The virus itself remains an elusive foe, with scientists racing to find vaccines and treatments, and the public left with advice that sounds like it could from our mothers: wash your hands, cover your sneezes, open the windows to fresh air, and keep a safe distance from someone who may be contagious — something now called social distancing.
All of that, and a cascade of business, civic and social cancellations, has created upheaval in our societal norms, and shattered our daily sense of security.
Megan K. Stack, a veteran war correspondent who now works as freelancer based in Singapore, wanted to show the world first-hand how it felt living under the topsy-turvy, uncertain world in the shadow of the virus — not from the point of a view of a journalist, but through the prism of a wife, mother and friend.
Relatively speaking, her piece came early in the flood of coronavirus headlines. “Living with Coronavirus Anxiety in Singapore” was published Feb. 26 as a Personal History piece in the New Yorker. That week, the Centers for Disease Control reported about 80,000 confirmed cases around the world; the count in the U.S. was 53, without, as that point, any known deaths. The World Health Organization wouldn’t declare the virus a pandemic until March 11, two weeks after Stack’s piece appeared.
But her opening paragraph could just as easily be written today or, perhaps, a few weeks or even months from now as the virus creeps its way around the world, disrespectful of geographic boundaries, class or society’s long-held sacred cows.
How does a virus take over a community? Slowly. Perniciously. Inconclusively. The first line of attack is not an aching body or a runny nose but an unease that seeps into every corner of life, and which is impossible to explain away because it is reasonable, even necessary. You must listen to this fear. You must calibrate your responses correctly. Otherwise, you are irresponsible, you are careless; in the body of the community, you are a failing organ.
This wasn’t the first time Stack’s writing had bridged the personal and the critical. Her 2019 book “Women’s Work” told the story of motherhood, career and the rotating group of women who left their own families to care for hers while she and her husband were foreign correspondents in China and India.
Her new piece on the human dimensions of living with viral uncertainty hit a nerve for me. It was one of the few pieces at that stage that brought a personal and thoughtful perspective to the discussion of what to do about coronavirus, without being alarmist or overly hysterical. I had been weighing options in my own mind: I, too, am a parent of young children living in an area where a local emergency had been called. The possibility of school closures loomed large — and has since come to fruition.
I am also a science journalist, and always looking for ways to connect research with daily life. the way Stack was able to use a personal story to tell a larger medical story hooked me. I reached out to her soon after her piece ran, and we talked through the process of reporting and writing a personal story in the middle of a political and scientific maelstrom.
Our conversation is edited for length and clarity, then followed by an annotation of the text.
How did this piece come about? Were you planning to write about coronavirus?
It kind of arose organically. I found myself writing it on my own, almost in a journaling kind of way. There’s a level of writing that I do in my journal, longhand, and then there’s another level I do in a more formal way in my computer as a Word document. I think later on, I might write something longer or I just want to get it down. It’s stuff I have a sense might come up, so instead of just doing it by hand, I write it in the computer and give it some kind of title.
It started like that, and then as I was looking at it, I thought I could just publish this now, as a journal. So I wrote to an editor at the New Yorker and that was it.
How much research did you do for this story?
A lot of it was research that I had already been doing because I’m a parent in this moment of rising anxiety over the virus. So I had it all at my fingertips.
Where do you get your news on the virus?
My Twitter feed has China reporters on it, so I’m getting a lot of information in China. Right around Chinese New Year, it was very disturbing. There was this grim panic. I used to cover conflict zones, but there is something about a bug and a virus that I found scary in a different way. I would go to a war zone, but the idea of covering Ebola would really freak me out.
Was anything cut from your original drafts?
My original version had direct quotes from my chat logs, because I was having all these crazy conversations with different parents from my kids’ school. Some of them have been comical — the pitch is just very high. So I could have written many more anecdotes and more words about these text conversations.
At one point, you talk about the virality of fear. How has writing this changed the way you think about fear?
One of the most meaningful things is that it does have such a strong community effect, which I hadn’t really understood until experiencing it for myself. People are scared and people respond to the fear differently. Some people I noticed have the impulse to act like the class monitor types, where they just want to get up on the chair and yell at everyone else about what they should do. And some people seem to deal with it through denial, where they get angry about this being talked about too much, and don’t think it’s that big a deal. And some people seem to deal with it as almost by peeling themselves away from the broader discussion because it just it freaks them out.
