China covered up the initial coronavirus outbreak in December for several weeks and then tried to divert attention from its biological Chernobyl through trumpeting its success in containing the illness (the numbers remain dubious), offering international assistance (some in the form of defective masks and tests), and propagating the wild conspiracy theory that the plague did not start in Wuhan but was cooked up in an American military lab and delivered by the United States team attending the Military World Games in Wuhan last October.
The lesson is not, as China would have it, that despotic regimes deal more effectively with disaster but that they incubate the fear that made it impossible for doctors and authorities in Wuhan to communicate rapidly the scale of the threat. A series of tweets last month from the Chinese Embassy in France lauding China’s and Asia’s superior response to the virus due to the “sense of community and citizenship that Western democracies lack” was grotesque. Li Wenliang, who died in February, and Ai Fen, who appears to have disappeared, are the whistleblower doctors of Wuhan whom humanity must never forget.
Trump tweeted on March 29, as Americans died, that “President Trump is a ratings hit.” His daily Covid-19 reality TV show, which he called his “coronavirus updates,” had “an astounding number” of viewers, “more akin to the viewership for a popular prime-time sitcom.”
If you want a quick definition of obscenity, that’s it. This is the mentality, or rather the mental affliction, that compounded the Chinese cover-up with a Trump-authored American confabulation that lost another six weeks in dismissal of the pandemic as a hoax.
The world is leaderless. Every country for itself. Swirling in lies and rumors. Schoolyard petulance, like Mike Pompeo, the worst American secretary of state in a long time, insisting on calling this coronavirus “the Wuhan virus.” This is Trump’s world, and Xi’s.
It is hard now, here in New York, everywhere really. Reading the numbers. Trying to make sense of them. Seeing the triage tents and portable morgues. Watching small businesses close. The millions suddenly without jobs. The people dying alone, without their loved ones because of the risk of infection. Discarded blue and white latex gloves on a street. Insomnia. Choppers over the city at night. The Zoom gatherings that console but also recall that touch is beyond technology. The way people veer away from a passer-by, the coronavirus swerve. The sirens. The silence that makes the sirens louder.
All this has happened before, not quite like this, but yes. My sister’s photographs are also a memento mori. And the world has come through. Because of people like Craig Smith, the surgeon in chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital who wrote of Covid-19 patients in a moving dispatch to his medical troops, “They survive because we don’t give up.”
It’s coming apart. Take care of it. We don’t give up. We are connected to one another and to generations past and future. There are no strangers here.
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