their customers, there are only endless questions and further uncertainty. Is the shoe repair guy, who’s posted a sign reading “Temporary New Business Hours: 6AM to 10PM,” now living in his tiny shop? Has the kosher deli that’s been on the Upper West Side for more than nine decades closed its doors forever? What’s going to happen to the indie bookstore that recently opened around the corner? Has the nearby restaurant with a new takeout menu — offering $1 toilet paper rolls and $6 jugs of bleach, alongside a $35 rack of lamb and $25 pasta — found a winning formula for survival? How long before this Groundhog Day cycle of anxiety and illness ends and we can go back to some version of normal?
In “The Plague,” Camus wrote about how a pandemic quarantine — by its very duration and monotony — has a way of turning people into “sleepwalkers” who dope “themselves with work” or who find the heightened emotions of the first weeks devolving into despondency and detachment, numbed by the arithmetic of death. In the memories of those who lived through a pestilence, Camus wrote, the “grim days of plague” feel like “the slow, deliberate progress of some monstrous thing” crushing everything in its path, not “like vivid flames, ravenous and inextinguishable, beaconing a troubled sky.” In other words, an equally deadly event that feels very different from the sudden and overwhelming horror of 9/11: the planes slamming into the World Trade Center and the shocking collapse of the towers — memories seared into the collective imagination, and followed, for many New Yorkers, by inescapable reminders of the terrorist attacks: the jagged hole in the skyline, the acrid smell of burning jet fuel, the ubiquitous dust that swirled through downtown streets and the heartbreaking pictures of the missing (old graduation photos, wedding photos, birthday photos) taped to light poles, mailboxes, the sides of buildings.
Both 9/11 and the coronavirus crisis brought out a sense of solidarity among New Yorkers that affirms the city’s resilience. In the weeks after 9/11, there were convoys of fire engines, police cars, military vehicles and construction trucks loaded with debris, and at dusk every night, crowds would gather near West Street to cheer the police and firefighters and construction workers — much the way that New Yorkers today celebrate the doctors and nurses and first responders at 7 p.m. every night with applause and cries of gratitude and thanks, shouted from apartment windows.
“The Plague,” too, was a testament to the dedication of individuals like the novel’s narrator, Dr. Rieux, who risks his own life to tend to victims. Dr. Rieux insists there is nothing heroic about his work — it is simply “a matter of common decency,” which in his case consists of doing his job.
Camus’s novel can also be read as an allegory about the struggle against the Nazi occupation of France. Like members of the Resistance, Dr. Rieux knew “there must be no bowing down” to the plague — no compromise with evil, no resignation to fate. He identified with victims of the plague — “there was not one of their anxieties in which he did not share, no predicament of theirs that was not his” — and he knew the “essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying.”
It’s this sense of individual responsibility, combined with his feelings of solidarity with others, that enables Dr. Rieux to hold fast to two not entirely contradictory truths: the understanding that we must remain ever vigilant because the plague bacillus, like the poison of fascism or tyranny, “never dies or disappears,” and the optimistic belief that “what we learn in time of pestilence” is “that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”