Coronavirus, a Plague That Won't Passover Us
When I gaze out the window, which I do a lot these days, I see what others see: not much.
Snow falls silently. (This is, after all, the Chicago suburbs in springtime.) Someone walks a dog. A car rumbles by. So it goes in the age of the stay-at-home order constricting tens of millions of Americans. But that’s not the thing. What so many of us sense is something else -- the unseen grip of the coronavirus, and with it comes an existential awakening that reminds me of the Passover season.
It’s a familiar story to many from Exodus in the Bible (or courtesy of Charlton Heston’s starring role as Moses in “The Ten Commandments”): A recalcitrant pharaoh refuses to free the enslaved Israelites, so God dispatches a series of plagues to persuade the Egyptian ruler otherwise. The last scourge is the worst: the death of the first-born of Egyptians. The Israelites avoid this terrible fate by marking the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a lamb (more on this later); thus, the spirit of the Lord passes over them. Hence, the name: Passover.
Now, flash-forward. Here we are, eons later, encased and crouched in our updated dwellings, hoping for a plague of another kind to pass over us. When some venture out -- for sustenance, for air fresh or otherwise, for a dose of sanity -- people try to inoculate themselves with disinfectants, rubber gloves and medical masks. Social distancing, that six-foot buffer between humans, is an odd addition to our new norm, our daily lexicon. But still, the numbers grow. Hundreds of thousands have been infected all over, especially in countries like China, Italy, Iran, Spain, and here at home. Thousands have perished at the hand of a killer we can’t see; countless others strain to avoid the sickness, not knowing if they have. Yet this plague won’t pass over us just yet.
I’m not saying we’re the Egyptians, or the Israelites. I can take the analogy only so far. But the unrelenting, encompassing virus metastasizing across the globe does something else with its vast reach. It begins to remind me of the things it can’t touch, some of them small and trivial, others quite large. It’s not keeping up with the Kardashians, with all due respect. It’s not “Who forgot to wash the dishes?” It’s not whether we are man, woman, them, black, white, other, American, Iranian, or even North Korean.
Moreover, as I look about, I get the feeling I’m witnessing what matters in small flickers of kindness and grace -- forms of faith. A weary cashier at the grocery smiles in the face of panicked buyers. The owner of a neighborhood diner can’t contain his anguish when I ask him how he’s holding up. Unbeknown to me, he slips a couple of fresh baked cookies into the bag of my takeout order. A nurse friend of the family emails: “Has been a big ramp up week as testing has become more available and the hospital [is] attempting to get ready for [the] possibility of many people that have to be seen … Hopefully everyone does their part and stays home.”
Meanwhile, phone calls edge back into vogue, nudging texting to the backseat, as I hear from friends from New York, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Oregon and elsewhere. No one articulates it on the telephone but I suspect we understand it implicitly -- that we’re all in it together. This is unlike anything experienced by anyone in this lifetime other than perhaps World War II, or 9/11, but each of those cataclysmic events involved human masterminds: Hitler, Osama bin Laden. This here now is a destructive force without a face, passing invisibly through the air without a sound.
But that, in an odd way, offers some solace. The virus doesn’t bother to discriminate; it cares not who we are. It is an equal opportunity enemy. For once, it’s one thing we can all agree on. Defeating it is one thing we can all rally around. It’s one thing we can all fight for.
So, I sit at my desk and peer out the window at the world passing over me. I’m struck by another happenstance. (This tends to occur when I’m doing nothing.) Along with Passover, Easter is almost here. It’s another familiar story: On Good Friday, Jesus is crucified. Day descends into darkness. And on the third day, Christ is risen, bringing hope to all.