The Human Stories of the Coronavirus Pandemic


[For the latest updates, visit Tuesday’s changing lives briefing.]

What good timing for it to be National Doctor’s Day.

Perhaps you didn’t think to observe it last year. This year, as the coronavirus pandemic has sickened nearly 800,000 worldwide, people are wholeheartedly making sure they thank a nearby medical professional on National Doctor’s Day.

International Nurse’s Day is observed on May 12, so you have time to do some (online) shopping.

Do you know what the one thing doctors want from you for their big day? Yup: For you to stay home.

Students want to abolish grades because of the pandemic.

Does a global pandemic warrant letting every college student pass, or even get an A, in every class?

Some of the hardest schools in America — M.I.T., New York University School of Law, the University of Chicago — were having this debate while the coronavirus raged across the country with students following orders to vacate their dorms, and professors switching to Zoom classes, often clumsily.

Some students demanded that they go further than pass/fail and switch to “universal pass.”

From a New York University law student’s email to fellow students:

“As I said, I’m a 3L and I had serious doubts about my own efficacy as a student this semester before covid-19 even started (lol), but zoom classes? Call me skeptical I just don’t think they’re going to be that productive a use of my time during a global pandemic. You know? Call me crazy. This is not to knock online schools/schooling AT ALL; I’m not trying to be elitist here, just honest about whether or not this is really going to be productive for students who are probably frayed to bits. My heart goes out to any student who is having serious anxiety re: exams/health/pandemic.”

But like a good future lawyer, the student could see — and argue — the other side. And N.Y.U.’s cutthroat reputation notwithstanding, the student offered to be generous.

“THOUGH I do absolutely empathize/sympathize with those underclassmen (and women and neutral genders) who needed this semester to pull their grades up, man do I vibe with that struggle,” the student said, offering to share notes from courses like “evidence,” “crim pro” and “law of democracy” with other students who needed them.

“Even though I may not know you I encourage you to think of me as a resource if you need someone. Times like this pulling together is really required of communities like ours,” the student wrote.

On a University of Chicago Facebook thread, some students advocated following in the footsteps of M.I.T., which was one of the first universities to switch to a pass-fail system because of the virus.

But there was a voice of caution:

Not to rain on the parade, but P/F is also much more institutionally OK at MIT (all first year classes are P/F, to allow people to acclimate to college). So I’m not saying it’s impossible to do, could be HUGE for the program, but also the institutional view on P/F is very different.

Another Chicago student brought up the problem of students who really did need the grades they expected to earn.

“Some students might have low GPAs that they’re looking to increase, which they wouldn’t be able to do under a P/F policy — something to keep in mind.”

A third student interjected that in these extraordinary times, professors might be more flexible than usual:

“I strongly suspect it won’t be hard to get Profs who just give wall to wall As in the spring …? Probably not in certain departments (we all know who I’m talking about), but I genuinely think it’s likely most Professors are more willing to grade inflate everyone.”

Tellingly, there is a precedent for that last student’s theory.

Patrick Healy, then a reporter with The Boston Globe and now the editor of the politics desk of The New York Times, wrote a story in 2001 recounting how some historians trace grade inflation at Harvard to the War in Vietnam.

“Students realized they needed evidence to show they weren’t just messing around in college to avoid the draft,” George Flynn, a historian and author of “The Draft, 1940-1973,” told Mr. Healy.

“The war just set off inflation at Harvard,” Henry Rosovsky, who joined the economics faculty in 1965, was quoted as saying. “Professors gave higher grades to protect them.”

In case you were wondering, N.Y.U. Law announced last Wednesday that it was adopting a Credit/Fail grading policy for all Spring 2020 semester courses. The announcement to students admitted that the policy could come at a cost to “incentives and fairness,” and urged everyone to try to mitigate those. The announcement read:

Where students are aware that they will receive the same credit for a course almost regardless of their performance, they may not invest significant effort in their work. This is particularly so when a health crisis places other demands on their time and attention. In adopting this shift in grading policy, the Law School faculty are counting on everyone in our community to encourage participation of students who might be disengaged.

The University of Chicago has yet to announce any changes.

Documenting a crisis, in words and pictures.

Before she left Spain, Deb Monti, a 22-year-old painter, started making pieces of life under lockdown. In one painting, two people stand on a balcony, sharing a cigarette. In another, a girl’s face is segmented by a window, trapping her indoors.

