How the Coronavirus Has Infected Our Vocabulary
Shakespeare did his finest work under quarantine, I keep hearing. I wonder how the Bard would regard today’s “craft hour” in our apartment, which ended after eight minutes. I’d Googled “easy art projects anyone can do,” and selected “DIY jellyfish.” We forged ahead, with the same delusional optimism that has fuelled our recent “pantry meals,” when we have three of a recipe’s twelve ingredients. We had to improvise a little, since our shopping list had prioritized diapers, medicine, Clorox wipes, gallon bags of dour legumes and their party-girl cousins, coffee beans. Of the many things I’d failed to foresee: a need for googly eyes, hole punchers, and vials of glitter. We wound up with a Styrofoam coffee cup stabbed through with neon straws. “Mama, this is not a jellyfish,” my three-year-old son, Oscar, said, with a preternaturally mature sorrow.
We rarely watch the television, but on this first weekday morning of an eerily quiet Austin, Texas, we decided to keep it on, a portal to the wider world. Dr. Irwin Redlener, from the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said, on CNN, “We are so incredibly underprepared for a major onslaught to the hospitals, which is basically now inevitable.” Shortages of I.C.U. beds and ventilators. Hospitals rationing gloves and masks. “Googly eyes,” Oscar said, and I nodded. It took me three minutes to remember the word for the doctor’s expression: apoplectic.
Next, we played doctor, a game that involves my son hitting my forehead with his toy hammer and then saying, in a gentle, condescending falsetto, “It’s not hurting you, Mama.” It’s a bright, false voice he learned from us. This game has taught me something essential about the gaslighting that kids routinely experience from adults—sometimes well-meaning, often self-serving.
“Just a little, little poke . . .”
On March 11th, after the World Health Organization officially announced that the coronavirus was a pandemic, President Donald Trump spoke at a congressional hearing on the issue. “This is not a financial crisis,” he assured us. “This is just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.”
It’s not hurting you, my son promised, bringing the hammer down.
It’s hard to know what’s true right now. Everything feels heightened and accelerated, including the speed with which fact overtakes fiction, and a truth can mutate into a lie. A few days ago, I had an entirely different understanding of the threat. My son was still attending his day care. We were debating whether to cancel a family reunion in April. On March 16th, staring at our ghostly reflections in empty store windows, now tenanted by mannequins in bikinis who failed to get the memo, I feel a kind of ontological whiplash. Why was I so slow to understand the gravity of this emergency, even as the virus caseloads continued to grow exponentially around the globe?
On the television, a bespectacled Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, took the stand, explaining the stakes and the contours of the global public-health crisis to a bewildered nation. He is a man charged with telling an unhappy story with no clear end in sight. He insists on empirical verification, and he has maintained his equilibrium, and his authority, on the rolling ellipses that carry him from one press conference and mounting crisis to the next.
Fauci’s unvarnished candor is often at odds with Trump’s jack-o’-lantern reassurances, glowing and hollow. Fauci is never self-congratulatory, and, tonally, he sits level on the water, neither overly buoyant nor despondent.
“Is the worst yet to come, Dr. Fauci?” Representative Carolyn Maloney, of New York, asked at the March 11th hearing.
“Yes, it is.”
Iam touched, and sometimes rattled, by the children’s innate faith in us. In recent weeks, I’ve felt like a child myself, tuning in nightly to watch press briefings, hungry for reassurance and direction, eager to hear experts subtitle a novel reality for me. A press briefing is a story told in medias res, and even our most trusted experts, like Dr. Fauci, can narrate it only from their blinkered perspective in the present tense. Nobody yet knows how or when the covid-19 pandemic ends.