How has the community responded, in general? I have felt a very strong sense of people monitoring each other. Not with malice, but definitely a kind of judgment and constant sort of reassessment. Because I think another thing that happens with people is that they don’t want to find themselves too far from the collective. So if you see that everyone else is really worried and everyone else is wearing a mask and nobody else is letting their kids go to the playground, you don’t want to be the only parent who’s like, I’m still going to let my kid go to the playground and we’re not going to wear masks. But you also don’t want to be the only parent who is taking these measures and kind of freaking out for no reason and scaring everybody. I think everyone kind of wants to be in the middle.
What did you learn in the course of doing this piece? For me, I realize that if I take the time to write something that is an easy toss-off — not a very deep piece, but just about the things that are going around me — there are moments that will be of broader interest. We fall into our own experiences and forget that the events of our day may be of note and interest to others in other parts of the world. It would have been easy not to write this piece; I wasn’t dying to write it.
So it’s good to remember to think about the things that are happening to you and consider if they are interest to others
I think that’s always my lesson to myself.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; responses from Stack in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
How does a virus take over a community? Slowly. Perniciously. Inconclusively. The first line of attack is not an aching body or a runny nose but an unease that seeps into every corner of life, and which is impossible to explain away because it is reasonable, even necessary. You must listen to this fear. You must calibrate your responses correctly. Otherwise, you are irresponsible, you are careless; in the body of the community, you are a failing organ. Why did you start the piece in the second person? I didn’t think about it; it just came out that way. It wasn’t a very deliberate choice. I didn’t want people to read this as this is a weird thing that happened to me. I wanted it to feel like it could happen to you. There were different versions of the top, and this was the first one I wrote. We experimented with putting on a harder top but it didn’t really work. You want people to have an experience and you kind of want them to know that from the tone of the first line. If you put a hard top on something, and then you write musings about the nature of fear, I think it’s a little jarring. Actually in my very first draft, I started with a text exchange. That ended up like some of my literary experiments: it went by the wayside. I love experimenting in a piece like this.
Here in Singapore, we are perched awkwardly on the edge of the coronavirus crisis zone. As of this writing, ninety-two people on the island are known to have contracted the covid-19 virus. First, it was travellers who’d been to the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, but gradually the disease seeped into the community and began to spread. At this point, no one in Singapore had died of the disease. So how did you know this? They have been very transparent and very proactive about letting people know what is happening. I get text messages every day with the number of cases.
But fear, it turns out, is also a virus. A low-level fright of this little-understood malady has taken hold in the international school where my children spend their days, and in the sprawling condominium complex where we live, along with a mix of Singaporean families and foreigners. This fear has the uncanny power to force out the uncomfortable questions that usually lurk unspoken in the communities it invades. You start out talking about the virus and end up picking apart parenting styles or foreign relations.
The virus has become a little-understood variable in a sort of living laboratory experiment in extreme urban and social management. Singapore is home to a diverse population of 5.7 million, of whom nearly two million, like our family, have come to live or work here temporarily. Virtually every aspect of life here, from public-transport routes to political discourse, is carefully controlled by the government.
The normal rhythms of the city are now punctuated by incessant virus-related announcements: emergency e-mails, stern notices on the bulletin board, and urgent WhatsApp messages from the government. Two more cases confirmed. School assemblies suspended. If you’ve been to mainland China in the past two weeks, stay home from school, church, and everything else. It’s worse than SARS. Don’t panic. When you get to this paragraph, about the normal rhythms of the city, punctuated by announcements, your own writing rhythm is very staccato, almost as if marching through the paragraph. How deliberate was this? It was intentional when I taught myself to write, but now I do it from habit. I was into tap dancing as a kid. I was bad at almost everything, but I was good at tap dancing, and I feel like those years of tap dancing segued into writing. So I have that sense of underlying rhythm, because tap is very rhythmic: you have to make sentences and rhythms with just two sounds you can make with your foot. Now it’s something that happens in my writing without being deliberate.
The frustrating truth is that we don’t know what we’re living through. Scientists are still scrambling to understand the fundamental facts about coronavirus, such as how it spreads and the length of its incubation period. In the absence of knowledge, we check constantly to see what everyone else is doing, having conversations that only lead to more uncertainty and judgment. In social circles that are preoccupied with family and schools, the coronavirus has become a microcosm of parenting itself: a crisis that compresses all the unease and distrust and self-doubt that lurk around the edges of child rearing into a slow-motion emergency that demands we all collaborate and follow orders.One morning, while my husband walked the kids out to the bus stop, I opened an e-mail from the school. It was a long message and, as I read, I set down my coffee. I had the sensation of vertigo, like I was tipping face first into my laptop screen.
