The coronavirus pandemic has sickened more than 438,100 people, according to official counts. As of Wednesday afternoon, at least 19,641 people have died, and the virus has been detected in at least 168 countries, as these maps show.
The coronavirus is changing how we live our daily lives. Taking a look at how the global pandemic has affected various aspects of life in the United States reveals the unique nature of this crisis.
- To slow the flood of visitors that had been flocking there, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and the Great Smoky Mountains national parks have been closed until further notice.
- A photographer was there when a busy Brooklyn shopping district found itself shuttered by the coronavirus.
- A ban on public gatherings has made it nearly impossible to hold a funeral.
Workers in the tourism industry are worrying about their livelihoods as governments across the world close borders, prohibit large gatherings and implement strict quarantines on entire regions and countries.
We spoke with several travel and hospitality workers. Each had their own story, but echoed similar concerns about the uncertainty about their future. In looking at an unprecedented worldwide coronavirus outbreak, they turned to the past: how their tourism industry had survived devastating hurricanes and destructive civil wars. They will survive this, too, they said.
A selection of their remarks is below. These interviews, conducted by telephone and email, have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Carlos Tamarit, 62, has worked as a driver for EmpireCLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services in New Jersey for more than five years. He was laid off on Sunday.
With your family’s health concerns, are you worried about being exposed to the coronavirus?
As drivers we’re putting ourselves at risk. If coronavirus is coming from other countries, it’s coming from the airports, and who’s going to the airports? We do. Everyone who gets into the car is potentially a carrier. But in our position it’s either work and eat, or don’t work and don’t eat.
Jacob Knapp, 39, a tour guide working for Bespoke Lifestyle Management and living in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, has been out of work since Monday. On Sunday, the territory issued one of the most restrictive lockdowns in the United States.
You’ve not been able to give a tour since Sunday. How does it feel to be out of work?
I have a lot of worries. I have two boys — 2 and 4 years old, and one is diabetic and I have to be sure there’s always money for insulin — so I always have to provide. I just can’t not provide.
Something I learned with Hurricane Maria is you have to have a Plan B in life, and it has to be a complete opposite of your Plan A. After the disaster, the whole infrastructure was down and the only people who worked were those who worked with their hands — so I got certified as an electrician. I’m worried right now but, down the line, I have many doors open.
A Chicago-based flight attendant for United Airlines, Maria Alpogianis, 51, has worked in the field for 25 years.
What is the physical and psychological toll?
I don’t feel I have a sense of job security. I really don’t. I’m flying with several very junior flight attendants who are terrified of losing their jobs and their insurance. I’ve been flying for 25 years and I, too, am afraid that I’m going to be furloughed.
When I leave somewhere I become concerned about not being able to get home because of the border closures. When we land we cringe because we don’t know what’s changed during the time we’ve been in flight.
By guest columnist, Emily McGowan.
“I don’t know how, but I guess she carried it home. At first, she stole the telephone and shut herself in her room. That was stupid, I told myself, because it might be nothing—just a cold, the flu, anything else.”— [The Dresden Protocol, chapter 23]
I never asked for COVID-19.
Like most of us, I learned about coronavirus in the final hours of 2019. Dozens of patients had fallen ill in Wuhan, China; by January 11th, the World Health Organization had identified a new disease which we now know as COVID-19. Fever, a dry cough, shortness of breath — the early symptoms looked innocent, but within weeks, all hell had broken loose. 4,296 dead. 119,179 infected, though these numbers grow by the minute. Italy has closed its borders, and in America, hand sanitizer is practically worth its weight in gold. Every day, coronavirus creeps one step closer to my hometown of Savannah, Georgia. Rumor has it that we may have our first patient already.
In the early days, I wasn’t too concerned. Disease is not a staple of my first world lifestyle, and last I checked, my name isn’t Nostradamus.”Come writers and critics,” Dylan sang, “Who prophesize with your pen/And keep your eyes wide/The chance won’t come again.”
I write speculative fiction. This genre isn’t magic, but it certainly isn’t science either. When I sit down to type, I’m perfectly content to tell stories about what people want, why they want them, and what outlandish thing stands in their way. I deal in fallen heroes and folklore. It feels like the most important job in the world, but at the end of the day, I’m selling you words. And behind the safety of my computer, I told myself that this threat—a real live virus—could never land on the shores of my quiet little life.
Unfortunately, that’s not how pandemics work. In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 has spread to and within America, infecting hundreds of patients from sea to shining sea. 267 cases in Washington. 176 in New York. Half a dozen cases were reported in my state — and all across Savannah, people are scrubbing their hands raw. Mothers wear masks in the grocery store. Locals look at Chinese students askance. The virus is spreading exponentially, and though it’s all we talk about, nobody knows quite what to expect. Not even the writers.
