Every morning my editor calls from the Netherlands. We discuss what we think is happening in the United States, what we’ve read or seen, and what could be a topic for me to write about. He used to call from the Amsterdam office of the national daily NRC Handelsblad, a four-storied workspace in the old center of the city. The sound of coffee machines and colleagues in the background. Now the only sounds other than his voice, are the shrieks of his young children. He’s working from home. As millions and millions of people are doing. As I am in Washington DC. Trying to be a correspondent for the USA.
Once our deliberations are done, I get to work. Plenty to write about. And every day, somewhere between four and five o’clock, I put on my shoes and coat, and I go out. I walk, sometimes I ride my bike to some place where walking is nicer, unknown. That’s a new ritual.
A week ago, I went to New York to write a story about a city that has found itself in the heart of the pandemic. As I drove back home to Washington DC, I heard Dr. Anthony Fauci say during the daily White House press conference that people who had been in New York City and left for another place should self-quarantine for two weeks. Since then, my world has shrunk into the size of my house – but for the daily walks.
Now I have to be careful to not trivialize the gravity of this epidemic. Every day stories, pictures and podcasts fill my ears and eyes with people getting sick, people suffocating and people dying. I’ve seen pictures of bodies being stacked in refrigerated trucks in New York because the morgues are overflowing. There cannot be a lighter side to this.
Still, every time I go outside to walk, I see other people doing the same. The sound of cars and busses has been replaced by the sounds of people talking, children laughing, bikers ringing their bell.
In the Netherlands some people have compared the corona-walks there to the 1973 oil crisis. Back then the oil-producing countries strangled the western countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur war. The Dutch government proclaimed a ‘car-less’ Sunday for each month the oil embargo held. Kids skated on the highways.
Spike in gun sales
All differences aside, I see what they mean. There is a peacefulness to these walks that belies the severity of this crisis, apparently in the Netherlands just as it is in Washington. It could be that this feeling will fade as the weeks of ‘stopping the spread’ grow into months, which I think is inevitable. As food or other daily needs get more scarce, people might dig in and turn to some real aggressive hoarding. And if I am really trying to scare myself, I read about the huge spike in gun sales. (Not as high as the Obama-election spike, though. Apparently that was even scarier.)
Nietzsche? Or Conan the Barbarian?
But until that moment, let me enjoy this quiet spring in Rock Creek Park. A father throwing balls with his 9-year old son. A couple letting their toddler swing on the hanging branches of a tree. A lonely man (social distancing!) reading on a park bench. My neighbor’s piano playing has definitely improved these weeks.
There are a lot of caveats: domestic violence is bound to spike, some parents could go crazy because of the children being around all the time. My editor keeps warning me to take time off. He says people staying at home tend to lose track of their working hours, at the risk of burning out.
But I can’t help thinking that the people that don’t catch the Covid-19-virus, who don’t get sick at least, will be healthier because of the way of living these weeks. Less stress (maybe) and more walks (definitely). To quote Nietzsche: what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger. Or was it Conan the Barbarian who said that?
Bas Blokker is US Correspondent for NRC Media (NRC Handelsbald, NRC Next, nrc.nl). He lives in Washington DC.