Sirens in the silence: As we settle in for a plague year, the empire strikes back

Daily life assumes a strange, quiet new rhythm — even at the epicenter. But the captains of Capital are freaked out

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 29, 2020 1:40PM (EDT)

A man wearing a respirator walks through an eerily empty Times Square in New York, the United States, March 26, 2020 (Xinhua/M IchaelNagle/wangying via Getty Images)
A man wearing a respirator walks through an eerily empty Times Square in New York, the United States, March 26, 2020 (Xinhua/M IchaelNagle/wangying via Getty Images)

I stay up too late — sometimes much, much too late — and sleep later in the morning too. Sometimes I don't set the alarm, half intentionally, and sometimes I switch it off and drift right back to sleep. It's a whole lot easier to do that now: The city is dead quiet on weekday mornings, eerily quiet, quieter than the quietest Sunday in the dead of winter. Just from the ambient sound, it's impossible to tell 6 a.m. apart from 8 or 10.

I'm working from home, in an apartment in the Pelham Parkway neighborhood of the Bronx. I work in my bedroom or at the kitchen table. The living room is my teenage son's man-boy cave for the most part, where he wrestles with the shaggy, newly-hatched phenomenon of "remote learning" — which has yet to assume any coherent shape — and does whatever else he does with his day. We're very affectionate with each other, but this is also a time to give each other space, now that we don't have any space. I pretend not to hear his "private" conversations, and he returns the favor.

*  *  *

Donald Trump has no ideas of his own, and no clear or consistent ideology. In a certain sense he has no thoughts at all, beyond dim fantasies of his own greatness, supported by a finely honed set of feral instincts. It's always a mistake to spend too long in that person's mind — talk about staring into the abyss! — and anyway we won't find the origins there of the latest toxic brainworm to emerge from the American far right. 

That would be the panicked notion that we must end the lockdowns and social distancing essentially before they have begun — and certainly before they've done any good — and send people back to work, virus or no, in order to "reopen" the economy.

I'm sure some of the people who embraced this idea were grievously wounded by accusations that it was a Malthusian plan to kill off the less worthy or productive members of society in order that "the economy" or, worse yet, "the market" — considered as a monstrous abstraction standing above human life and feeding on it — might live. As I observed on Twitter recently, if we replaced all such deliberately fuzzy constructions with "Yog-Sothoth" or "the Golden Calf," the whole thing might be easier to understand.

But it might be easier to roll with the "that is not what we meant, at all" crowd if they hadn't come out and said it, as in the now-infamous CNN interview with Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican well and truly washed in the blood of the lamb.

*  *  *

I noticed the birds right away, once the traffic noise began to decline in early March. I've heard other New Yorkers talk about this: The question is, do they always sing this much all day long, and not just in the early morning? I live less than a block from one of the parkways Robert Moses built to cut a greenway through the heart of the city, and I know there are valid reasons to criticize those as social engineering projects. But it means there are groves of tall trees, and habitat for thousands of birds, even in a dense neighborhood of six-story, yellow-brick prewar apartment buildings. To think about a time when building things on that scale was possible … that ought to be painful or tragic at this moment, but mostly it just seems impossibly distant.

It took me longer to notice the sirens. I mean, it took me longer to notice them on a conscious level, and register their probable meaning. Siren noise is there most of the time, in New York or any other big city. But a couple of days into the lockdown, with car and bus traffic reduced by two-thirds or three-fourths or whatever it is, I became aware that I could hear sirens all day long and often deep into the night — moving or still, close or far away both at once. Ambulance sirens. 

Yes, there are various explanations for this. They're audible over longer distances now, and I live about a mile west of one of the largest hospitals in the city (and two miles east of another one). No doubt some of those ambulances are carrying people who've had heart attacks or been in accidents or gotten shot, just like usual. But definitely not all of them.

*  *  *

As far as I can reconstruct things, the kill-the weak brainworm swelled and grew this way. On March 16 — less than two weeks ago! — a Hoover Institution fellow and NYU law professor named Richard A. Epstein published what he called a "deeply contrarian" analysis of the coronavirus outbreak. Ha ha, you can say that again.

Let us note that Epstein has zero expertise in science or medicine, and also that he belongs to the lard-ass "conservative intellectual" caste for whom pronouncing something "contrarian" always carries a sort of erotic thrill and always means that one is boosting the cause of so-called free-market capitalism, and arguing that anything government could possibly do is destructive (except to poison itself and die).

Epstein argued that the coronavirus pandemic wasn't really a pandemic: There would be "well under 1 million" cases worldwide, and about 50,000 deaths. In his original post, he predicted that there would be fewer than 500 deaths in the United States — and, oh goodness, each of those would be a personal tragedy, no doubt! But in the larger scheme of things, nothing to worry about, and definitely no justification for the "current course" of widespread economic shutdown.

Since then, of course, Epstein has dived back into his post and frantically edited it. He now admits his original estimate of 500 deaths in the U.S. — a marker we blew past in New York City alone, a couple of days back — was "erroneous," without explaining what sort of error it was. Maybe it was just a typo! After all, he's now added an extra zero and is rolling with an estimate of 5,000 deaths, which he admits "could prove somewhat optimistic." It could, at that! But hey, it's all just numbers on the page. Who really knows?

