In early January I came across a story buried deep in the print edition of The New York Times about a new disease that had appeared in Wuhan, a then-obscure Chinese metropolis.
For some reason it seemed threatening, and I told my spouse that we should stock up on canned food and other supplies. She laughed.
“You’re always so pessimistic! That’s absurd,” she said. “But if you want to buy stuff, go ahead — just don’t expect me to do it.”
Eventually, I bought some canned tuna to store for the forthcoming emergency. Twelve cans seemed like a good start, but there was a problem.
“That stuff is inedible,” Karen said. “You should have gotten white tuna, not light tuna. Don’t buy anything else without telling me.”
I gave up my hoarding plans, stowed the tuna and moved on.
I should have taken my own advice and stocked up. Within a few weeks the novel coronavirus had comfortably established itself across the United States, an unwelcome immigrant that shows no sign of leaving. And despite the gradual loosening of shelter-in-place edicts, it seems likely that the pandemic will shadow our lives for years to come.
In early March, most of us assumed that the disease would have run its course by midsummer. Infection rates would rapidly decline, effective treatments would be developed, vaccines would be in the final stages of development and life would go on.
Yet suppose, as now seems likely, that the virus stays ahead of the curve. Vaccines are ineffective, treatments useless and infections increase. The only certain remedy would be to impose a Chinese-style countrywide shutdown, banning travel and most human interaction for months, or until the virus has entirely disappeared. Good luck with that -— as we’ve seen, many millions of Americans won’t cooperate with such drastic measures. And even if they did, we don’t have the authoritarian systems of enforcement and control that China has built and perfected during the last 70 years.
So here’s our choice: Continue our partial lockdowns indefinitely, or live in a world haunted by a restless, implacable killer that targets the careless, the frail, the elderly and the unlucky. Sounds awful, but it may not be so bad.
Think of this brave new world as an experiment in time travel. Like our 19th-century forebears, we’ll understand that the grim reaper can strike at any time. We’ll focus more on our daily lives, our family, our friends and how to keep ourselves safe. If 30,000 to 60,000 people succumb every month to the virus, we’ll adapt to this frightening new world. And we’re already there, with about 1,750 deaths daily, and no realistic chance of seeing those numbers diminish anytime soon.
Let’s consider the fates of the most privileged group of men in the America of 125 years ago — Harvard’s Class of 1895. Of the 554 members of the class, 76 were deceased by 1920. Records of the class, including short biographies, evince no surprise at such a toll. Most died of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and flu-related pneumonia, or “failure of health.” The Harvard men did a lot better than the average American, since the 1874 age cohort had a life expectancy of only 39 years. Yet we imagine late 19th century America as a time of progress, optimism, prosperity and growth — and so it was, according to the self-penned bios of class members prior to their 25th reunion.
Is our fearful reaction to this unsparing malady grounded in logic, or in death denial? When people died at home, most families had direct and immediate experience of illness and death. But now death can be contracted out to hospitals and nursing homes, and we can enjoy our individual fantasies of health, longevity and dying in our sleep.
How long can the country keep going when much of the economy is shut down? If we hoped to “bend the curve” of infections with our two-month national shutdown, but we didn’t succeed. Absent effective therapies, the novel coronavirus may linger on until 60 to 70 percent of the population has been infected, enough to create herd immunity.
So what can we do? Treasure each day, embrace mortality, reject fear and go on with our lives. We can only do our best -— and when the next pandemic hits, I’ll get white tuna.