OPINION

COVID-19 and a city’s anatomy

How the virus is changing the world and lives

The public health crisis enveloping the world has spared no city, and Washington, DC, where I am normally based, is no exception.

Soon after returning from his trip to India, the city’s most high-profile resident, U.S. President Donald Trump, held his first COVID-19 press briefing. He announced that Vice President Mike Pence would lead the effort against the virus. That Mr. Pence had been criticised for his public health record as Governor of Indiana added to the growing sense that Mr. Trump was taking things too casually and not responding adequately to the challenge. In the days after the briefing, more changes came to Washington, DC — it was as if people were finally and officially allowed to worry about COVID-19.

“It’s coming towards us,” one man was heard telling his companion on the Circulator, a local bus, referring to a case that had emerged in Rhode Island. Just the day before, the administration had announced a ban on travellers from Iran, and travel advisories for South Korea and Italy.

Spread of the virus

There was an awareness that the virus was stalking DC by the end of the first week of March, as reports of infections at the Conservative Political Action Conference and American Israel Public Affairs Committee emerged. Across the county, in Washington State, schools had closed, leaving many parents, especially those on a lower income or those without family support, wondering what they would do about childcare. By the time schools closed in DC and teleworking had kicked in, another problem had emerged: how would parents work from home and also home-school their children?

While it was only during the week before last that a significant number of offices in DC started moved to teleworking, not everyone could practise social distancing as the virus spread. Some workers did not have a choice about their interactions at work – for instance, the store cashier, the concierge at an apartment building, the cab driver. People in these positions are often minorities or have low incomes, adding to their risks of making it through these times unscathed.

Some who could practise social distancing apparently chose not to. Groups of younger Washingtonians, dressed in green for St. Patrick’s Day, were seen on the streets. Younger people have been criticised in the U.S. for a ‘business as usual’ approach to socialising and taking their Spring Break.

Grey clouds and silver linings

People working in the gig economy or running small business have also been impacted. For instance, Uber drivers reported a loss of passengers and small business owners have had to grapple with letting go of employees to keep their businesses afloat.

At supermarkets, people jostled for space in the aisles, some buying what looked like a month’s worth of groceries, emptying out certain categories of food. Department stores ran out of hand sanitisers, thermometers, and even toilet paper. Notices limiting purchases were seen at several stores in the city.

Last week, Mr. Trump appeared to step up the use of what some have called xenophobic language to describe the pathogen, making references to the “foreign” or “Chinese” virus. This has some foreigners in DC worried. A woman in her early forties, Ellen (last name withheld), whose senior citizen parents were visiting DC from Belgium, toldThe Hinduthat her parents had decided to return to their home, despite Europe being the epicentre of the pandemic. “They didn’t trust the health care system here and the political response,” she said, concerned that ventilators, which the U.S. does not potentially have enough of, would be reserved for U.S. citizens.

However, there are some silver linings to the many grey clouds. People are stepping up to help. For instance, with restaurants closing, Chef Jose Andreas is converting his outlets into community kitchens. “People have to eat,” Mr. Andreas said, as perThe Washington Post.Some stores have reserved hours for those above 60 and other more vulnerable groups.

The virus is changing the world and lives, and DC is no exception.

sriram. lakshman@thehindu.co.in

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