In 2020 A March Of Madness, Econospeak
Just before the end of February, President Trump declared that there were only 15 Covid-19 cases in the US, and that “they will soon go to zero.” Deaths from COVID 19 now passed 3,000 (March 30th) and yesterday Trump declared that because we might have had over 2 million dead if nothing had been done, it would show “we did a good job” if deaths kept to “only” 100,000 to 200,000. To do this “good job” he has extended his “social distancing” policy to the end of April rather than Easter, April 12 (my birthday). Also yesterday Virgina Governor Northam intensified a stay-at-home policy and extended it to June 10, the longest such period of any state. All this on the next-to-last day of a month with more dramatic changees for the world than any in a long tim, certainly more than any that I can remember in my nearly 72 years.
Probably the closest rival I can remember is Septembrr, 2011, which also changed the world, although that all happened on one day. This has been day after day, with the US death toll now surpassing that of 9/11. I think to match this month one has to go back to September 1939 or maybe August 1914, or maybe October 1918 when the Spanish flu epidemic reached its maximum death rate in the US just before WW I ended. In any case, when I think of the beginning of this month it seems like another era, way more than a year ago.
On March 1 Marina and I were in Boston attending the Eastern Economic Association meetings. The day before, Leap Day, Bernie Sanders had a 15,000 person rally on the Boston Common, with local media accurately forecasting he would defeat local Senator Elizabeth Warren, and although he had been surging since South Carolina they did not see that Biden would beat Bernie there, along with a lot of other states on Super Tuesday, March 3, so long ago, after which Bernie fell. There were no limits on the voting on Super Tuesday, but there was no audience for the two-man debate the following Monday, and the Ohio primary was postponed on March 10, as Biden sealed his new lead, how long ago it seems and how little we care about that then-so-important Dem candidate race.At the meetings there were signs of the pandemic, but they were from abroad. Participants from China and Italy were absent, including the discussant for my paper from Taiwan, which has had one of the most effective efforts to resist the virus in the world. But for most of us it was far away, and there was no sign at all of the deep recession that has now enveloped not just the US but most of the world. As it was, on March 1 we went to Chinatown partly out of sympathy due to anti-Asian American prejudice (not many people there) and ate well. We then saw a concert of Bloch sacred music in Old South Church, which was packed. None of that now.
Although I saw that things were going to get worse, things were still mostly minimal that week, aside from the excitement over Super Tuesday, still so important. We had classes at James Madison University (JMU). On Thursday, March 5 I even had an outside speaker in, Barry Ickes of Penn State speaking on “25 Years of Transition in Russia.” We shook hands, sort ot looking at each other a bit ironically. That was the last time I have shaken anybody’s hand, and I have no idea when will be the next time. Both of us were looking at spring break the next week, and neither of us was expecting that our schools would not open the following week, but of course that was the end of both of our schools being open for live classes, although in the case of JMU initially during the following weeek the word was that we would take only a two week break and students would be back on campus as of this week. But, of course, that was not to be. We are online for the rest of the semester.
Now Marina and I had seen far enough ahead to cancel our original spring break plans. She has never been on the African continent and long been curious about Egypt (I was there in 1982 once). So we were planning to go to Cairo, but canceled. This was before learning of the outbreak of cases on Nile cruisers (which we were not planning to do), but instead pulled out because of fear of not being able to fly back to the US. We were to fly Turkish Airlines through Istanbul, and feared that the US might block return flights because of Iranians going through the Istanbul Airport, with Iran already suffering from an outbreak of the virus. Marina was also planning to fly to Moscow to visit her mother, March 18-30, but of course that would not remotely happen with no planes going at all then.
So instead we drove to Ocean City, MD for a low key off-season visit, not having been there before. Not many people around but some places open.. I did foresee that barbers and massage people would probably be shutting down. So I got a haircut and we both got massages. We did not raise the issue of pandemic, but it was clear these people were unaware of what was coming. They weere looking forward to the front of the season starting with St. Patrick’s Day coming. There was to be a parade on Saturday, the 14th, which did not happen. We had a good time and drove home across the Chesapeake bridge-tunnel on Thursday, March 12, stopping in Charlottesville to eat at Light Alley, a restaurant we had long wanted to eat at, and bought a bunch of stuff at the Wegmann’s there, observing panic buying of toilet paper, which we mostly laughed about.
I think it was the next day, Friday the 13th, that things crucially shifted, particularly because this was when finally Trump began to change his tune from “this is a Dem hoax” to “this is a real problem,” although he continued to throw out inaccurate and confusing lines. This was also when the events came down that I think really made most American people suddenly start to take it seriously. The NBA shut down, and after a few days, March Madness was called off. This really hit home, sports, especially March Madness. And then it came out that Tom Hanks was infected, America’s Everyman.
Even so it seemed that the tightening of social distancing and shutdowns was a gradual and rolling process. Near to us is a farmer’s market open on Saturdays. On Saturday March 14 it was fully operational, although there was a lot of worrying among customers about what was coming. The following Saturday it was on, but many vendors were absent, and it was surrounded by a tape, with somone at the only entrance making sure no more than 10 people were inside. This past Saturday, March 28, it was totally closed and will be for some time. Also, on Sat. March 21 after going to the market we went to a place for gelato and could go in and sit down, although most such places were not so open. By March 28, it was only open for curbside pickups after calling in.
Despite Northam’s announcement yesterday, there are still more places at least somewhat open here in Harrisonburg. But more and more places are just totally closed and fewer and fewer people are out and about . We are steadily moving deeper and deeper into much more serious shutdowns. And a next door neighbor informed us that a member of their walking club is infected. It is here, and it is cloae.
So, indeed, it has been quite a month of madness, a steadily increasing shutdown and isolation going far beyond what I at least could foresee at the beginning of the month, and I think we were more up on this than lots of people. The world has changed, and it will probably not go back again fully to what it was before this hit.
And to all of you, on the even of April Fool’s Day, take care and keep washing those hands.