Tuesday: Bright morning sunshine, but cool temperatures. It’s been a chilly spring. I’m still running the space heater in my office; the landlord turned down the heat at the outset of the lockdown. The vibrant blue sky and the sunlight on the buildings make it impossible not to be cheerful.
The last two or three weeks have clanked along like a slow-moving excavator, patiently gobbling up the hours day after day as New York City continues in its semi-comatose condition. I walk the dog, head into the First Things office—where I’m almost always alone—and grind away at my editorial tasks.
There are distractions and adventures.
On Monday, April 27, I visited an emergency room at a hospital in one of the hard-hit neighborhoods in the outer boroughs. (I can’t reveal details, because my visit was not “authorized,” and in the present conditions of public health hysteria, my host might lose his job if higher-ups found out I penetrated the “no visitors” cordon sanitaire.)
The ER doctor recounted his experiences in late March and early April when the COVID-19 cases flooded in. The surge was “intense,” and he described it as a “singular experience” in his thirty-year career. He was proud of his team in the way a seasoned sergeant is proud of the fresh-faced new recruits who have been through a tough battle and shown themselves to be up to the fight.
On April 7, when resources were stretched, the staff wrung out, and beds nearly full, the tide suddenly shifted. “It was eerie,” he said. The inflow of cases slowed, not just a little, but rapidly, so much so that “you could almost feel the recession of the disease.” At the time of my visit, it had been 72 hours since a COVID patient had been admitted.
He took me on a tour of the ER. It was empty. Doctors, nurses, and aides sat idle. My host shook his head. “Monday morning is the busiest time of the week for an ER. On a normal day we’d have trouble walking through because of gurneys overflowing into the aisles.” Why the lack of patients, I asked. “Because people are terrified.”
We looked into the outpatient surgery room, which had been converted into a COVID isolation ward. Comatose people on ventilators were lying in beds. “They are waiting to die,” my host sighed. There were many other rooms like this throughout the hospital. The virus has receded, but its wreckage remains.
As I got into my car to leave, I thought of the dying. They are alone. The “no visitors” policy requires their solitude in death. I can understand the epidemiological rationale—to prevent hospitals from becoming focal points for the spread of the disease. But it is a deeply inhumane policy. A society that condemns the sick to die alone needs to reexamine its basic principles.
In spite of the somber things I have seen, I am buoyed. It’s the matter-of-fact approach I witnessed in the hospital staff. They were not afraid. In a city dominated by terror, that ER was paradoxically a spiritual refuge. It was good to be with people who are not afraid.
My wife volunteers to tend gardens in a nearby city park. Another volunteer lives nearby. She comes over for a glass of wine. Her husband died four or five years ago after a decade-long illness. She scoffs at the notion that because she is 70, she is “at risk.” She sips the white wine. “Sweetheart, we’re always at risk, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.”
The last two weekends I have taken long rides with my regular cycling partner. On one Saturday, we undertook a trans-Queens expedition, traversing the borough from Breezy Point to Douglaston. Sunshine and warmth brought people out of the apartments. Sidewalk vendors were doing a brisk business on Utica Avenue south of Crown Heights. Families pushed prams in Cunningham Park.
Last weekend we ventured over to New Jersey, fighting our way against a stiff south wind to Bayonne. The clerk at Dunkin Donuts refused to serve me: I was not wearing a mask. But my friend was, so we refueled before pedaling over the Bayonne Bridge and onto Staten Island. Providentially, I found a mask in a gutter just before reaching the Staten Island Ferry, allowing me to board and steam back to Manhattan.
In early May new and more reliable tests for COVID-19 antibodies were released. I went in to have my blood drawn. The lab report came the next day. I am positive for the antibodies, which indicates that I have already been infected by the virus. No surprise. Experts estimate that one-third of the residents of New York City have had the disease—a collective condition that makes it nearly impossible for an outbreak of significant magnitude to sweep through the city again. Yet we’re locked down, with no end in sight.
A friend writes to ask what I think of the “Appeal” signed by a number of cardinals and other ecclesiastical eminences. It condemns the disproportionate severity of the lockdowns. One section was of particular interest to my friend: “There are powers interested in creating panic among the world’s population with the sole aim of imposing unacceptable forms of restriction on freedoms, of controlling people and of tracking their movements.”
My response: It’s much worse than a conspiracy; it’s a consensus. We live in a technocratic social order. Its “sole aim” is not to control people. That’s a mistaken view. But it is a regime in which material goods are supreme. The present public health challenges reinforce this technocratic social order, and for the expert class it makes complete sense to impose draconian measures of restriction and control in order to protect a material good such as physical health. In truth, most of New York welcomes these restrictions, even demands them. The technocrats do not “impose.” The “experts” minister to our fears and promise to deliver us. That’s why it’s a consensus, not a conspiracy.
I am cared for by an underground church. It has allowed me to attend Mass every Sunday since the lockdown began. One priest has let it be known that he does not lock the door of his church when he celebrates the Mass at the appointed times on Sunday. Another discreetly gathers small groups to celebrate the Mass, keeping within the strict letter of lockdown decrees (no groups larger than 10). I must give no further details. Ecclesiastical authorities might take punitive measures. They, too, are part of the consensus.
I email a friend in Brooklyn, asking if he knows of a speakeasy where we can get a beer this evening and sit down with people who dissent from the consensus. It would be pleasant to enjoy the company of those who are not afraid.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.