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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifteen



Birthdays & Other Celebrations


There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.           


                             ― Albert Camus, The Plague


In every well-ordered society . . . the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand. 


     Jacobson v. Massachusetts, in a Supreme Court precdent-setting ruling, 1905


Everything is reduced to the essential act of witnessing, observing in detail, and writing. At least, for me. As I take my morning walk, I note the birdlife I am learning to name, and the bark on the trees I am learning to name. I have started a "study" book. My subjects, in no particular order, are: French, art and art history, birds and trees. And, finally, after many weeks, I am able to read fiction again. So that, in itself, is a celebration.

My birthday is March 10th. March 8th, the Sunday of that week, was our last social gathering before the "shelter in place" began. Blithely, we met some friends in our favorite local restaurant, I blew out a few symbolic candles on a delicious chocolate cake my husband had custom ordered, and we said our goodbyes, not realizing that we wouldn't be seeing each other in person for a while—or worse—a good long while. If we multiply this modest, individual story a thousand-fold, even a million-fold, we've got the physical distancing story on a global scale. It's immediate necessity made the pandemic palpable, and then ever present in our daily lives. As it still is.

But it's also children I'm thinking about as I write today, not only the more than one hundred children who are toxic shock sick, surprising every medical expert, but the healthy ones graduating from high school and about to start college. There are signs everywhere in town congratulating the New Paltz High School Seniors, Class of 2020. They will be having an unmasked virtual ceremony and silent hurrahs, mortar boards thrown in the air in the privacy of their homes, or on their front lawns and back decks. Maybe the local police and fire department will turn out with their sirens for a land-locked fly-by, and the hurrahs will reverberate all around the neighborhoods. Let us hope so; our young people deserve support and encouragement as never before.

What am I trying to say here? Just that a parent of a teen told me yesterday that after driving her 16-year-old to a ride-by birthday party, gifts thrown on the lawn, she felt sad. Another parent I spoke with doesn't want to accept such twisted configurations of life as a new normal, they are not normal at all, they feel both adaptive and maladaptive. Indeed, this mom says, we should prepare for recovery and safe re-opening by letting our minds and hearts drift to a virus-free life. Maybe if we will it, that future will happen before schools reopen in September, assuming they will reopen. Is this delusional or resilient? I am not sure, but I'm going to try it because, dear reader, I'm having nightmares about the premature "phased re-opening." Last night's dream was clear and informative: I was in a takeaway restaurant, no more curbside pick-up, and had forgotten to wear my mask, as had the woman taking my money. The dream resembled a stressful early morning foray to my local supermarket, my first in two months. I'd lost my shopper and had no choice. I could not believe the sloppy protocol and called the manager as soon as I got home. And though he took some responsibility for the behavior of an employee, he mostly blamed the customers for zig-zagging around and not paying attention. Maybe he is right, I cannot say. I just know that it was a...nightmare, and that I cannot do it again if I want to avoid exposure.

In every society since antiquity, a threat to a community's safety has required regulation and enforcement. Why are we so loathe to align ourselves with more pro-active western democracies—France, Britain, Germany, Canada—in the struggle against this lethal virus? What is wrong with us? Maintaining distance and wearing a mask is an individual civic responsibility, like jury duty, some have said. But compliance also requires mandates, even fines, as some citizens find restrictions loathsome, inconvenient and/or a challenge to American "freedom." This is wrong-headed thinking. We are not being forced to do anything at the point of a gun; we are a democracy, not an autocracy. Nonetheless, enforcement is a government responsibility during a national health emergency.

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