As New York City struggles under COVID-19, a novelist and United Nations advisor shares his diary on the ties that bind during a fragmented international response to the pandemic.
On January 21, I received an email from a friend at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, announcing that the corporate communications team specializing in responding to international emergencies (like, say, pandemics) was looking to hire a half dozen public relations experts in both junior and senior roles. She wanted to know if I could recommend some good people from my network since I’d spent the past 15 years managing communications for Swiss foundations and United Nations agencies in Geneva, New York, and “the field,” industry slang for poor countries wrestling with civil wars and humanitarian disasters or, as was often the case, both.
“[The jobs] will be long hours and lots of pressure,” she wrote. “But interesting.”
What I found particularly interesting was the fact that a UN agency’s recruiting, which is usually opaque and parsimonious at best, was suddenly urgent and sizable. Something big must be coming down the pike. Turned out, the WHO had announced the previous day that it was convening an emergency meeting on a new coronavirus outbreak in China that Wednesday “to ascertain whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, and what recommendations should be made to manage it.”
According to the WHO’s situation update on January 20:
As of 20 January 2020, 282 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV have been reported from four countries including China (278 cases), Thailand (2 cases), Japan (1 case) and the Republic of Korea (1 case);
Cases in Thailand, Japan and Republic of Korea were exported from Wuhan City, China;
Among the 278 cases confirmed in China, 258 cases were reported from Hubei Province, 14 from Guangdong Province, five from Beijing Municipality and one from Shanghai Municipality;
On 15 January 2020, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Japan (MHLW) reported an imported case of laboratory-confirmed 2019-novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) from Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.
On 20 January 2020, National IHR Focal Point (NFP) for Republic of Korea reported the first case of novel coronavirus in the Republic of Korea.
Of the 278 confirmed cases, 51 cases are severely ill, 12 are in critical condition;
Six deaths have been reported from Wuhan City.
This virus was serious. A monster had woken. But the A1 page of the New York Times on January 21 was all about the impeachment hearings. Oh and Bloomberg apologized for his wretched “Stop and Frisk” policy. Only on page A10 of its January 21 edition did the New York Times report that “China Confirms New Coronavirus Spreads From Humans to Humans.”
I like to believe that one of the lasting impacts of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, which by now has infected over two million people, killing over 100,000 in 210 countries in horrible conditions daily, is that American and European policymakers, who were woefully slow and disjointed in preparing for the worst, will accept that when China catches a cold, they will sneeze. The next time a Chinese leader says a virus outbreak “must be taken seriously” and every possible measure should be taken to contain it, like Chinese Premier Xi Jinping said on January 21, according to the Times, such news won’t be buried on page A10.
I’d worked as a public information consultant for United Nations agencies during some of the worst humanitarian emergencies of the past decade, so I reflexively took the WHO’s alert to heart. But my life is evenly divided between francophone Europe and New York City. As my family and I shuttled between the continents over the last two and half months, the brewing coronavirus storm shadowed us from community to community, continent to continent, country to country. As COVID-19 nipped our heels, me and my loved ones, like you and yours, played catch-up with head-spinning changes in ideas of political and business leadership, medical science, healthcare, essential economic services, and social policy, history, intimacy, culture, and literacy, slowly, then frantically.
My 14-year-old daughter visits me in my new Manhattan home from my former home on the French side of Lake Geneva for a weeklong internship in Tribeca. The WHO’s recommendations to avoid the spread of new respiratory infections was on my mind. It said, “people should wash their hands regularly, cover their mouths and noses when coughing and sneezing, and avoid direct contact with farm or wild animals.” Our family was always big on regular hand sanitizing. I kept a bottle of hand sanitizer handy in each car. A big bottle perched on our bookcases to welcome people as they walked into the house. We lived in the foothills of the French and Swiss alps, after all. Cows were chilling out everywhere. As for the rest of the WHO’s guidance, I interpreted them like this: avoid taking the New York City subways from here on out, fam. The new coronavirus may already be here.
