Panic about Coronavirus has ratcheted to an almost unseemly level of handwringing, as reports of new, confirmed cases from locales far and wide proliferate. According to NPR, there are over 100 cases of the virus in the United States alone; Wuhan, the city in China where the virus originated, has been on lockdown for most of the year. The Olympics were nearly canceled. In Italy, the virus runs rampant. A cruise ship carrying 2,500 passengers was quarantined for weeks off the coast of Japan after reports that passengers on the ship tested positive for the virus. Racism, both casual and overt, burbles under the surface. Fearing the worst, and perhaps rightfully so, the general public has begun to prepare for the worst: a global pandemic that will eventually see all of us trapped in our homes, barricaded against the virus via self-quarantine.
Careening towards panic, which is a pleasant impulse in times of great uncertainty, is not the move. Constantly washing your hands, as if you were a nervous raccoon, is helpful. Keeping your distance from those who are sick is, too. After a week of personal panic about whether or not my impulse to not panic was correct, I consulted a friend who is a doctor; she informed me that I should take the same precautions as I would during any flu season and to check the CDC and WHO websites regularly for updated information. However, that conversation was a few weeks ago, and now that the coronavirus is here to stay, the tenor of the general public’s reaction to an incoming pandemic has changed.
Prepping for an imminent quarantine is probably smart, but my instincts tell me that there is no need to run to the nearest Sam’s Club and fill your cart with gallon jugs of hand sanitizer and pallets of toilet paper. However, various anecdotal reports from colleagues and the unwashed masses on Twitter assure me that my lack of panic about stocking supplies for my home is foolish. Hyper-local blog West Side Rag reported on the long lines at the Upper West Side Trader Joe’s, where people braved the seasonal cold to ransack the frozen food section. Various Costcos in the Bay Area have reported that dry goods like beans and rice are selling like hotcakes. Other panic purchases include toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and bottled water, indicating to me that the real panic seems to be that while we are trapped in our homes, public services like water and sanitation will go awry, too.
Panicking for any imminent disaster is sort of thrilling; there’s a snow-day quality to the proceedings that alleviate any actual worry about what might happen. Stock up on whiskey, buy one hundred bags of Zapp’s Cajun Dill-Gator chips, and a bunch of Hungry Man Dinners if that is what gets you up in the morning. Isn’t preparing fun? Moved to irritation by reports of people gathering toilet paper and frantically purchasing boxed of bucatini as if they were staving off the end times, I took stock of the supply sources in my immediate vicinity.
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I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago, before it had evolved into its current iteration, which is essentially an outdoor shopping mall. Every morning on my walk to the train, a small bus labeled with the address of a high-rise apartment building on the waterfront pulls up next to the subway station and disgorges its contents: mostly white professionals who would rather get on a shuttle than walk the four blocks from their glass towers. It is precisely the kind of neighborhood that I assumed would have already prepared frantically for coronavirus, ransacking the stores of their dry goods and canned garbanzo beans and hoarding these items in their spare rooms. Were the rumors true? Should I be worried? My larder at home is empty, save for a few half-empty boxes of pasta and a plastic bin labeled “breakfast powders,” provenance unknown. The food for the cats is expensive and smells like fish in a way that isn’t quite appetizing, but if I closed my eyes and told myself it was paté, we could probably figure something out. If necessary, I could survive on these rations for a week, but it felt worthwhile to see if I needed to course correct.
My first stop was Whole Foods, usually a hellscape that I avoid, in part because I am not intimately familiar with its layout and also because it is so crowded that I sometimes fill a basket with what I need only to quietly return the items to their home and depart from the store, intimidated as I am by the line. Whole Foods on a Tuesday morning is a different beast—calm, serene, beautiful. I carefully sidestepped around a woman in yoga tights squeezing sumo oranges and scanned the aisles to see if anything was amiss. A display of tapered candles was mostly untouched, save for the shelf that contained the white candles, most of which were gone. The canned bean aisle was full of beans; though one shelf was empty, there was an employee diligently taking inventory while another stood in front of a stack of pallets full of beans. On my way out of the store, I meandered past the cracker aisle, where one shelf was empty and the rest, full. Near the chip display were gallon jugs of water, indicating to me that someone in Whole Foods’ merchandising department thinks that water will be in short supply soon enough.
My local Duane Reade, which is never stocked with anything that I ever actually want, had a huge display of rubbing alcohol and disinfectant spray near the front of the store where they usually stock sunscreen in the summer and cold medicine in the winter. Baby thermometers were gone, the shelf completely empty. Elsewhere, in the general “first aid” category, a shelf that previously housed gauze, rubber gloves, and god knows what else, was empty. None of these things, minus the thermometers, prevent coronavirus or will save anyone in case of quarantine or apocalypse. Perhaps a small community of survivalist preppers thrives in Williamsburg; maybe an enterprising entrepreneurial spirit somewhere in my neighborhood is crafting bespoke survival kits in an attempt to capitalize on the widespread panic that will certainly only get worse.
The scene I had expected was one similar to what I witnessed in 2012 in the lead-up to Hurricane Sandy. Being but four blocks away from the East River put me into a state of mild but manageable panic, as did my frequent consultation of a flood zone map indicating that even though I was four blocks away from the water, there was a slight chance that if this thing was as bad as they said, I would walk out of my front door into chaos. Before the storm hit, my roommates and I went to the grocery store and got supplies. I recall with clarity a woman in front of me in line, who was dutifully piling bags of baby spinach on the conveyor belt, as if she was going to juice her way through an evening or two during which we might lose power. The panic for that natural disaster, which was catastrophic, was real—and I don’t doubt that the panic simmering about coronavirus is, too. But there’s something about the nature of the pre-prepping that strikes me as both unnecessary and also, stupid.
Downplaying the seriousness of this event is foolish, but whipping oneself into a counterproductive, panicked lather over a possible quarantine is more so, especially when the CDC guidelines for what to do if you have coronavirus are reassuringly calm. Nowhere on this page does the word “quarantine” even come up; rather “self-isolation” is the term they prefer, indicating that the directive to stay in the house if you’re sick is a choice rather than a mandate. Self-isolation speaks to a respect for the rest of the world around you. And yet the tenor of the conversation in the public prioritizes protection of the individual over the well-being of the collective. Online survivalist supply stores that sell Geiger counters and gas masks to doomsday preppers are seeing a huge upswing in business, with orders from people in major metropolitan areas like New York and San Francisco, who have never had to contend with the idea of catastrophe and are now reacting in kind. A recent report from the New York Times points to rich and famous people insulating themselves further by stocking their panic rooms with medical equipment and buying $35 Byredo hand sanitizer. Doomsday preppers with massive bunkers and the new batch of urban panic-mongers shoving medical grade respirators in a credenza in the foyer are not preparing to self-isolate: they are preparing for a cinematic apocalyptic scenario in which they will be forced to defend their homes from outsiders. This is American self-preservation at its finest.
If you are sick with a virus that spreads rapidly and has no vaccine, it is kind to your brethren to stay indoors. Do not touch your face. Wash your hands. Sing a song. Please do not panic.