One of the teaching assistants in the Chinese-language program was a Wuhan native. His parents, who had come to visit over the Chinese New Year, had tested positive for the coronavirus. Happily, they were in stable condition, and the teacher himself did not appear to have the virus, but, then again, the long incubation period made it too soon to know for sure whether he’d been infected. His parents had been staying with him as he went back and forth to school. He’d been in the classroom and had performed in the Chinese New Year staff concert.
If you want to overwhelm a communications network, here’s a good trick: compose an e-mail to thousands of Type A parents announcing that the deadly virus splashed all over the headlines has perhaps infiltrated their children’s school. Press Send just as school buses are heading off into morning traffic.
“Good morning.” That was the first text from one of the second-grade moms: an opening line so barren of exclamation marks and emojis that, on a normal morning, it would imply a grave misdeed on the part of my child. “Saw the email?” she continued. We texted back and forth, and meanwhile I was texting with other parents and with two friends who are doctors in the United States.
“It’s not very deadly,” my friend, who is a research doctor, wrote. “Though it does seem to be serious.”
“Honestly, it’s less severe than influenza,” my emergency-room-doctor friend wrote. “Even if your kids get it they’ll be fine.” You have a lot of dialogue from text messages and emails, as well as dialogue from conversations in person. How do you remember bits of dialogue when you’re doing a journal-type piece? I tend to take a ton of notes on dialogue. I’ve done this since I was little, but being a writer has deepened this habit. It’s all about listening to exactly what someone says. I also like it when the paragraph breaks. As a reader, there’s a sense when you turn the page and there’s a long block of text and you go, ugh. There’s the long march through these next few pages.
Here in Singapore, one mom was wondering whether the cafeteria food might be contaminated; another was taking pictures of the classroom where the teaching assistant had worked with the children. These calm assessments from America rendered all of that, somehow, ridiculous. I informed the first mom who’d texted that I knew a doctor who said we shouldn’t worry. She replied that she’d also spoken with a doctor and had been told not to worry.
At that point, I assumed we’d reached a consensus. But just then she abruptly announced that her husband was headed to school to pick up their kid. “We’re not comfortable,” she wrote. “I understand,” I replied. Our fragile alliance had fractured, somehow, along lines that had to do with our tolerance for risk. We would not text each other for the rest of the week, while she kept her son at home and I sent mine to school.If the virus is toying with our parental neuroses, it’s also poking at the sensitive spots of nations. In Hong Kong, where pro-democracy demonstrations have raged for most of the past year, the local government’s refusal to seal off crossings to the mainland was decried as yet another failure to protect the territory from the menace of Beijing.
Here in Singapore, too, the virus dredged up some of the tensions lurking under the veneer of communal harmony. Three-quarters of the city is ethnically Chinese, and there are significant minorities of Indians and indigenous Malays. The city is also home to tens of thousands of residents from mainland China. Relations among these groups have been carefully smoothed by the government, which recognizes four official languages, enforces ethnic quotas on public-housing blocks, and criminalizes any action, including speech, that could undermine racial or religious harmony. Now, though, coronavirus has become an excuse for some landlords, who have tried to seize on travel and quarantine guidelines to evict mainland tenants from their buildings.
“Such actions are not helpful and they have no place in our society,” Lawrence Wong, the national-development minister, scolded in a speech to parliament. “I hope that every Singaporean will stand together and we will all do our part to confront and condemn such prejudice and discrimination.”
In the middle of all this, some friends from Hong Kong came to town; my husband and I planned to meet them for dinner. The night before, one of them texted to warn us that she’d been in mainland China. Unprompted, she offered up the exact dates of her travel, cities visited, and airlines flown. Both she and her husband felt fine but, if we wanted to cancel, they’d understand.
Should we treat our old friends like lepers, or should we risk bringing the virus home to our kids? In the end, we tried to compromise. How did you walk the line between professional and personal when writing something about the community where you live? I did a struggle with that a little bit, but I didn’t name the school where my children go. I didn’t want anyone to feel they were recognizable. The people who are in the piece know who they are but no one is really recognizable other than the teacher. And that’s been out anyway. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were getting exposed unexpectedly in the New Yorker.
“Will you think we’re total nuts if we suggest meeting at the restaurant, not hugging and not sharing dishes?” I wrote. “I feel awful even typing that.”
“That totally makes sense to us,” she replied.
It made less sense the following morning, when our eldest son told me, as we walked to the bus stop, that the kid he’d played with the previous two days was staying home from school for two weeks.