Compared to genres like romance or nonfiction, I believe that speculative fiction is somewhat unique in the wide world of literature. Its stories are founded on the premise of “what if.” What if time travel existed? What if men had handmaids? What if post-apocalyptic teenagers fell in love during a battle royale? At their best, these what-ifs are not attempts to escape our problems but to face or even solve them with a fresh perspective. In order to be effective, speculative fiction often blends this ‘what if’ with tangible details, something solid that grounds the reader in the harsh realities that our world desperately needs.
Except reality is the last thing many of us want. With every day that passes, the morbid headlines bog us down — and when given the choice between denial and a COVID-induced anxiety attack, we’d happily pick the first. It’s overblown, we tell ourselves. Any day now, the virus is going to die out and everyone who stockpiled toilet paper and Lysol will see that we were right. At best, this veers into tone-policing, and at worst, I fear that it is leading to some very reckless behavior — and not the type you might think. It’s become popular to mock people for being over-cautious, but what do we say about the people who don’t wash their hands? The ones who bring their “cold” into a crowded movie theatre? The ones who force their employees to come to work?
A very American story about capitalism consuming our national preparedness and resiliency.
Why is the United States running out of face masks for medical workers? How does the world’s wealthiest country find itself in such a tragic and avoidable mess? And how long will it take to get enough protective gear, if that’s even possible now?
I’ve spent the last few days digging into these questions, because the shortages of protective gear, particularly face masks, has struck me as one of the more disturbing absurdities in America’s response to this pandemic.
Yes, it would have been nice to have had early, widespread testing for the coronavirus, the strategy South Korea used to contain its outbreak. It would be amazing if we can avoid running out of ventilators and hospital space, the catastrophe that has befallen parts of Italy. But neither matters much — in fact, no significant intervention is possible — if health care workers cannot even come into contact with coronavirus patients without getting sick themselves.
That’s where cheap, disposable face masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns come in. That we failed to procure enough safety gear for medical workers — not to mention for sick people and for the public, as some health experts might have recommended if masks were not in such low supply — seems astoundingly negligent.
What a small, shameful way for a strong nation to falter: For want of a 75-cent face mask, the kingdom was lost.
I am sorry to say that digging into the mask shortage does little to assuage one’s sense of outrage. The answer to why we’re running out of protective gear involves a very American set of capitalist pathologies — the rise and inevitable lure of low-cost overseas manufacturing, and a strategic failure, at the national level and in the health care industry, to consider seriously the cascading vulnerabilities that flowed from the incentives to reduce costs.
Perhaps the only way to address the shortfall now is to recognize that the market is broken, and to have the government step in to immediately spur global and domestic production. President Trump, bizarrely, has so far resisted ordering companies to produce more supplies and equipment. In the case of masks, manufacturers say they are moving mountains to ramp up production, and some large companies are donating millions of masks from their own reserves.
But given the vast global need for masks — in the United States alone, fighting the coronavirus will consume 3.5 billion face masks, according to an estimate by the Department of Health and Human Services — corporate generosity will fall short. People in the mask business say it will take a few months, at a minimum, to significantly expand production.
“We are at full capacity today, and increased production by building another factory or extending further will take anywhere between three to four months,” said Guillaume Laverdure, the chief operating officer of Medicom, a Canadian company that makes masks and other protective equipment in factories around the world.
And though some nontraditional manufacturers like T-shirt factories and other apparel makers have announced plans to rush-produce masks, it’s unclear that they will be able to meet required safety standards or shift over production in time to answer demand.
Few in the protective equipment industry are surprised by the shortages, because they’ve been predicted for years. In 2005, the George W. Bush administration called for the coordination of domestic production and stockpiling of protective gear in preparation for pandemic influenza. In 2006, Congress approved funds to add protective gear to a national strategic stockpile — among other things, the stockpile collected 52 million surgical face masks and 104 million N95 respirator masks.
But about 100 million masks in the stockpile were deployed in 2009 in the fight against the H1N1 flu pandemic, and the government never bothered to replace them. This month, Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services, testified that there are only about 40 million masks in the stockpile — around 1 percent of the projected national need.
As the coronavirus began to spread in China early this year, a global shortage of protective equipment began to look inevitable. But by then it was too late for the American government to do much about the problem. Two decades ago, most hospital protective gear was made domestically. But like much of the rest of the apparel and consumer products business, face mask manufacturing has since shifted nearly entirely overseas. “China is a producer of 80 percent of masks worldwide,” Laverdure said.
Hospitals began to run out of masks for the same reason that supermarkets ran out of toilet paper — because their “just-in-time” supply chains, which call for holding as little inventory as possible to meet demand, are built to optimize efficiency, not resiliency.
“You’re talking about a commodity item,” said Michael J. Alkire, president of Premier, a company that purchases medical supplies for hospitals and health systems. In the supply chain, he said, “by definition, there’s not going to be a lot of redundancy, because everyone wants the low cost.”
In January, the brittle supply chain began to crack under pressure. To deal with its own outbreak, China began to restrict exports of protective equipment. Then other countries did as well — Taiwan, Germany, France and India took steps to stop exports of medical equipment. That left American hospitals to seek more and more masks from fewer and fewer producers.