“Where is your next trip?”
By a huge margin, that is the question we are asked most often by our village neighbors and friends. Our reputation precedes us, of course, and it is well-deserved. We are often on the move, eager to see as much of the world as we can afford to see from our central location in the heart of Europe.
But of course, things are a lot more complicated now. In France, we are living in a place where the virus – we all know which one we’re talking about when we say “the virus” – is present and growing, but not quite yet at a crisis point. It’s a strange place to be, perched between Italy, which just quarantined 16 million people – and the United States, where the president says he has a hunch the virus is just going to go away.
The people who live in Venice, and Milan, and Padua, and Genoa, and Verona, know the virus isn’t “just going to go away.” They live in major cities where restaurants and shops are shuttered, public gatherings are banned, flights and trains are canceled, highways are blockaded. And people are dying. As a World Health Organization official said just the other day, “This is not a drill.”
Venice and Milan are closed. The mere idea of it is hard to fathom. It’s a four-hour drive from our house to Northern Italy. We’ve been to Venice five times. Twice, we’ve gotten there by car.
This is not a drill.
That thing is important to remember, that people are dying. And they’re going to keep dying, for a while. Nobody knows for how long. Nobody knows how many. Certainly not most people who get the virus. But a lot of people nonetheless. That’s why it’s a very big deal.
The math is sobering, if you run it through. Reputable epidemiologists in the United States and elsewhere predict that easily 70 percent of the planet could eventually be infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the respiratory disease making its way unabated around the globe. Right now, estimates are that somewhere between 2% and 3.5% of the people who get it will die from it. Epidemiologists acknowledge that number could be lower, as many cases may be minor and unreported.
But even if you halve the low number, and say COVID-19 has only a 1% chance of killing its victims, you get a simple, sobering equation: 7.7 billion people x 70% with the virus x 1% death rate = 54 million people worldwide. And that’s by halving the projected current mortality rate of the virus.
54 million people.
In the United States, a 70% infection rate and a 1% mortality rate would kill 2.3 million people. By comparison, influenza last year killed 1/100th as many people: 34,000 in the US.
Halve everything again, if you’re feeling optimistic. That’s 1.15 million Americans and 27 million worldwide, killed by a virus that human immune systems have never encountered before.
So it’s not really difficult to see why public health officials around the world are speaking and acting with a sense of urgency, no matter what the anti-science U.S. president and his cronies prattle on about.
We encountered the effects of the virus for the first time in a real way last weekend, when we traveled to Basel, Switzerland, to see an extraordinary exhibition of Edward Hopper paintings and drawings. We chose last weekend because it was also the beginning of the four-day Swiss Carnival celebration known as Fasnacht, of which Basel’s version is supposed to be among the best on the European continent.
But it was canceled. Coronavirus. And because half the population had gone on vacation (Italy!), and more than 100,000 people who were supposed to stream into town canceled their trips, we spent three days wandering around what was essentially a ghost town.
The answer to the question, “where is your next trip,” is, theoretically, in April to Jazz Fest in New Orleans. We expanded that trip to three weeks to include San Francisco, Hawaii, and Los Angeles before flying from LAX back to Paris in May.
But we don’t think it’s going to happen. We think by April 22, France will probably be under travel restrictions. And/or Jazz Fest will probably be canceled. And/or the U.S. will probably have severe quarantine restrictions on foreign travelers. And for all I know, Hawaii will be closed.
But we are definitely not feeling sorry for ourselves. People are dying.
When I mention these possibilities to our friends in New Orleans, they tell me I’m overreacting. Everything in the U.S. is peachy. All is well. No need to worry. (Of course, the United States seems to be attacking the problem of how many corona cases there are in the country by simply not testing for it. If you don’t test for it, you don’t have it!)
And I say to them that I hope they are right. I really WANT them to be right. It’s one of many things we love about New Orleans, this “laissez le bon temps rouler” attitude. But New Orleanians should know better than other Americans that just because things are hard to imagine (what if all the floodwalls fell down?) doesn’t mean they’re not going to happen.
All of Northern Italy is closed, people. All of it. This is not a drill.
Don’t get me wrong. We’re not running around the French countryside in a panic. We went to a bar last night with friends to listen to a French Rolling Stones tribute band. (Talk about dealing with alternate realities.)
At the same time, our friend Katrina taught us a few things. One of them is, prepare for the inconceivable if the data tells you that it’s quite possible. So yes, we have stocked up on hand sanitizer, and we are using it obsessively every time we leave the house. We have antiseptic wipes in the car to wipe down the grocery cart when we go to the store. We have enough frozen chicken breasts and dried pasta and wine to survive for a couple of weeks without running down the hill to the grocery store.
We feel like we’re at the start of a wave that has not yet come close to cresting. And in the end, if we have to stay for a while in our beautiful medieval village on a hilltop in the Bourgogne countryside, surrounded by virus-free forests and fields at the cusp of an exploding spring, well, it’s not a bad place in which to ride out a global pandemic.
We worry for the world, though. And, if we’re honest, we’re a little worried that Paula has a minor cold.
At least, that’s all it appears to be.