Here’s my most recent monthly travel column, as it was published at 3QuarksDaily.com:
On The Road: Pandemic Scorecard
POSTED ON SUNDAY, APR 25, 2021 6:14PM BY BILL MURRAY
By Bill Murray
They call it the Sargasso, this grass. It is the bane of Belize, an invasive floating weed that keeps pitchforks flailing along the waterfront. The Sargasso Sea, we know where that is. But this grass is from Brazil, Réné says. It’s a new challenge from a new place. It isn’t challenge enough just to weather a pandemic, he says. Now there’s this, too.
The hotel receptionist tries to convince a lady on the phone the grass isn’t so bad here. It’s worse other places, he suggests carefully, not to cast aspersions. Réné, a snorkel boat pilot, might wonder where as he tends his Honda outboards like a Mekong longtail runner clearing water hyacinth.
Réné has a less sales brochure-oriented assessment: we’ve done this to ourselves. This nasty bit of seaweed is from Brazil, human caused, product of fertilizer, effluent from the Amazon. Look at this, he scoops a random handful into the boat. These are seeds, it breeds right here just floating on the water.
Welcome to other people’s problems.
We just returned from our first trip abroad in 14 months. Belize is feeling the strain of the lack-of-tourism, as I sense they do most things, gently. The smiles are there. No people could be looser, more easy-going, nicer, and it’s just as pretty as you hoped; Belize, and its gracious people, are lovely.
Pandemic strain isn’t specific to Belize, of course. It has just been a long, weird year and everybody’s wary – not so much of each other but just of the whole patience-pulverizing persistence of the virus.
One benefit of quarantining for a year inside your own enclosed small space is that you make your own rules. For much of these last fourteen months we could hear others around our apartment, people with their own approach to quarantine involving, say, twenty friends, but we kept a closed regime.
Finally vaccinated and eager to go, the first thing we realized at the airport was, forget about your closed regime. Some people are just going to be ornery and you can not stop them. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport felt nearly normal, busy, shops open and people, as many as you’d figure, damn them, just misbehaving. Yes, I want the airport back to normal. No, not with misbehaving people.
Some Americans are clearly never going to respect distance or wear masks, exhibiting a kind of “go ahead and challenge me” belligerence. After a year of only seeing that on TV, the minute you find that it looms between you and your destination, that people out there are loud, boisterous and mask free, that’s disappointing. So not a lot of places want Americans right now because some of us don’t acquit ourselves well when we arrive.
After a year of ennui in sweatpants, now that the vaccinated can enjoy an outdoor meal with sorely-missed old, true friends, what scares me is that, even as the world has changed in radical ways out there, in here, among close friends, we’re stuck where we were a year ago. Same stories we’ve already told, no new ground.
I read this as clarion cause to get back out there and gather some new experiences. Old friends who are still friends after a year will remain friends for a while longer yet. Suppose we all go collect a few new stories to share with them.
So where might we go?
The European Union’s baffling, childlike helplessness with vaccine procurement and administration seems to have cost Europe another summer. With Europe failing, shall we pin our hopes on Asia in the fall?
Those would seem to be tenuous hopes. You can read any day about worrying new outbreaks in Thailand and Cambodia, and the inexplicably slow rollout of vaccines in formerly exemplary South Korea, Australia and, of course, Japan, where no one is welcome for the Olympics.
Not going to China. If there is a country in this world more politically geared to inject its citizenry with dicey drugs than China is, I don’t know of one. China exports more of its 50/50 Sinovac vaccine than it vaccinates its citizenry with, and that tells you all you need to know about its efficacy. Brazil, a major beneficiary of China’s benevolence, is a case in point and a sad example. South America in general is just toast, virus-fried. Not going there. Even Canada, Jeez, Canada is shut down.
So we climbed onto Delta Airlines for a short flight to Belize, which, as I say, was lovely. Outsmarting ourselves, we bought tickets up front. We sought to bypass the entire middle-seat question but so many others had the same idea that while our cabin was full, entire rows in the back stayed empty.
Up front they dispatched bright orange boxes meant to keep contact to a minimum, shrink wrapped packages suggesting more than they had to offer, cheerfully labelled BISTRO. The contents? I just have to share:
• Partners brand “slow-baked” crackers with olive oil and sea salt, with “honest ingredients” and a homey quote on the back from Cara Figgins, President. Net weight 0.75 oz.
• Boulder Canyon brand ® Classic Sea Salt, Classic Cut, Kettle Cooked, Gluten Free potato chips: “Our path took us to the great outdoors.”
• Kind brand Cranberry almond bar, “#1 ingredient heart health almonds,” 1.4 oz.
• One Old Wisconsin brand beef snack stick, 0.5 oz (Wait a minute: you can not dress up a SlimJim as anything else, especially in the south.)
• Albanese brand ULTIMATE Gummi Bears with natural flavors and “colors from real fruits and vegetables,” net weight 0.75 oz.