“It’s so all-of-a-sudden,” Ms. Monti said. “It makes me feel so suffocated and restrained.”

Across the world, many people are confined to their homes as the pandemic sweeps by outside, and sometimes inside. Many are keeping diaries in both words and pictures: pantry inventories, window views, questions about the future, concerns about the present. Taken together, the pages tell the story of an anxious, claustrophobic world on pause.

When future historians look to write the story of life during coronavirus, these first-person accounts may prove useful. Because history isn’t usually told by the bigwigs of the era, even if they are some of its main characters. Instead, it is often reconstructed from snapshots of ordinary lives. In today’s diaries, anxiety is constant.

What’s your “Quarantine Routine”?

For people without imminent serious health or financial challenges, who are “merely” dealing with the anxieties of a global pandemic, worldwide financial domino effects and the illnesses of friends and co-workers, there’s a lot of time at home. Staying at home is the number one request medical providers are making of those of us privileged enough to not need to travel for work. (And it seems to be working.)

Proponents of the productivity industry would like the healthy homebound of us to learn Greek, advanced baking and sewing and also maybe clean your entire house while home schooling your children and putting in vegetable beds for spring and also maybe washing up our baby lambs.

But here in the real world … there’s a lot of Xbox (as noted by Stan Wawrinka, the tennis champ) and frozen pizzas and Netflix. Hence the “quarantine routine,” a joke format about how we’re spending our days at home. There’s a lot of sincere suggestions for daily at-home routines out there — we think the “quarantine routine” started in sincerity here, as a way of helping people think about how to manage their time. Those helpful tips were quickly replaced by something more relatable.

From here it has not gotten more reasonable.

Experts say structure really helps bring meaning to your days! Also you gotta only do what you can.

Now they’re trying to sell you clothing to wear at home.

You’ll be unsurprised to hear that people are buying more things they need, and less things they don’t. Target released a report this week, saying that, in March, it saw a 50 percent jump for essentials and food and beverages, but a downturn in things like accessories.

That’s likely why, earlier today, Macy’s announced it had lost the “majority” of its sales — and was going to furlough around 130,000 workers.

So most “nonessential” retailers, like people who sell you clothes, are viewing their digital businesses as a lifeline. On Instagram, that means you’re seeing a lot of ads for weighted blankets — but also lots of work-from-home styles and designer sweatsuits.

On Monday, Anthropologie’s website asked customers to “invite color inside” by shopping the “cozy-at-home edit.” Macy’s encouraged customers to“recharge in new ways” with its “stay-at-home essentials.” Discounts seem prevalent across sites, though many warn of potential shipping delays based on the virus. Anthropologie also found a “date-night-at-home” outfit for their Instagram.

Statistically speaking, your home is now full of dogs, cats and chickens.

Foster requests at one shelter in Kansas City, Mo., went from an average of 10 a day to 250 a day; in Dallas, foster animal placement was up ten times over last year.

And it’s not just cats and dogs that people are taking in. “People are panic-buying chickens like they did toilet paper,” a president of one chicken hatchery told us, as egg shortfalls were reported in supermarkets.

Animal shelters grew increasingly desperate over the last week to place animals, according to NPR. Without adoption fairs, and without staff in some cases, shelters are struggling to respond to kitten and puppy season. Flatbush Cats, a foster group in Brooklyn, wrote on Instagram they were concerned about the coming “huge spike in kittens born on the street just a few weeks from now, as spay/neuter clinics across the country remain closed.”

Over the last few decades, animal rescue organizations have begun transporting an enormous amount of animals, mostly dogs and cats, from U.S. states with kill shelters to states with more adopters and no animal euthanasia. (International transport has also increased, with dogs coming to the U.S. from Russia, China, Mexico and others.)

The coronavirus pandemic will, presumably, end. But chicken and cat parenthood is a lifetime.

Celebrities in sweatpants sang songs.

The Backstreet Boys put on a concert last night.

They sang “I Want It That Way,” and maybe they were just a little rusty in spots — it’s been more than two decades since the song’s original release.

The boys weren’t together, of course. Brian was in his living room in Atlanta. Nick was by a pool in Las Vegas. Kevin was backed by his two young sons, one on the drums and the other strumming a small guitar, at his home in Los Angeles.

