The following is a diary of the first three months of 2020. During that time, the coronavirus pandemic overtook all our attention. I abandoned my nascent climate activism to homeschool my children under quarantine, even as I understood that the two crises—climate change and Covid-19—weren’t in competition. The only action I could maintain was writing down what people in my network said about what they were losing, or stood to lose, from both threats.
Climate grief and coronavirus grief feel strikingly parallel. The solutions to both problems rely on collective action and political will. In both cases, and for the same insidious reasons, the poor suffer more. In the United States, our efforts on both fronts were disabled by a reigning power that denied science and valued individual liberty over the common good. In New York City, where I live, at “the epicenter” of America’s outbreak, the virus disproportionately attacked Black and brown low-income communities already plagued by environmental health hazards. The zip codes, like mine, with the worst air pollution have also had the highest coronavirus case counts and fatalities. Many of the voices that make up this chorus come from these communities and must be foregrounded in the climate conversation that has traditionally marginalized us. It was my ambition, in gathering our voices, to suggest that the world is as interconnected as it is unjust.
“Happy New Year from Stone Town, Zanzibar,” said Centime, “a place of ghosts, if any exists.” Rereading the canon of Black studies, she realized that, when taking field notes, the main question should be this: “How do you live with displacement?”
“I farewelled my beautiful garden a few weeks ago. I’ve hung on and hung on but there just isn’t the water. Farewell herb tea garden, veggies, wildflowers and carefully curated collection. All those dreams …” mourned Pen, in Queensland.
A week after Trever said the sea was creeping toward the door of the house in Punaluu, Oahu, where he’d learned to fish as a boy, his family decided to sell the house, because the road of the shoreline the house sat upon collapsed into the ocean.
“The weather we’re getting today in NYC is a reflection of how we treat the world: Trash,” said Yahdon, from Brooklyn, where it reached sixty-six degrees during the second week of January.
Over chile rellenos at Posada Tepozteco, Tim complained of the air quality in Mexico City, where he lives. “The weather has become a bell jar,” he put it.
“It’s about leaving something that will outlast us, after the people in the archive are gone, after the archivist is gone, after the world changes,” said Laura, who spent four years archiving Radio Haiti after surviving the earthquake, and is drawn, these days, to reading post-apocalyptic literature.
“Preserving this collection assumes there will be a future; that someone will be alive to remember.” What Laura remembers when she regained consciousness, trapped in the rubble with the corpse of her landlady, was the singing.
Geronimo’s third grade curriculum at Dos Puentes Elementary was finally starting to confront the issue. He looked up from his reading homework on the endangerment of the monarch: “A Billion Butterflies Have Vanished.”
“Why aren’t people listening?” he demanded. “Will humans die, too?”
“We have to fight for butterflies and people,” I told him. “That’s why we gave you a warrior’s name.”
“You know there’s something really wrong when writers join a group,” joked Elliott, at the second Writers Rebel meeting. Snacking on Petit Écolier cookies, we imagined new direct action tactics to protest extinction that didn’t feel grand enough, yet were better than nothing.
Andrew, the joyous troublemaker who edited the book on creative campaigns for social change, said that common pitfalls of fledgling climate activist groups like ours included unspecific aims and ranks that are too white. Calling the problem a problem was not the same as solving it, I thought.
Sunday was so windy that Officer J. politely demanded that the fifty white rebels who’d gathered to march on the pedestrian path across the George Washington Bridge break the wooden handles off their hand-painted signs, lest they fly into traffic and shatter a windshield.
“Zero emissions!” yelled a cyclist in support as the protesters walked over the bridge alongside the suicide net. They were spaced ten feet apart so that the cars entering New York City could read their signs:
tell the truth
Leonard said he regretted having to cancel his trip from California to China because of the virus. At the same time, health and infectious disease experts were still sounding the alarm they’d been sounding about climate change making the risk of other novel afflictions much more explosive.
Victor and I counted eight people wearing surgical masks on the subway platform at 125th Street while waiting for the A train to carry us back home after date night at Maison Harlem.
Eneida said over pizza on movie night at our place that her mother, who has dementia, kept getting lost in the Bronx trying to find the airport. She wished to fly back home to Puerto Rico, though two and a half years after Hurricane Maria, her abandoned house in Cabo Rojo had been overrun by termites.
Sujatha wrote in shock from Sydney about the fallout of the bushfires, the evacuation of her cousins from the outskirts of the city, and the loss of her friend’s farm, where all the animals burned to death.