“Uh,” I said. “He is? Why?”
“Because he was in China.”
“Oh, no,” I groaned and started mumbling, more to myself than to him. So all our precautions were flimsy, I thought, like trying to use twigs and string to dam the flow of human interaction. We couldn’t know who’d been where or who might be ill, nor could we live in a state of sterility. We couldn’t build a wall against germs, and the pressure to keep trying to do so was exhausting.
That afternoon, as we walked back from the bus stop, along came the kid. He was gliding down the path on his scooter, a big grin on his face, wearing nothing but a swimsuit and a pair of goggles around his neck. “Hey,” he said to my son. “Want to go to the pool?”
“My mom says I can’t play with you, because you went to China,” my son said.
“I did not say that,” I blurted out unconvincingly.
“You did, too,” he cried.
“I did not.” I could feel my face burning. “You were the one who told me he’d been in China.” How did you recall this interaction in such detail? I’m obsessed with dialogue. People reveal a lot when you analyze what they have actually said. We expect to hear certain things, and we don’t always hear what was actually said. Like if you analyze what people say, they tend to say the same things over and over and use the same constructions. When you get into building of a character through writing, you can give a reader character insight by analyzing how people talk.
The other kid watched us with the bright half-smile of a polite sports spectator.
“But I didn’t say—”
“But that’s what you meant!”
“Enough, let’s go inside!”I had the idea, then, that we were nearing the end of whatever we were all enduring. We weren’t, of course, but I couldn’t shake the expectation that this problem would soon be replaced by some fresh concern. The teacher’s assistant stayed healthy, and eventually returned to the classroom, but the numbers of the sick kept growing. A guard was posted at the entrance to our condominium with a thermometer and an imposing pump bottle of hand sanitizer. The school sent home slips that had to be submitted each day with that morning’s temperature reading. In the back of my mind lurked the knowledge that there were reports of people testing positive without a fever, so the thermometers were hardly foolproof. Frantic shoppers, driven by rumors that the government might close schools and restrict most people to their homes, thronged the supermarkets to strip the shelves of noodles and toilet paper.
I was at home getting ready to take our younger son to a birthday party the day the panic shopping began in earnest. My phone began to ding insistently. It was the mom throwing the party; she’d just heard that someone who lived in their housing development had the novel coronavirus.
“I do not have any details at this stage,” she wrote. “However, this is from a reliable source.” The party was still on, but they wanted other parents to understand the choice they were making.
We decided to keep our son home, but I didn’t like it. I felt bad for my kid, and even worse for the family that had planned the party. So I wrapped the present in colorful paper and headed over in a taxi to apologize. As we pulled up to the gate, a guard materialized at the car door and tapped my forehead with an electronic thermometer before nodding us through. The walkways and lobby felt strangely quiet. Upstairs, though, the party was in full swing; the adults drinking rosé and the kids painting on easels. I love these images, and I feel like in both parenting and writing you have to make conscious decisions. How do you think the two mix? This experience has made apparent something that’s been coming up with me lately, which is finding the right line between scaring your kids and preparing them. I find that a difficult line to identify. You don’t want to tell your kids: this is going to make everyone sick; you don’t want to put this intensity of fear on them. But you kind of do want to scare them because you want them to take it seriously and do whatever they are told to do.
I was both relieved and mortified to see that a respectable number of parents were braver than we were. Or maybe they were foolhardy—I didn’t know anymore. I wanted to hang around and chat; I wanted my son to be there, too. And I realized that this is the sting: in the company of others, we derive the greatest comfort while simultaneously running the biggest risk. We need each other, we look for each other, we infect each other with insidious germs and fortifying emotions. I stayed for a short time, then left the gift and went home.
Back at our place, riding the elevator up to our floor, I read an announcement taped to the wall. It was from the Citizens’ Consultative Committee, which relays communications from the government to the people, explaining when and where we residents should collect our free masks. I’d already picked up the four masks allocated to our household, but I still enjoyed reading this note. There was comfort in the precision of the document, which was at once severe and optimistic: “Together, and with steely determination, we can overcome this as one community.” How did you come up with the kicker? It was just obvious to me: I kept reading that note over and over because it was posted in the elevator for a long time. It kind of summarized the mood of the city for me. It was strict, serious, very much like: you are going to do your part and we’re going to do our part and we’re going to be fine. It’s just a different way of being. I think Singapore is really interesting, and this piece gave me a chance to explore Singapore in writing in a way I really haven’t done before.