Sunday, March 15, 2020

Notes from a coronavirus refugee

the Spanish Steps under lockdown

On April 14th, 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland spewed out a giant cloud of ash that grounded airplanes across Europe. That day my husband Alvin Curran and I happened to be in Valencia, a charming Spanish coastal city whose historic center you can walk across in an hour. Train seats to Rome were snapped up before we caught on, and it took three days until we managed to hop on a plane. Our first lesson in being a refugee: if you can’t leave, even the loveliest town is equivalent to Hades.
Ten years later here we are again, only worse. Alvin and I came to California on March 4th so I could attend the 700-strong medical conference I’ve been going to every year since 1988, where I was to give a presentation of my memoir Dottoressa: An American Doctor in Rome to my scientific colleagues, and fit in another three book readings around the US as long as I was there. Days later the coronavirus crisis hit in force, and we were sent scrambling. My conference was cancelled at the last minute, then my two presentations in New York, then all air travel to Italy. We decided reluctantly that it wasn’t wise to bring our over-70 bodies to our beloved New York – try social distancing on the subway. Instead we cast our net in search of refuge in the Bay Area, until at least the end of April when Rome-bound planes may start flying again. 
After offers of hospitality poured in from friends and relatives, we’ve landed in a comfortable “mother-in-law apartment” in North Berkeley donated by friends who usually rent it out on airbnb.
As soon as we’d unloaded our bags in that high-end refugee camp we headed off to the splendid Monterey Market, a few blocks away, to stock our refrigerator. Only after we got back to the apartment did it register, with horror, that after washing our hands a hundred times a day, and greeting friends with namaste instead of kisses, we’d just finished voluntarily spending an hour cheek to jowl with hundreds of Berkeleyites pushing past each other to score rice, blueberries, and kale.
In the meanwhile our adoptive country, Italy, is under rigorous lockdown, with everything from schools to restaurants to churches shuttered, and a three-foot distance enforced even between pedestrians on the street. 
Italians are great at handling emergencies, their national character being blessed with both resourcefulness and good cheer. The way Alvin and I got out of Valencia in 2010 was by sprinting across the airport on a tip from an Italian. Another time, when a cancelled flight left me and hundreds of others stranded at the New Orleans airport, all the Americans wandered around grousing. A party of Italians assessed the situation, decided there was no way to change it, and broke out some champagne. So it’s no surprise that quarantined Italians are socializing by singing from their balconies. For the national anthem, though, they needed help from a recording – nobody knows the words (watch half the Italian Olympic team fake it). 
housebound Romans sing the national anthem from their balconies
There are hints that the Italian lockdown may already be bearing fruit, with a slight slowdown in the rate of new cases. Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, and Spain have now decided to follow the Italian approach.
When oh when will the United States do the same? The occupant of the White House remains more concerned about the state of the stock market than about his citizens’ health (or even his own, he claims). You’d want to laugh at his wooden, self-aggrandizing, xenophobic Oval Office address about the coronavirus pandemic if its failure to provide any solutions weren’t so potentially lethal. 
Even the great Anthony Fauci is pussyfooting around. He does tell some version of the truth, that the epidemic is going to get worse before it gets better and that testing has been failing, but he offers virtually no guidance. The nation needs to hear from him who exactly should be tested, whether the US will accept the test kits they’ve been offered by China, how exactly to carry out “containment and mitigation.” When pressed Fauci said it wouldn’t be a good idea for basketball games to be played to full stadiums, but he didn’t suggest how large public or private gatherings should be, or whether schools, restaurants, or bars should be closed. He’s said nothing that I know of to promote the vital politicies of teleworking, universal sick leave, or free medical care for all coronavirus patients including the undocumented.
Fauci’s colleagues have suggested to the journal Science that he is “trying to walk a fine line, being honest to the public and policymakers but not so openly critical that he loses influence by being ignored or forced to resign.” I suspect this adds up to his still being muzzled by Pence for political purposes.
Even CNN, for all its justified criticsm of the President, has spread misinformation. I have heard their experts suggest variously that possible coronavirus patients head for Emergency Rooms (possibly spreading the virus around the waiting room), that people in self-isolation can go out to shop, and that family members of coronavirus patients don’t need to self-isolate (Justin Trudeau has stepped forward as a counter-example). And unfortunately Rep. Katie Porter, during her fantastic hatchet job on the head of the CDC, confused influenza tests with coronavirus tests. 
So far the decisions about concrete steps – limiting public gatherings, closing schools, encouraging people to work from home – have been left entirely to State and local governments and to organizations from the NBA to Amazon. Many more Americans will die from covid-19 whatever we do or don’t do, but if the United States takes rapid action as a nation, hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives can be saved. Anyone who is not yet convinced of the need to immedicately adopt aggressive measures should look at this brilliant piece in the NY Times. 

In case you’re curious, I did manage to do one book reading last Tuesday, to an audience of 50 at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, and on Saturday Alvin pulled off his scheduled house concert with Willie Winant to a similar-size group. Who knows when we’ll get to attend gatherings like that again.
Alvin Curran and William Winant in house concert, SL at Moe's


  1. Great post as usual, Susan. Your perspective is always fascinating, and in this case directly useful too. The link to the "brilliant piece in the NY Times" doesn't seem to be working. Could you please post it?

    1. Thanks so much. I think I've managed to fix the links Blogger screwed up. In any case the NYT piece is at

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    I remember seeing your husband on stage with Richard Teitelbaum and Frederic Rzewski, the day after that ill-fated presidential election in 2016.

    Rzewski quoted Joe Hill when he told the audience, ‘Don’t mourn, organize’.

    Those words still resonate with me today. It is hopefully never too late to organize, in this disorganized USA of ours!

  3. So glad you have a place to stay while here! Thanks for posting your always-wise, always-fun stories, with your common-sense-Tylenol to keep us grounded (sorry for that word 🙂) Maybe this is fortuitous to keep you a bit safer while CV rages in Rome. Cheers!

    1. Yes, I have to confess my wish to be home includes an admixture of relief.

  4. Thanks so much, Susan, for your eloquent post. Of course, any acceptance process takes time with a dose of denial active therein, which varies from person to person. Then there's short-term self-interest. It was astounding to see Anthony Fauci appear with Trump in the Rose Garden press conference. He was part of a crowd all sitting next to each other, shaking hands and all touching the microphone. What a lethal example! My immediate thought was that he was compromising himself in order to avoid being fired. I'm so sorry that you and Alvin find yourselves in exile. If it's any cold comfort, there ain't much you're missin' here other than a sense of home which, I guess, is the point, because who knows how long this might last. Sending virtual hugs.

  5. Thanks, my dear. There are worse places to be refugees than Berkeley, and unlike you we're free to move around if we want to defy the advice for alter kackers to stay home. Which we do. But we're being extremely careful, which is a drag.

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