“The scale of the loss is incomprehensible,” she said. “We’ve spent much of the summer indoors with our air filter on. Climate change has never felt this close.”
“Have you noticed your planet burning lately? Did you know that faith traditions and science both say that we need to dump fossil fuels? Come and find out more with your Congressman, Adriano Espaillat, and local faith leaders,” began the invitation in my inbox. I sent an RSVP: Yes.
Ryan said it was t-shirt weather again in Antarctica, the temperature on Seymour Island recently reached sixty-nine degrees.
“Bureaucracies are designed to tell you no,” said our congressman, the first to speak at the Faith Forum on the Green New Deal. He felt confident that once the resolution became legislation, the deal would pass the House, but not the Senate.
“My eight- and ten-year-old kids are living in a world that’s a degree warmer than when my mother was a child,” said Allegra, born a Southern Baptist in Midland, Texas; now a NASA scientist who spoke after the congressman.
Five-hundred-year storms have become twenty-five-year storms, Allegra said, recalling the destruction of the Inwood Hill Nature Center by an almost ten-foot storm surge during Hurricane Sandy. She used to take her kids there when they were small.
“The last time Earth was as hot as today, seas were thirty feet higher.”
Rivka, a Talmud teacher and founder of the neighborhood Sunrise Movement chapter, spoke next, sharing the story of the firstborn of Egypt who waged a war against their parents for refusing to free the Israelites, thus risking their firstborns’ lives.
“We’re talking about perversion of morality,” said Rivka, making an analogy to the present moment. “We’re being begged by our children to save their lives. Failing to meet that responsibility should revolt us. They did not ask us to be born.”
Brother Anthony, a Franciscan monk, believes, “We resort to tyranny and exploitation and deal death to other peoples and to the earth so that we can hold on to our way of life and hold on to our stuff. This is futility, a useless clinging. I advocate for a re-enchantment with life and creation.”
“Is it in the flood plain if it’s in the gray area, or the blue?” asked Victor. We’d visited a Bronx property at an open house, and he was confused about where it fell on the Sea Level Rise Map, projected for the 2050s five-hundred-year floodplain, that Allegra had shared the night before.
“If I’m understanding correctly, the house is a hair outside of the gray floodplain zone,” said Victor, studying the map on the screen of his phone. “But truly just a hair.”
“You can’t find wood this strong anymore,” said Derek, the home inspector, caressing the beams in the basement of the house that may sit in a future flood plain. “They cut down all the trees with this many rings a long time ago. They don’t exist anymore.”
At the climate storytelling workshop, Adam, an atmospheric scientist, admitted bedevilment by language when asked by media to attribute particular hurricanes to climate change. Like Spock, he cannot lie, and as a result, sounds craven. “Wimpy” was the word he admitted to.
“Why can’t scientists say the simplest thing?” Emily, a journalist, demanded to know why Adam could not also speak about extreme weather as a citizen, as a parent, as a person admitting to fear. “Why aren’t you more stark?”
“I don’t have an answer,” Adam deflected. He worried that words like “crisis” and “emergency,” when paired with talk of climate, would lead to authoritarian government action.
“Oh, you can’t trust those flood maps,” Meera warned over the squash soup I’d made for lunch after I mentioned the house we’d fallen in love with. “If the city was truly honest about the properties at risk, we’d have another mortgage crisis on our hands.”
“Headquarters hasn’t told us anything yet about the bag ban,” said Jason, the sales associate at Party City, where I bought trinkets to fill the goodie bags for our son’s seventh birthday party. He corralled a dozen helium-filled balloons into a giant plastic bag.
“Just finished my apocalypse shopping,” said Honorée, whose stockpile included dried fruit and nuts, ground coffee, plant milk, popcorn, olive oil, vegan sausages, unsweetened peanut butter, seventeen gallons of water, and two dozen eggs. “Better safe than sorry.”
“Maybe God is tryna tell us something?” suggested TaRessa, in Atlanta, after satellite space images showed a drastic drop in Chinese air pollution after the novel coronavirus shut down factories there.
“I feel scared,” said the woman waiting across from us at gate D10 in LaGuardia airport, slightly embarrassed when she caught me watching her wiping down the armrests and the seat of her chair with Lysol. The airport was nearly empty.
“We are all scared,” Harouna said, at the empty Pain Quotidien on 44th Street. Other servers were hastily removing tables and chairs, having just been ordered by corporate to thin the density and decrease the risk.