They were among dozens of entertainers and artists — including Billie Eilish, Alicia Keys, H.E.R., Ellen DeGeneres, Lizzo and Dave Grohl — who performed songs and recorded messages for iHeartRadio’s Living Room Concert for America on Sunday evening. It was broadcast on Fox and streamed on YouTube.

The concert was like a modern version of the old-school telethon, benefiting two organizations: Feeding America, a national network of food banks, and the First Responders Children’s Foundation, which supports the families of emergency medical workers dealing with financial hardship because of the coronavirus.

Some of the celebrities appeared in sweatpants or pajamas, dispensing advice about social isolation from their outdoor patios or on living room couches. Tim McGraw, in bluejeans, sang while straddling a diving board over a backyard swimming pool. Mariah Carey set up shop in her home studio, with background singers and a pianist video-conferenced in.

“The most inspirational thing about this situation is watching everyone join forces and lift each other up,” said Elton John, who hosted the video event.

“I’d play a song myself, but I happen to be quarantined in the only house I’ve ever been in without a piano,” he said.

A cartoon favorite wants you to stay at home.

With plenty of time on their hands as a result of stay-at-home orders, entertainers of all kinds have tried to help during the pandemic. From the singer Liam Gallagher reworking the songs of Oasis into hand-washing anthems to the actress Gal Gadot’s polarizing “Imagine” video, there has been no shortage of options for people looking for a potentially helpful distraction.

Enter Samantha Newark, the original voice of Jem from the cartoon “Jem and the Holograms.” Her public-service announcement from late last week, in which she warns about bogus medications and encourages social distancing and hand-washing, will help us defeat the coronavirus. Jem’s rival band, The Misfits, has yet to weigh in either way.

N.Y.C.’s basketball community was dealt a crushing blow.

In a revealing look at how tight-knit the New York City basketball community is, and how devastating the coronavirus can be, Marc Stein and John Branch reported on a birthday party for a former St. Johns player that has left three people dead and multiple other people having tested positive for Covid-19.

The party, which was being held for David Cain, included people who had played at all levels of New York basketball — including Steve Burtt Sr., a former N.B.A. player, who talked about putting the pieces together of having attended a party that resulted in Lee Green, a teammate of Cain’s at St. Johns, and two others dying.

“We were just out having a good time,” Burtt said. “When I got wind of it, I called Dave to check on him, but I didn’t put two and two together. And then Lee died. I’m like: ‘Wait a minute — they said he was at a party. I was at the party.’”

Marc Stein discussed how the story of David Cain’s birthday party came together and the challenges that reporters — particularly sports reporters — are facing in a changing era.

How much of a challenge was it to coordinate the reporting of this story with the two of you in different states?

Stein: The reality for reporters right now, like it or not, is that much of our reporting has to be done by phone, text, WhatsApp, social media channels, etc. All stories are better when the reporting can be done face to face and on the scene, but it’s just not possible at the moment.

You both are used to spending a lot of time with your subjects and digging really deep into things. How much of a challenge was that in this case?

Stein: Speaking strictly for me, even in a season as rife with downbeat stories as this 2019-20 N.B.A. campaign has been, this whole story was out of the norm for me. Not only because we were writing about a community outside of my usual N.B.A. bubble but because the subject matter was so heavy.

It was a basketball story, but let’s face it: It was about much bigger real-world stuff.

With sports shelved for the time being, there seems to be a real challenge ahead for sports reporters. How does your mind-set to storytelling change and adapt to something like this?

Stein: Since my day-to-day beat is the N.B.A. and given the widespread interest in all the ways that Covid-19 is disrupting this ascendant league right when it anticipated moving into playoff mode, there hasn’t been anything close to a shortage of story ideas yet.

What we’re reading and listening to.

Families Scramble to Find Baby Formula, Diapers and Wipes

Panic buying has left stores and diaper banks empty of baby essentials as shutdowns and quarantines expand across the country.

Restaurants Find Hope in Delivering Donated Meals to Hospitals

As Americans pitch in to order meals for beleaguered health care workers, the deliveries can be a lifeline for restaurants and food trucks as well as hospitals.

The Daily: Back From the Brink

“You always live in fear that you’re never going to wake up.” What one medical professional learned after being the first confirmed coronavirus patient in New Jersey.

Reporting was contributed by Jacey Fortin, Anemona Hartocollis, Sapna Maheshwari, Amelia Nierenberg, Choire Sicha and Benjamin Hoffman.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here