I meet a blind date at Red Rooster in Harlem. The place was packed. Jamming. A live band played soaring jazzy hip-hop. I arrived early and waited nervously in the crowded bar. My date walked in. From across the room, I was smitten from our first waves at each other. She was beautiful and tall with a dazzling smile. Spectacular, actually. One of those rare dating app home runs. We couldn’t hear ourselves talk. We moved to a bar across the street and had a blast. She was a witty epidemiologist who had worked on HIV and reproductive health issues in developing countries over the past decade, like I had. Our paths could easily have crossed in Geneva, Africa, Haiti or, shockingly, high school in Brooklyn. Not insignificantly, her and her colleagues were already hard at work figuring out the new coronavirus.
We go dancing to old school hip-hop at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, a fabled branch of the New York Public Library. Kids and old heads, older heads than I, were dancing their asses off with smiles beaming to one can’t-miss song after the other, a wonderful, relentless barrage. Crowded rooms, close dancing, sweating and touching, and the elderly were coronavirus bait, and we didn’t know it.
The WHO names the new coronavirus “COVID-19,” since it started as a SARS-CoV-2 in China in late 2019. Because COVID-19 is more threatening than R2D2, the name gives me visions of Bishop, the enigmatic android from “Aliens.”
I fly to Paris to meet my kids to celebrate my son’s 18th birthday. COVID-19 deaths are growing ferociously in northern Italy. France and Italy are Siamese twins. Geneva was a scant three-and-a-half hour drive to Milan, the emerging epicenter of the Italian outbreak. Our family did that drive most of the past dozen Easters. I told my kids to change train cars if someone sneezes anywhere in their car on their ride from Geneva to meet me in Paris. The kids practically wearing hazmat suits with masks and gloves on fleek. Their mom prepared them well. Many New Yorkers had become weary of global travel too. The flight to Paris from JFK was dirt cheap and sparsely populated. The other travelers were mostly West Africans and French, going home. On a whim, the stewards upgrade me to business class. I have the entire section to myself.
February 26-March 1
The kids and I skipped visiting the always-crowded Louvre for the quietly gorgeous Monets of the Musée de L’Orangerie. Galeries Lafayette was empty, save for a few Asian tourists shopping, and us drinking juices and eating cookies at Joe and the Juice under the red coupole. Other than the Champs-Elysées, and especially its football field-sized Sephora store, Paris streets were unusually empty. Even at the Off-White pop-up on Faubourg St. Honoré. The tents erected in the Tuileries Garden for Paris Fashion Week sagged from low turnout. The ominous news from Milan had scared fashionistas. Yet when I learn Kanye West announced he would hold his iconic Sunday Service gospel concert Sunday morning, I broke social distancing discipline and tried to get us tickets. We still loved Kanye. A gospel show would be a novel alternative to Mass. But no luck. Worse still, a dear fashionista friend who did manage to score front-row seats to Kanye’s show caught COVID-19. (A month later, she’s beating the bastard virus. But the fight is real.)
After sending the kids back to Geneva, I walk in a fine mist from Gare de Lyon to the Bastille for lunch. Afterwards, I hopped the metro to St. Germain Des Prés. At Les Deux Magots, the streets were disturbingly free of tourists and locals. I go to Monoprix to shop some exotic soaps and see the suddenly elusive natives. An eerie attentiveness of the few people out gives the impression that—as it has many times in its history—Paris is bracing for an invasion.
Orly Airport is a ghost town. Few people were coming to or leaving Paris. No cues at passport check or security. Got frisked twice before boarding my flight to NYC tho. But the flight was semi-full of Americans. Most people seemed to be returning home, content from a holiday or school trip. I was in tears after I put my kids on the train to return to my erstwhile home in Geneva. But I was grateful to be going to my new home too. Not sure why. The other side of this global health crisis, if I live to see it, will be gnarly, especially in America, especially in New York City. But I might as well face it with my new community of old and new friends and family.
