You relish the little things here in Seattle: Toilet paper is back on some shelves, the hoarders sated for the moment. Instead of making vodka, distilleries are rolling out hand sanitizer. The dreaded daily number of new coronavirus cases shows that while the curve is not yet flat, the rate has gone both down and up on different days this week, carrying our hopes on the bumpy ride.
As for the tally of the dead: Instead of doubling every five days in Washington state, as it was just two weeks ago, now it doubles roughly every nine — a horrific number still, but that movement is in the right direction.
We are not necessarily your city’s future, but a likely version of your future if you do the right thing. Washington state had the first known case of COVID-19 in the United States, on Jan. 19; the known first death, more than a month after that, and the first full-blown outbreak. We’re well ahead of the rest of the nation in our cycle of denial, panic, action.
Social distancing started early. Testing has been broad, although more help from the federal government is needed. A communal fight or flight instinct has moved into something more settled. Even as the president floats an idea that could sacrifice the elderly to keep Wall Street happy, we take care of our own. We will not throw Grandma from the train.
“There really is no middle ground,” said Bill Gates, whose foundation has put up $100 million to blunt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s very tough to say to people, ‘Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies in the corner.’ ”
About those bodies: it’s the suddenness that gets to you. I remember talking to people who’d lived through the Dust Bowl, for a book whose title, “The Worst Hard Time,” may not hold up. What they remembered was how swiftly death took a loved one.
And now, a parent you thought might live another 10 years may not make it another 10 days.
My neighborhood grocer, Steve Shulman, was giving wine tips and turning out fresh-made sausage one day, and now he’s gone — dead at 67 from the coronavirus. I lost another friend, Peter Jackson, a writer, a fierce defender of the natural world, and son of former Sen. Henry M. Jackson, to pancreatic cancer in the same time.
Peter was 53. His loss is compounded by our inability to mourn him in a group setting. We need to touch, to hug, to come together, but with one-third of humanity under lockdown, intimacy outside of our domestic unit is not an option.
People say this is our World War II, our Great Depression, our London under the Nazi blitz. It’s none of those, for this misery may be without an apt historical match. There’s plenty of food. And more than 99% of the population is free of the virus, for now. But if just 1% were to die because we let our guard down, the United States would lose more than 3 million people.
President Donald Trump’s talk of opening the United States for business by Easter is greeted in this precinct of sanity as the heartless bluster of a career con man. The public radio station in Seattle, KUOW, has stopped airing Trump’s live briefings because the volume of misinformation he puts out cannot be corrected in real time.
In the states that have been hardest hit — New York, New Jersey, Washington, California — we’re lucky to have leaders trying to translate science into action.
Last week, researchers in Seattle gave the first shot to a person in a test of an experimental coronavirus vaccine. And Gov. Jay Inslee has warned that a mandatory stay-at-home order — halting all but essential business — may be extended well past April 6.
There is “some hopeful news,” Inslee said Thursday, pointing to the slowing rate of new cases in Washington for several days this week. Still, he stressed, “We cannot let up on this virus.” He has deployed the full tool kit for success: vigilance, massive testing, rapid response, forced isolation: “We’ve got to pound it and pound it till it’s done.”
We could use some help from a certain billionaire who made his pile in our city, Jeff Bezos. His cranes are frozen in place in downtown Seattle, the empire on hold. His employees are at risk, some getting sick at his warehouses. And the world’s richest man had the gall to ask the public to donate to a relief fund for his contract employees. After an uproar, the company changed the language on public donations.
When everything is settled, Amazon’s reach into everyday lives will be deeper and more institutionalized than ever. But if Bezos wants to be remembered as something other than a monopolist who took advantage of a pandemic, he could throw some billions in the right direction — now.
For the rest of us, the change has been startling. You realize that we’re remarkably adaptable. You learn to cut hair. You tell people you love them, or risk forever holding your peace. You relish quarantinis at Zoom happy hours. You keep telling yourself that every tickle of the throat is not … it.
Timothy Egan, winner of the National Book Award, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.