Reflections on a Pandemic

Mortality and leadership.

Now and then, the coronavirus crisis reminds me a bit of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach (and the 1959 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner), in which, in the wake of a nuclear war, everybody on the planet, except in Australia, has died of fallout, and the people of Melbourne wait out the months, then weeks, then days, until the cloud of radiation that is circling the globe, and gradually creeping southward, finally reaches their own latitude and takes them out, too. I read the book as a teenager and it has haunted me ever since – not as a warning about nuclear war (which was Shute’s intention) but as a novel about the inevitability of death itself.

This crisis has been compared to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, and perhaps the most moving novel that draws on that chapter of American history is William Maxwell’s autobiographical They Came Like Swallows (1937), in which the members of an Illinois family, the Morisons, experience the disease as a series of stories in the newspapers until it finally enters their home. As I wrote over thirty years ago:

Maxwell proffers a number of false leads regarding who in the family is going to die – the point being that any of these people actually could die, that death itself is arbitrary, capricious. Foretokenings of mortality – falling leaves, a child’s macabre song, a playmate’s illness – abound from the opening pages. Every visitor comes to seem a threat, a possible source of contamination; even the ticking of the big clock in the hall takes on a certain ominousness. The book’s most unforgettable image is the one alluded to in the title: a swallow flies into the sickroom – an event that, we have been told, is a legendary harbinger of death – and family members attempt to drive it out. Yet they cannot drive out death: eventually the epidemic takes its victim, and the Morisons’ happy home becomes a memory.

Then there’s Albert Camus’s 1947 classic The Plague, which powerfully recounts the stages of a deadly pestilence – and of the community’s response thereto – that strikes the Algerian city of Oran.

Needless to say, the present situation also takes me back to the early years of AIDS, although there are a couple of major differences between that virus and this one. For example, the mean incubation period for AIDS is about ten years, as compared to five days or so for COVID-19; also, after the first AIDS outbreaks in 1981, it took a couple of years, not a few weeks, to figure out what caused it and to devise a test, so that daily life, in some urban milieus, was transformed into an unbroken nightmare of dread and uncertainty. Although at first many of us lived in terror at the thought that AIDS might be transmitted through the air or by a mere touch, it proved, fortunately, to be very hard to catch, whereas COVID-19 is extremely contagious. Yet, unfortunately, until highly effective treatments began to appear on the market in the 1990s, the death rate from AIDS was 100%, whereas only a tiny percentage of people who contract COVID-19 will be killed by it.  

One definite plus about the current epidemic, as compared to AIDS, is that the Trump administration’s plans to tackle it, which were outlined at a White House press conference last Friday (at which time the President officially declared a national emergency), seemed, at least on the face of it, to provide a near-model example of collaboration between the public and private sectors, among competing firms, and among federal, state, and local governments. Equally impressive was the voluntary implementation of recommended measures by airlines, cruise lines, sports franchises, and other major businesses, the speedy elimination of bureaucratic delays and regulations at various federal agencies, and the apparent attainment of a new level of bipartisan teamwork on Capitol Hill (although the compromise deal negotiated on Friday evening has been criticized as a complete GOP capitulation to Nancy Pelosi).

At the following day’s presser, the President even had a kind word for the media, saying that the latest coverage of his administration’s approach to the virus had, by and large, been pretty fair. It might be said, then, that while the novel coronavirus surely represents a dire health threat, it appears also, at least at this very early stage, and doubtless more from some angles than others, to have brought about a gratifying spirit of cooperation on a range of fronts.

It was also on Friday that the World Health Organization announced, for what it’s worth, that Europe – not China or North America – is now the epicenter of the pandemic. This news, which confirmed the wisdom of the ban President Trump instituted the day before on travel from the 26 European nations in the Schengen zone (on Saturday, it was announced that as of today, travel from the UK and Ireland, which are outside that zone, would also be prohibited), was far from a surprise, given the critical state of affairs in Italy, where, as of Saturday, over 21,000 people had been infected by the virus and over 1400 had died from it.

Italy is hardly alone. Here in Norway, the number of infections has been alarmingly high, given the country’s small population. Like countless others around the world, I’ve been following the relentless advance of viral infection in my neck of the woods – from the first known Norwegian case on February 26, to the first case in my county on March 5, to the first case in my town on March 14. Last Thursday, after a period of several days during which that number rose precipitously and more and more Norwegians publicly accused Prime Minister Erna Solberg of being asleep at the wheel, she more or less ordered the nation closed down. Henceforth, anyone entering Norway from outside the Nordic region will be ordered into quarantine; as of today, all ports and airports will be closed.