*  *  *

It changes daily life less than you would think, on the whole, to live in the place the rest of the world (at least for the moment) views with terror as the epicenter of a plague. I watch Andrew Cuomo's daily briefings, like most people, but I've stopped focusing on the numbers. As of Saturday night there had been 30,000-odd cases in the city, and 672 people have died. We all know those numbers will get worse; whether the mathematical progression offers some cause for optimism is an academic question.

Mostly we're doing what people elsewhere are doing. I talk to my neighbors, cautiously. I talk to people on the phone. I've spent more time on the phone during the last two weeks than I did in the last two years, probably. I talk to my mother, who lives in a locked-down senior facility, 3,000 miles away. I talk to a friend in Massachusetts who has lung cancer, and doesn't know whether her clinical trial will continue — or whether doctors will even try to save her life if she gets sick. I talk to a friend in rural New England who thinks she may have the virus, and has spent two weeks inside with her kitty. (They're both OK.) I talk to a novelist in Greece, who I've never met in person, hunkered down in a nation whose health care system is compromised by years of grinding fiscal austerity. I talk to friends who live a few miles east or south of me, in other New York neighborhoods. We talk about how quiet it is.

We stand in lines at the grocery store, on spots marked with police-style tape. The place that sells burek, the distinctive Albanian spinach-cheese pie, is still open. So is the old-line pizzeria with faded pictures of Yankee players and Three Stooges on the walls, and the West Indian jerked-chicken place with the glaringly bright LED lighting. But every Asian-owned business of every kind in this neighborhood has closed down — three Chinese restaurants, a discount store and a liquor store — and not because they had to. I'm afraid I know the reasons for that. 

*  *  *

Corrections and math errors aside, Richard Epstein did his duty to the overlord class that employs him. For a hot minute there, he slapped a seemingly dispassionate intellectual gloss on the notion that all this was a giant overreaction, and some new bug that might carry off a few less-than-productive grandmas was no reason to shut down the malls and the office parks and the call centers. 

It appears that Epstein's work of contrarian genius circulated rapidly — one could almost say virally — among the captains of Big Capital. I think it's fair to say they were (and are) collectively shit-scared by the plunging stock market, the spiking unemployment numbers and, most of all, by the hypothetical possibility of losing their financial and ideological hegemony over the vast, rigged shell game of the global economy. 

Epstein spawned a number of ambitious imitators, including "Silicon Valley technologist" Aaron Ginn, who pronounced himself an expert in viruses because he knew about viral marketing. Honest to Christ, you can't make this shit up! Ginn, who, as it happens, is also a Breitbart-style right-wing activist, wrote a post for Medium making optimistic coronavirus predictions and rolling out precisely the "cure is worse than the disease" argument that Donald Trump would make a few days later. 

Ginn's article was embraced and retweeted by every major Fox News figure except Tucker Carlson (who's been all-in on racism, not virus denialism). Then it was widely and comprehensively debunked by actual scientists and taken down by Medium, which is highly tolerant of wacky opinions but concluded this had crossed the line into absolute bullshit. I'm of two minds about that, but I generally believe it's better to shame bullshit than to hide it, and it's irritating to read a whiny editorial in the Wall Street Journal and conclude that, well, they have about one-eighth of a valid point there.

Within days or even hours, two of the most widely read New York Times columnists, Bret "Bedbug" Stephens and Thomas "I Heart MBS" Friedman, had more or less signed on to the notion that reviving Yog-Sothoth — I'm sorry, I mean "reopening our economy," in exactly the awesome form it took before the pandemic hit — was maybe-possibly-kinda more important than some unknown but perhaps not completely horrifying number of deaths. 

Friedman's piece was an especially artful concoction, in his customary manner: I'm a normal American man offering sensible compromise solutions, which just happen to line up with the interests of the bankers and the global policy elite and the ultra-rich, seasoned with a soupçon of wokeness. Has he tried to go back into the archives and un-write his fulsome endorsement of Mike Bloomberg as the ideal Democratic nominee? That guy is the all-time beneficiary of the death of social memory and the fact that there's no penalty for being wrong, as long as you are wrong in the authorized direction.

Understood in this context, Donald Trump's ludicrous trial-balloon fantasies about having the nation "raring to go" and the church pews filled by Easter Sunday are both inevitable and pathetic. That's not going to happen on any large scale, but if even a few of his dimwitted followers try to obey his incomprehensible commands, they will drive up the death toll even more than is going to happen anyway. He's a sad man, hopelessly adrift in this crisis, trying to glom onto threads of ideas poured into his head by others. He will get people killed and drive the economy off a cliff, but you can't rule out the possibility he will be re-elected anyway. The high priests of Yog-Sothoth must be disappointed in him. He's their only option, for the moment, but he totally sucks and in the long run they will surely need someone else.

Honestly, though, it's too early to think seriously about this whole thing in political terms. I have no idea what this means for Joe Biden, marinating in his Wilmington basement, and I don't much care. My son and I are just trying to get through the days at the epicenter of a plague. His sister is coming over this weekend; we've all been locked down for two weeks and are pretty sure we're not infected. We could of course be wrong.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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