Over drinks at the Garrison on Wednesday night, Ayana, who had a painfully sore throat, said she was scared about how to get to her aged mother in Philadelphia in the event of a lockdown, as well as for her mother’s health.
Dr. Stephen, an Upper West Side dentist, predicted that when they finally closed the public schools in NYC, the looting and chaos would begin. I wanted to argue, but he was drilling into my tooth.
The day before the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic, Paisley, the poet laureate of Utah, said she seriously did not understand anything anymore. “Every day reading the news, it’s like my whole life has prepared me for nothing.”
“My middle of the night revelation was that it is a privilege in this country to say you actually have Coronavirus cuz that means u have access to a test that confirmed it. U have the means to get one, wealthy, and or connected,” wrote my neighbor Sheila, a diehard Prince fan.
“All the rest of us who have any of the whole range of symptoms that are basic to a cold or allergies or flu cannot really know what it is cuz we don’t have the connections of this devil ass administration and their rich friends,” Sheila fumed.
“Truly, fuck this no-universal-healthcare-having country right now,” she said, right before Trump declared a national emergency—one in which his administration claimed not everyone needed to be tested. “Ese diablo cabrón mentiroso jamás ha sido mi presidente.”
“Is Grandma going to die from coronavirus?” asked Ben, our seven-year-old, who was helping me mix the filling for a sweet potato pie while Victor tried to reach his mother in the ER.
Miranda said she was pulling her kids out of school because she felt it was the ethical thing to do.
“No one knows what’ll happen over the coming weeks in Lagos, Nairobi, Karachi, or Kolkata. What’s certain is that rich countries and rich classes will focus on saving themselves to the exclusion of international solidarity and medical aid,” said Centime, coughing over mint tea with honey. Her breast cancer was back, and had spread to her spine and lungs.
While ER doctors in Northern Italy were warning us in the States to change our behavior to flatten the curve of contagion, Paolo said the social isolation in Turin was making his aged parents lose their minds.
In Bennett Park, Sula’s mom, a NYC public school teacher who sat a social distance on the opposite side of the bench from me, while our children played soccer, said that she and her colleagues were desperate for the schools to close.
In Fort Tryon Park this afternoon, Jake’s mom angered him by snatching away his walkie-talkies before he could share them with his friend, because she feared spreading germs.
The other Ben reported from lockdown in Barcelona “that for the last two nights the entire city has gone out onto their apartment balconies at the same time to applaud for healthcare workers and declare their own vitality and solidarity and stubborn joy.”
Leaving the building to stockpile groceries and goods with his anxious wife and toddler, my neighbor Emmanuel, an NYC tour guide, said he was laid off on Friday and planned to apply for unemployment benefits.
“I knew this was coming but I thought we had more time,” I said to Victor when the mayor announced school closures.
“Anyone who would like a grab-and-go breakfast may pick it up at 7:45 and lunch at 11:00,” said Principal Tori of Dos Puentes Elementary School, via robocall. The schools were provisionally scheduled to reopen April 20. “There is food for anyone who needs it,” she stressed, her voice breaking.
“When is the Coronavirus going to go away?” asked Ben, at bedtime. “Is it possible that it will never go away?”
“What do you do with a national emergency that requires community action, in a country run by white people who not only do not believe in community, but have spent all of history trying to destroy yours?” pondered Hafizah, en route back to Brooklyn from L.A.
“Watching the spread of this virus has sort of been like getting fitted for new glasses—you start to see a bunch of things more clearly and catch sight of previously overlooked beauty while also recognizing the ugliness in some of what formerly impressed you,” observed Garnette, in Charlottesville, Virginia, who was having difficulty taking deep breaths.
Ayana’s octogenarian mother said she had seen some things in her lifetime and knew that in times of chaos, like this, we mourn what we’re losing, dwell on loss, and lack the imagination to see that what we’re losing may be replaced by something better.
Nelly drove home down the Taconic between “a waning gibbous moon to my right, an eggy sunrise to my left, with Langston Hughes’s I Wonder as I Wander, him wandering through Haiti, Cuba, the South, Russia, me wondering how these times will change time, how this time we might change.”
“Shelter in place?!” cried Alicia, an incredulous elder. “How will they enforce it? This is New York. Folks won’t listen. We’re not in a prison or a concentration camp. I’ll be damned if anybody tells me I can have a visitor or not. Unless you’re paying my mortgage, don’t you dare.”