Italy falls to COVID-19. From soccer matches played in empty stadia in Milan to rapidly shuttering cathedral doors, coronavirus moved across Lombardy and Veneto then south into Tuscany and Umbria. Bergamo, Florence, and then Rome surrendered swiftly. Overcrowded hospital horror stories made news worldwide. Reading between the lines, I admired how quickly the Italian healthcare system circled its wagons to care for its coronavirus victims and the citizenry tried to respect martial law to stay home. Italy is famously the most poorly governed country in Western Europe, yet they responded to the crisis with solidarity and heart. I worried that a country without a universal health care system and culture, like the US, would struggle to muster a caring national response and commitment to its suddenly suffering citizens. America’s response, like its healthcare system, was probably going to be desultory with every state going for itself. In that free-for-all, however, I liked New York State’s chances.
The World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a “pandemic,” pointing to the over 118,000 cases of the coronavirus illness in over 110 countries and territories around the world and the sustained risk of further global spread. “This is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. “So every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight.” The WHO defines pandemic as the global spread of a new disease. Fuck.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives the greatest and scariest speech ever on COVID-19 and re-asserts her place as the greatest leader of the free world in the 21st century. “This is serious,” she says. If the most serious world leader of the past 15 years says a pending crisis is serious, how fucking serious must the new coronavirus be??? It was the speech many Americans wished US President Trump had made. It reflected the unusual gravity I felt in Parisian streets, as that city began to contemplate self-lockdown.
Merkel, who had stared down Cheney and the Iraq war dogs without flinching, imperceptibly winced when she said three of four Germans were about to catch COVID-19, and the health crisis would be the worst disaster for the country since World War II. World War II! This is Germany we’re talking about. But she was also a trained scientist nearing retirement. A picture of sobriety as clear as clean glass. Even the Italian PM didn’t sound the alarms quite like that. And Italy was under-water from the coronavirus monsoon.
I asked my children’s mother to please no longer send them to school. France and Switzerland were closer to Italy than Germany. And if Germany was going to the mattresses to fight this thing, France, with its porous borders, was about to get hit hard by COVID-19. But some people in the Lake Geneva region were still practicing Trumpian denial to delay financial hits. At a Swiss business school, they preferred to test students for the flu at the front gates every morning than close shop.
French President Macron announces all schools and workplaces will close starting Monday the 23rd to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We keep our kids home Friday the 20th. Why take anymore unnecessary risks?
France goes HAM, or Wuhan, imposing the strictest restrictions on the mobility of its citizens to enforce social distancing in the West. You have to download a permission slip to go to the pharmacy, grocery store, or hospital with a timestamp that gives you an hour to run your errand. If you’re caught on the street without a permission slip or having overstayed your permission time to leave your house, French police and gendarmes will fine you 135 euros.
Meanwhile, in Midtown, the UN offices shut down. Work from home orders were becoming the rule of the land. Yet I saw people swanning the canyons of Manhattan casually, especially on sunny days. Admirable a job as New York’s governor had been doing in channeling Merkel-like gravitas in urging New Yorkers to stay home because the COVID-19 winter was coming this spring, I wish New York would enforce its social distancing rules with martial force, like France. I wish the city had closed its bridges and tunnels to other states, like Switzerland had. I get news that a classmate at our university in Jamaica, Queens, died from COVID-19 complications. He had been a star on our school’s basketball team when the team was actually good. He was one of four people to die from the new coronavirus a month after attending a big party at a cigar bar. Apparently, COVID-19 loves smokers’ weak lungs. COVID-19 also sought out the obese, the diabetic, and the asthmatic, too. With a frightening affinity for black people. My social media timelines would soon become crowded with RIPs to black friends and their relatives. Winter was here.
Sweden relaxes its social distancing rules and allows businesses to reopen, stunning the world. Gyms reopen! My Swedish friends in Geneva, suffering from lack of social contact, look enviously at life in dear old Stockholm.
French fines for breaking shelter-in-place rules increase to 200 euros in some regions. Restez chez vous! Switzerland also moves from laissez faire to hardcore lockdown. It closes its borders completely. You can’t enter the country without a Swiss passport by train or plane. Its aggressive coronavirus testing reveals the highest penetration of COVID-19 infections per capita in the world. Les Genevois join the Italians in cheering healthcare workers heading to work at dawn. A French nurse and former basketball teammate of mine who works in Geneva complains that his 30-minute commute now takes two hours, thanks to newly restored Swiss border police scrutiny.
