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Coronavirus dispatches from smalltown America: Part 2

Belfast, Maine. March 25 2020. Day 14. It’s been 14 days since the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Life gets stranger by the day. It narrows and constricts.

Three days ago, church was livestreamed, but I didn’t watch. It couldn’t have been as good as the real thing. Not even close. It’s hard to imagine Jesus livestreaming the Sermon on the Mount.

But I am a foul-weather churchgoer anyway. In good weather I commune with nature, my preferred god, by hiking. Spring started this week, but here, less than 80km south of the 45th parallel, winter is grudgingly loosening her grip.

Much has changed in the past week. Everything in Belfast (population 6700) has shut down, save for grocery outlets. The Hannaford supermarket chain has shortened hours so shelves can be restocked — somewhat — and has introduced proper social distancing. One hour a day is now reserved for shoppers over the age of 60.  

All my usual haunts are closed. Everywhere I go for social nourishment. The first to fall was the cafe at the food co-op. It was followed in rapid succession, like dominoes, by the library, soup kitchen, YMCA, Front Street Pub and Alexia’s Pizza.  

Pre-Covid, I couldn’t go to any of these without seeing people I know and falling into conversations.  All gone. Now there are only a few brief, awkward exchanges, with no one sure how far apart is enough. Every day more masks.   

With all schools closed and no substitute teaching, I have no work, and with no social, political or cultural events, life has been reduced to sleeping, reading, writing, hiking and watching YouTube and Netflix. I have been visiting my 85-year-old mother almost daily, but should I? She lives in housing for senior citizens and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) discourages visiting older people unless necessary.  

A few days ago while hiking on the Little River Trail I came across my friend Phil. He was propped up against a fallen tree beside the river, in a patch of warm sunlight. His head was oddly askew. He was sleeping. I didn’t wake him, but on my return trip he was awake. I know Phil from the soup kitchen, and I know nothing of his economic circumstance. He travels by bicycle, even in the bitter cold. This doesn’t suggest wealth. He said he was thinking about moving into the woods. He sounded serious. In rural Maine such things are not uncommon.

An inveterate reader, Phil is usually sharp, but he seemed stunned; bewildered by recent events.

I continued on my hike, always watching out for possible hikers up ahead on the trail. A week before I had stepped two metres out of the way of other hikers. Now it’s up to three to five metres.

For many this is just another layer of the surreal, layered on top of three years of Donald Trump. Three hundred million people led by a deer in the headlights.  

I worry Trump will crack up entirely. He only smiles at his rallies and those are now gone. I worry that an ambulance will pull up to the back door of the White House. The February 12 words of former Trump aide and reality TV star Omarosa Manigault keep replaying in my head. Referring to Vice-President Mike Pence, Manigault said, “We would be begging for days of Trump back if Pence became president. He’s extreme. I’m Christian, I love Jesus, but he thinks Jesus tells him to say things.”   

Trump and Pence have each had at least one direct contact with people who tested positive for Covid-19, but Trump initially refused to test. At a March 18 press conference, Trump repeatedly called Covid-19 a Chinese virus. Told by a reporter that Asian-Americans were facing discrimination, Trump doubled down. His countenance, his very posture, suggest sociopathy. He says in one slow, distinct sentence: “It comes from … China.” His cadence shifts on the last word. No volume increase. Just more enunciated and drawn out. And all doubt is erased. My country’s response to Covid-19 is being led by a sociopath.

Anthony Fauci, of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been hailed in reality-based media as the only government official to challenge Trump’s fantasies. The only adult in the room. Before Covid-19, Trump would have fired Fauci days ago. But now he can’t. It’s politically impossible.

covid-19 in sa

Fauci has now been banished from White House press conferences but, in a shocking March 16 conference, Fauci is almost touching Pence. And health officials are packed in like sardines behind Fauci and Pence. There is more social distancing in the Hannaford supermarket two kilometres from my apartment.

Also at the March 16 press conference is Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. She too is widely praised in reality-based media. Also packed in is Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. Birx looks like she’s presiding over her own funeral. In a video of the press conference, Pence gets too close to Birx and she backs off, gingerly, awkwardly, looking like she doesn’t want to get fired for backing off too visibly or incorrectly.

Is this the new price for keeping a White House job?

Fifty-four thousand Covid-19 cases and 700 deaths, and this is our leadership.  

On March 6, on his way to mingle with people (who would later test positive for the coronavirus) at Mar a Lago, his private Palm Beach club in Florida — the ultimate unreality — Trump visited what was left of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) after he had cut its budget. He stood before five CDC officials, all of them standing closer to each other than they should have been. I had never seen five people more long-suffering. They looked like they wanted to scream.  

Trump said people were surprised by how much he knew about the coronavirus. The test kits were perfect, he said, just like his phone call — the one to Ukraine that got him impeached. Just like the transcript of the call. The world is on fire and it’s all about him. Still.   

But by then reality had long since left our shores. Science had already been reduced to an option. Truth had already been reduced to Silly Putty, to be moulded as one wishes. With this we are left to fight Covid-19.

Lawrence Reichard is a freelance journalist in Belfast, Maine, in the United States

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Lawrence Reichard
Lawrence Reichard is a freelance writer and substitute teacher in Belfast, Maine

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