Katherine visited her parents in New Orleans, where the Black poor were stranded in Katrina, and stood six feet away in the driveway. “My son tried to hug my mom. When we reminded him he couldn’t, she went inside and came back out with one of those long, grabber tool things at the end of which was a piece of paper on which she’d written ‘hug, hug, hug.’”
Briallen, who previously had a large tract of intestines removed, posted a picture of the votive candles in jars arranged in her windowsill. “I shat myself while praying this morning,” she said, before heading to a pharmacy in Elmhurst, Queens, to stock up on Depends.
Looking at the red spread of the virus rendered across the world map, Damali, from Uganda, said she was relieved for once that Africa wasn’t the seat of calamity.
The other Adam, who works in fundraising for NY Presbyterian Hospital, said a rich banker donor contacted him to ask for the “special” number to call for testing, and that the hospital was looking at the former quarantine islands around Manhattan as pandemic real estate.
“God has given us to one another so we can care for one another,” wrote Pastor John—with whom I last spoke in February at his office in Cornerstone Church where, over weak coffee, he prayed for me in my “bewilderment” about the climate crisis—and who is now quarantined with the virus.
“Fear and panic do not lend themselves to an empowering homebirth,” cautioned Kimm, our former midwife, regarding increased interest in homebirth among pregnant women anxious about going into the hospital during the pandemic.
Emmanuel’s wife, Rebecca, a juvenile defense attorney, said she argued her client’s case over the phone instead of going to court.
Tony evacuated the city on Friday amidst attacks against fellow Asians for causing the so-called “Chinese virus.”
“I know many of us would love to be lied to. To be reassured ‘this will be over soon.’ That ‘things won’t be different.’ But the truth is, things have already changed—and will never be the same,” said Yahdon.
“If anyone can spare N95 masks for our birth team so we can use them for attending births and keeping ourselves virus-free, we and the families we care for would really appreciate it,” said Kimm.
“Preparing for the days to come to keep the family safe,” said Imani, in Brooklyn, who’d sewn fashionable handmade Ghanaian wax-print face masks.
“Eventually, does the whole world go away?” asked Ben, while watching Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro after a morning of home school. “Like if everyone dies?”
“Yes, viruses spread very quickly in NYC, clearly faster than anywhere else in the U.S. But so do arts, trends, ideas, passions, cuisines, and cultures. If you could map those things, they would look exactly like these pandemic maps, but they would be pandemonium maps,” said Adam. “And that is why I love living here, and why I consider myself so lucky to make a life with my family here. I love New York.”
“Seems like almost overnight the alienating quiet of these Brooklyn streets has been replaced with basically nonstop sirens,” said Mik.
“See you on the other side, brother,” said Victor to our neighbor, the other, other Ben, who gifted us with a carton of eggs and asked us to take in his mail, before fleeing the city with his wife and two kids. “Stay strong.”
“What’s going on?” asked an alarmed stranger from his parked car across the street on Friday at 7:00 p.m. We were clapping, hooting, and hollering with full lungs from our front stoop, along with the rest of NYC, for the essential workers on the front.
On Saturday, Amy from Apt. 5, single mother of twins, gave me her keys and said we were welcome to eat what was left in the fridge. Before nightfall, she fled the city for Connecticut in a rental car, afraid of the president’s threat to close Tristate borders.
Pastor John said, “The weirdest symptom has to be how it wipes out your sense of smell. Drinking coffee now. It’s black, but I can’t get a whiff of its scent. I’ve had it for almost ten days. Can’t even smell the rain.”
“You could run from Katrina. You can’t run from this,” said Maurice, in New Orleans, where Mardi Gras may have served as an amplifying petri dish for the virus. Going-home ceremonies with second lines to send off the dead are now banned.
“So many folks are looking forward to summer as a break from Covid-19,” said Genevieve, who felt economic recovery must be centered on decarbonization. “But I’m terrified the virus won’t have abated and we’ll also be faced with the heat waves, fires, and storms that now fill the months July to October.”
“Yeah, this is how it’s usually done with Black bodies considered expendable. Black lives worthless except in service to commerce or science,” TaRessa said. On live TV, two top French doctors had recommended testing coronavirus vaccines on poor Africans.
Centime, who was symptomatic and feeling weak with a collapsed lung, imagined the virus as a symptom of our growing consciousness of planetary ill. “We need to stop fucking around with theory and say that capitalism, with its industrial body and crown of finance, is sovereign; carbon emissions are the sovereign breathing; ‘make work’ and ‘let buy’ must be annihilated; there is no survival while the sovereign lives,” she said.
It seemed preposterous to refer to her as “dying,” while she was still alive.