Re-post from The New York Times, April 3, 2020
By Roger Cohen, Opinion Columnist
My sister, who lives in London, has been passing lockdown time going through old slides of my father’s, discovered last year. Every now and then she sends me a grainy or mildewed photograph, a message in a bottle from across the ocean. The pandemic has prompted a universal time of reflection. The past, more present, is the new field of exploration, absent movement.
There we are, my sister and I, still in the cocoon of innocence, happy, curious, with my mother mainly, my father occasionally, my grandparents. Everyone but us in the photographs is now dead. My parents, all those South African aunts and uncles, that world, gone.
The dead feel much closer now, along with all those things they lived, the Depression, the war, confinement. Ships drift around the world with unwanted people, like the Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis on its voyage of the damned during World War II.
The virus teaches something forgotten, what it is like to be swept away by the gale of history, what it is for every assumption to collapse, what is precious in each single contemplated breath.
It is said the camera never lies. But behind those smiles in my dad’s slides lay family tragedy. When I researched my grandparents’ history in Lithuania and gazed at photographs of the Jewish life there that would be extinguished I recall thinking: You, sir, are doomed — and you on the wagon, and you with a hand on your horse’s withers. Roland Barthes observed that in every old photograph lurks catastrophe.
Yet I feel more connection than catastrophe. To my family, to everyone out there looking backward and inward, sifting memories, adjusting priorities. Less is more. Old recipes revived, old purses reopened and redolent of a grandmother’s apartment, old rhythms of life in a small radius rediscovered.
It’s the end of an era. The virus kills — to what degree is still unclear. It also screams: you must change your life.
The world that emerges from this cannot resemble the old. If this plague that cares not a whit for the class or status of its victims cannot teach solidarity over individualistic excess, nothing will. If this continent-hopping pathogen cannot demonstrate the precarious interconnectedness of the planet, nothing will. Unlike 9/11, the assault is universal.
Yet the two most powerful men on earth, President Xi Jinping of China and President Trump, have responded with petty national interest that has cost myriad lives. They have failed the world, a superpower debacle.
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.