• Four Tic Tacs wrapped in plastic .07 oz net weight.
Ultimate Gummy bears, Slim Jims and plastic wrapped Tic Tacs. Delta welcomes you back to the air.
Civilization’s veneer stretched so thin in 2010 you could see through it. Through it, Americans saw unrelenting gun violence, our ugly, persistent racial divide and one political party’s flirtation with nihilism. But people also saw cleaner air, clearer waters in Venetian canals, and citizens of Delhi could even see the Himalayas. Perhaps the virus can help the planet self-correct a little. In this respect viruses are above the human pay grade.
Through that stretched veneer you could discern a pull-up-the-drawbridge sentiment early in the pandemic that thankfully didn’t last, but did put a marker down. In March last year the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford MP, warned people off heading to Scotland to self-isolate:
“I urge everyone to do the right thing; follow the government advice and please do not travel here. If these warnings are not heeded and people need to be stopped from travelling, then I am afraid that is what will have to happen. Those in camper vans please go home!”
Fannin County, Georgia officials did the same. March a year ago its sheriff’s administration posted to Facebook: ““I have received multiple inquiries wanting to know if people from Atlanta can come to their cabins. The answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT!!” Attempting to deny the right to use someone’s property is kind of shocking in our usual American context, especially in rights-loving rural Georgia.
Fannin County is around 100 miles north of Atlanta in the southern Appalachian mountains. My wife and I own a pretty little patch of creek in adjoining Union County. In the panic phase of the pandemic we considered (as everybody did) whether our last redoubt might be there. To reach it we’d have wanted to drive through Fannin County.
Georgia displays county names on its license plates and thereby gives our State Patrol, those guys with the handsome wide-rimmed hats, telltale clues as to whether any individual car might be not from around here, meaning from one of those damned metro Atlanta counties.
If pandemics will be part of the future, something to keep in mind for next time is how straightforward it would be to fundamentally fracture a real pillar of the US’s secular worship of property and wealth. It wouldn’t be the province of theorists in columns like these. It would simply, summarily, be done, by big brawny state troopers in impressive headgear.
And that’s the thing about pillars. They’re real strong and all, until they’re not.
We’ve learned the foundations of our societies aren’t as strong as we thought. In politics, ask Poles, Hungarians and Hong Kongers. In pandemics, add Brazilians and Indians.
A year ago we all made predictions, and some were better than others. A Naval War College scholar named James Holmes thought “stress … reinforces the society’s basic character. When trouble strikes, the society’s members reach for familiar ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. They respond in ways tested in, and seemingly verified by, past experience. Stress drives discourses about diplomacy and strategy toward extreme versions of these familiar ways, and action follows that trend.” Maybe.
I feared that once leaders saw how easy it was to rule by fiat, for example summarily ordering their publics off the streets, some might be less than willing to return to the status quo ante. It looks from here like that prediction may have only come true in Myanmar.
Many of us mapped what we wanted to happen into our predictions. I hoped that forward looking local leadership would press for change, and the mayors of Paris, Madrid and Milan did well by doing good with their bicycle lanes. Tel Aviv, Portland, Minneapolis, Calgary and other cities closed streets to encourage walking. Those changes may have come about because they were achievable.
Others predicted the pandemic would usher in grand, fundamental change, like Justin E. H. Smith in It’s All Just Beginning, argued that since the virus is presumed to have originated in a Wuhan wet market, the time of “wanton delectation” should end. Some things that seemed at least plausible and definitely desirable just didn’t happen. For one, a Digital Congress. Ethan Zuckerman wrote
“this is a great time for congresspeople to return to their districts and start the process of virtual legislating—permanently. Not only is this move medically necessary at the moment, but it has ancillary benefits. Lawmakers will be closer to the voters they represent and more likely to be sensitive to local perspectives and issues.”
What a great, and hopeless, idea, that feeders would remove themselves from the trough. Confirming a maxim: entrenched interests tend to remain entrenched.
Some opinion now fashions us as tender emergent post-pandemic shoots, urging that we not become the boorish rubes we were before. With some forethought, a little planning, maybe some well-meant community meetings, we can all become humble and hygienic, engaging and empathetic and kind to animals. We’ll have to see about that. No harm in aiming high, I guess.
Various people in random places came out ahead:
• The people of Nairobi, where Governor Mike Sonko included Hennessy cognac in his Coronavirus Care Packages, calling it Throat Sanitizer. “Hennessy would like to stress that the consumption of our brand or any other alcoholic beverage does not protect against the virus,” French-based Hennessy scolded.
• The United States, where good fortune somehow seems to come naturally in spite of ourselves. It turns out that even in our national obnoxiousness those who want to are getting vaccinated way ahead of the rest of the world. Never would have believed it.
• Two other winners: Hands, and dogs. Neither ever had as much attention as they did in 2020.