My ex-wife on Lake Geneva tells me she wishes I was home with her and the kids. Her sister in Sweden is sick with the virus.
For the hell of it, I scan Kayak and other travel sites. I could get to Paris from JFK or Newark airports, but no way could I get to Geneva. I check in with a French buddy who lives in Geneva. He has been trapped in Paris for two weeks after flying in from Dubai. No train or plane will take him home. I text my kids this news, tell them I love them dearly and tell them to hang in there and look after their mother. Our next reunion will have to take place on the other side of the pandemic. We don’t know which one of our favorite cities will be left standing yet.
My daughter FaceTimes me from France to tell me the family was about to buy a dog. I’ve never seen my little girl look happier in my life. I’m happy for the relief from quarantine routines the charming poodle will bring them. New company is a really beautiful thing in the social distancing era. Even if it’s small, four-legged, and furry like a mini-Chewbacca.
In the last couple of years, I had the unpleasant experience of being forced into quarantines in Bamako, Mali, and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, by the threat of marauding thugs. I even published a novel about a country struggling to get back on its feet after a stunningly deadly natural disaster not unlike the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, four weeks of voluntary solitary confinement in Manhattan grow unsettling and surreal. Not being seen physically by peeps makes me start to forget what I look like, who I am, my social self. Isolation is disfiguring and wounding. I dream of relief.
My girlfriend shows up at my apartment on a whim, brazenly risking COVID-19 during a lunchbreak from her very essential job and family. I greet her with glee, tears barely held back. She’s brought a bottle of Zinfandel and some chocolate cake, and, before I can find a corkscrew and plates, she asks me to make love to her immediately. “We don’t have much time,” she says. Without hesitation or fear of catching my death, I say yes. We make love like savages. My sheets get drenched. She even makes me laugh at the end (and the memory of that joke makes me laugh as I write, as I’m sure it will make me laugh for the rest of my life).
I walk her outside for a goodbye kiss. The day is bright and warm. My leafy street is awash in yellows and greens. Spring is embracing Gotham City, along with the deadly virus. An elderly couple on their afternoon walk sees us kissing, eliciting frowns. She sheepishly apologizes to them. I’m nuzzling her, oblivious to anything and anyone else. The regles de jeux of the apocalypse can wait. We take a selfie to commemorate a love that, this day in the time of COVID, defied dark fears and fates. My other dreams look at me like, “You know no one will ever believe that dream really happened, right?”
It’s Holy Week and Peak Transmission Week for COVID-19, a peculiar coincidence. I wake up to news that France has banned jogging in Paris. Is that nationwide too? If so, what will that onerous new edict do to the morale of my son, a jogger who happens to be a budding global track star? I also learn that President Trump is mad at my friends at the World Health Organization for doing their jobs: helping powerful countries and public health officials and industry coordinate their response to COVID-19 for the global common good.
Trump says the organization has been too “China-centric.” Judging from the low prices of most fashion and the broad availability of smartphones, among other things manufactured in the Middle Kingdom, isn’t China-centricity a 21st-century norm? I wish President Trump would wear a facemask and gloves at his daily press conferences and also that he make his flanking colleagues stand six feet apart from him and each other. I also wish he had a passionate humanitarian concern for all the vulnerable people getting ravaged by the pandemic in their homes and hospitals and would deploy the full powers of the US federal government against our invisible and insidious invader in partnership with China and Europe for our mutual benefits and also the safety of less wealthy people in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean, and South America.
New York City, Trump’s hometown like mine, in particular, could use a Marshall Plan. After decades as the epicenter of so much cool and good, it has become the global epicenter of COVID-19, with infections and deaths, so many deaths, surpassing totals of most countries. On top of that, the new coronavirus is preying disproportionately on African-Americans, because racism is a lifelong stressor that amplifies our other COVID-19-friendly underlying conditions. When you save us, the most vulnerable members of the global family, saving everyone else becomes easier. At this point, staggering death tolls can’t be held at bay any longer.
We don’t have much time.