Friday night we had some friends over for a small Coronavirus party. We greeted people with hand sanitizer and foot bumps, drank Corona beers and ate Corona fried rice (though I forgot to put in the beer when I added the fish sauce). We had a “community spread” (of cheeses) and played the board game Pandemic. Two weeks ago, when Julia and I first had the idea for this party, we almost shot it down for being insensitive. But as the news of the virus grew more alarming, it seemed exactly the time for levity.
Both my parents are in Shanghai right now. Longtime Sunday letter readers might recall that my dad lives there, and works for an American company with a factory just outside the city. He’ll come back to the States once or twice a year for meetings, and Mom flies back and forth between there and Michigan, usually staying for two or three months at a time. She was supposed to come back this trip at the end of March, but Delta’s flights are canceled until at least the end of April.
Like many in China, they’re staying indoors, and Dad is working remotely. They seem to be in good spirits though, and with an abundance of free time are sending around memes and funny Coronavirus TikToks in our group WeChat. One such video was of a barber cutting hair with his tools at the ends of four-foot poles. Dad’s birthday was on the 28th and he told my brother and I that, with my mom’s cooking, every day has felt like a birthday. “We are 吃喝玩睡” – eat, drink, play, sleep. Like I said: They’re in good spirits.
This recent episode of The Daily on the virus is both informative and sobering, but the part of it that rang the most true for me, based on what I’m picking up from my parents, is this:
It’s not just prepare as in stock up on food and buy masks. It’s more like, mentally prepare yourself for what would happen if you and all of your friends had to stay home for a month, or not be able to ride the subways, or supermarkets ran low on food. Or, you know, your medicine – your insulin or your H.I.V. meds or your heart meds or whatever it is you take – wasn’t available because the supply lines from China have been cut off. So we’ve got to mentally prepare ourselves for something like that.
My parents made the requisite grocery runs, but are still getting items delivered. The delivery services, Mom said, have started dropping things off in the downstairs lobby. They’ll no longer come up to the apartment doors. Tenants have to have to go downstairs and pick up their items, a kind of building-scale version of those plexiglass airlocks at the US post office.
The word “stress-test” come to mind. Of the response of public officials and institutions. Of large company supply chains. Of the gig economy. Even more worrisome, here in the States, is this, which a Canadian friend brought up at our party: When there’s not free or affordable access to healthcare, people skip going to hospitals and clinics. When 40% of the country is living paycheck to paycheck, people with symptoms go into work instead of staying home. What happens to vulnerable populations when soup kitchens and warming shelters become unsafe? It’s a case for universal healthcare and a livable minimum wage that I have yet to hear any presidential candidate make.
Why am I writing about this here, to you, in this (usually) writing-related newsletter? Mainly because it’s been on my mind all week, and I want to be ready to help. Sometimes that might be to have a small gathering (while we still can) and bring some lightness and humor to an anxious moment. Other times it might be urge you to take an uncertain situation seriously, urge you not just to wash your hands and avoid touching your face, but to prepare, mentally, emotionally, for what I hope does not come.