The impact has been drastic. In the small burg where I live, the grade school and day-care center attended by my two nephews are now shuttered, and the hairdressing salon directly beneath my apartment and the Indian restaurant next door are both dark. With a few exceptions, the only establishments open in town are the grocery stores, the pharmacies, and, thank goodness, the government-run liquor outlet. Yes, the restrictions are severe and inconveniencing, and some of them, arguably, are over the top: under the new dispensation, Norwegian who have fled to their mountain cabins risk being dragged back home by force. But after a single day, the rate of increase in the number of recorded coronavirus cases in Norway went down for the first time.

Last Wednesday, a day before the Norwegian government acted, Denmark instituted similar restrictive measures. Other European nations have done the same. But as of this past weekend, Sweden was still missing in action. Some Swedish schools have closed, but others haven’t. Gatherings of more than 500 people have been forbidden, but more small-scale sporting events are OK. In his own Friday press conference, Swedish PM Stefan Löfven feebly proposed that people think twice before taking vacations abroad. His lame excuse for not closing all of the nation’s schools was the same as that served up the same day by New York Governor Cuomo: if kids stayed home, parents with jobs in the health sector might not be able to go to work. Peter Wolodarski, editor of the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, warned that thanks to Löfven’s timid approach, “in a couple of weeks Sweden can be like Italy.” A Chinese government newspaper actually complained about Löfven’s logic, suggesting that the European Union and other international bodies should officially condemn Sweden for, in effect, giving up and deciding to allow the virus to spread freely.

Sweden wasn’t the only country to take a seemingly lackadaisical approach to the pandemic. On Thursday, Boris Johnson spoke to the people of Britain. While painting an extraordinarily bleak picture of what the virus portends for the UK, Johnson, like Löfgren, imposed only the most modest of restrictions. He didn’t order school closings or shut borders. He didn’t ban large get-togethers (although later in the day, in response to a public outcry and to decisions by soccer leagues to suspend their seasons, he reversed himself on this point). He advised that it might not be a good idea for people over 70 “with serious medical conditions” to go on cruises or for student groups to take international trips. He didn’t even put in a strong word for social distancing. In effect, he essentially advised Brits to carry on as usual, while avoiding handshakes and washing their hands.

The justification that Johnson and his chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, offered for this singularly unassertive modus operandi was perverse. This ordeal, they argued, will go on for quite a few months, and Brits just don’t have it in them to follow stricter protocols over such a long period; moreover, they actually maintained that it will be a good thing to widen exposure to the virus, so that the populace as a whole can build up a “herd immunity” to it. Among the critics of this reasoning was none other than Richard Horton, editor of the distinguished medical journal The Lancet, who said that Johnson was “playing roulette with the public” and called for “immediate and assertive social distancing and closure policies.” Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt also pronounced the measures inadequate. And an editorial in the Times of London concluded that as a result of “Mr Johnson’s gamble…many more families will indeed lose loved ones than might have done if the government took more extreme measures to stem the spread of the disease.”  

As I followed these developments in Sweden and Britain, I couldn’t help noticing that these two governments that have chosen to take unusually tame approaches to the novel corona virus also stand out, even by Western European standards, for the wimpy way in which they have responded to the challenge of Islam. One gets the impression that, whether confronted by a colossal immigrant tide that is already undermining their freedom and security or by a fast-spreading virus that threatens to bring down a not inconsiderable percentage of their population, the first instinct of these governments is not to resist but to yield. But there’s more: Johnson’s approach to the virus is, quite simply, typical of socialized medicine, which can seem impressive enough – and cheap! – when dealing with minor ailments in younger people but which can be nothing short of ruthless when addressing dangerous – and expensive – ailments in the elderly, whose lives systems like Britain’s NHS are more than happy to sacrifice in the name of the communal good.

Last Friday, Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi wrote in the Boston Globe that “What has happened in Italy shows that less-than-urgent appeals to the public by the government to slightly change habits regarding social interactions aren’t enough when the terrible outcomes they are designed to prevent are not yet apparent; when they become evident, it’s generally too late to act.” On Sunday, Claudio Puoti, an infectious disease specialist in Italy, told an interviewer flatly that Boris Johnson’s less-than-urgent strategy would cause more deaths and that this epidemic is “a war.” As it happens, I’ve just finished reading Andrew Roberts’s magisterial biography of Winston Churchill. Somehow I can’t imagine Churchill taking a defeatist approach to this virus. But of course, Britain today is no longer what it was in Churchill’s time. Clearly, what the world needs now is heads of government who are capable of performing at the level of the very greatest wartime leaders. So far, the evidence suggests that Trump may well prove to be one such head of government. But how many others are there?


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