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Dispatches from the Edge

A week that coronavirus changed everything, too fast and too slow

It’s like a switch went off — a week and a half too late — triggering massive changes every day.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 11  —  A man crosses a deserted Congress Street in downtown Boston.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 11 — A man crosses a deserted Congress Street in downtown Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a Globe Magazine special report, appearing in print on Sunday, March 29.

On the second Tuesday night in January, our class met for the first time. The course I’ve been teaching at Brandeis University is called Reinventing Journalism for the 21st Century. Reinvention is one of those terms you hear a lot on college campuses, talked about more than done. We’re already 20 percent through this new century, I reminded the students. It’s time to get on with the reinventing.

I asked them which news stories they were following most closely. One student mentioned something called the coronavirus. Three days earlier, the Chinese government had announced its first death from it, in the city of Wuhan. Her grandparents were near there, she said, and she feared for their safety.

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I nodded. But the truth was that, back then, I was only dimly aware of this new virus.

Drone footage captures the nearly bare streets of Boston
Watch aerial video of some of the city’s busiest spots, in the middle of a weekday, almost completely devoid of people. (Footage: Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

On the third Tuesday in January, I told the students they needed to pick a local news beat to cover throughout the semester. This same student chose coronavirus’s impact on campus. Earlier that day, officials had announced the first confirmed diagnosis of a US resident. Still, I was skeptical about this choice for a local beat. The nation’s single confirmed case was all the way in Washington state.

Just two months later, of course, coronavirus became the only beat on campus — that is, until all college campuses effectively shut down. And instead of focusing on one class and one profession, the reinvention we’re all wrestling with now involves the daily lives of just about every soul on the planet.

There’s an odd thing about how this disaster has unfolded. For many of us, the change has felt both too slow, and too fast. It’s like a switch went off — a week and a half too late — triggering massive changes every day. The NBA is playing in empty arenas, then not at all. People are packing themselves into bars in Southie, then all restaurants are shuttered, except for takeout.

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In an instant, people stopped saying things they had previously loved to weave into conversations, like, “I live in Wellesley” or “I work at Biogen.” Yet most of us have been way too sluggish to recognize the grim chapter in history we’re about to become part of — or to change our behavior in the hopes of minimizing the odds that we’ll somehow make it worse.

September 11th saw one morning of catastrophic carnage, followed by months, and then years, of pain and reckoning. But the coronavirus crisis has so far been a rolling blackout whose intensity and duration are defined by uncertainty.

When a crisis doesn’t come with clear boundaries, we rely on our leaders for cues about how we should react. Not surprisingly, we got no such leadership from the White House this time — not from an administration birthed by a half-century campaign to erode the value of expertise in government.

More surprising is how lacking the leadership has been here in Massachusetts. A governor (and former health care CEO) whose high approval ratings have rested on his preference for drama-free competence, over the president’s reality TV nonsense, seemed curiously flat-footed during the first phase of this crisis.

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And what about our reputation as the international leader in academic medicine? What is the point of having the world’s best hospitals and labs and biotech companies, populated by all those brilliant minds, if our response to a pandemic hitting home turns out to be slower than not just South Korea’s, but even Ohio’s?

The biggest obstacle to the local response has been the scarcity of testing, thanks to the botched federal response. But in a region where leaders have not been shy about declaring sanctuary cities in defiance of Washington edicts, did it have to take so long for the state and its hospitals to chart their own testing course?

Without uniform leadership, the rest of us had to spend the critical first week or two fumbling around, making a blur of game-day decisions, every single day. Superintendents were asked to decide, on their own, whether to keep schools open, as if a public health emergency should be treated like a municipal calculation based on the availability of snowplows.

TUESDAY, MARCH 17 — Liam Caracciolo, 7, rides his bicycle on the sidewalk along Hanover Street in the North End.
TUESDAY, MARCH 17 — Liam Caracciolo, 7, rides his bicycle on the sidewalk along Hanover Street in the North End. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Like most of you, I found myself ping-ponging from one improvised risk analysis to another, like some kind of untrained actuary. Should I go into the office — and, if so, should I take the T? Should I pressure my 82-year-old mom to stop going to daily Mass? Should I lean on my oldest daughter to back out of a college trip to Greece? How about my homebound youngest daughter who just wants to hang out at a friend’s house? How much of an additional risk would that pose? She was just in school with them yesterday.

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The right answers seemed to change by the day. Meanwhile, our inboxes became clogged with e-mails from every bank and dry cleaner and plumbing supply company we’ve dealt with in the past seven years, assuring us of all the precautions they had implemented. What a relief.

A year and a half ago, I marinated in the archives so I could tell the 100th anniversary story of how the 1918 flu outbreak devastated Boston, before going on to become the deadliest pandemic in modern history. It felt so distant.

It doesn’t feel distant any longer.

The other night at dinner, my youngest daughter, a ninth-grader, said, “I need to start journaling, so I can be a primary source in the future.” As a journalist, I love her embrace of history and appreciation for sourcing. As her father, I hope to God her journal entries turn out incredibly boring.

On the third Tuesday night in March, an unusually somber Saint Patrick’s Day, my Brandeis class met again, this time using Zoom videoconferencing. We talked about where everyone’s heads were at, especially the seniors whose expectation of a fun-filled wind-down to graduation had turned into a mad dash of packing and hug-free goodbyes. We talked about how someone needed to coin a word to describe the inevitable moment during video meetings where participants prattle on without realizing their microphone is on mute.

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Most of the students had patched themselves in from home, though two were still on campus, for a few more days. I gave special thanks to the student who had warned us all back in January about the seriousness of the threat. She’ll make a great journalist. She told us her grandparents were fine now and she was preparing to fly home to China. Things seem more in control there.


Neil Swidey is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail him at neil.swidey@globe.com or follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.