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The beauty of COVID-19 is how shiny clean everybody looks since the panic set in. I’m in New York City this week and the stores are completely sold out of hand sanitizer, Hi-Lex, alcohol, antibacterial wipes, every kind of cleaner, and when you get on the subway at rush hour and stand within six inches of four different people, they smell nice, like a doctor’s office. They try not to talk or even exhale. They avoid eye contact lest the virus be spread visually. Some people wear face masks, which are useful for preventing them from picking their noses, which, once you’ve touched a deadly railing, could implant the virus in your body and in a week or two you’d be in a TB sanitarium on a desert island, tended by nurses in hazmat suits. If someone on the train coughs, everyone disembarks at the next stop and wipes their face and, as an extra precaution, swigs a little mouthwash or maybe vodka. Eighty-proof vodka is a proven sanitizer. The incidence of COVID-19 among bums at the Union Gospel Mission is extremely low. Gin does not work as well, so ad agency execs are surely at risk. As for Corona beer, sales are way down because, as your mother probably said, You Never Know.


If someone on the train coughs, everyone disembarks at the next stop and wipes their face and, as an extra precaution, swigs a little mouthwash or maybe vodka.

I am old enough to remember the polio scares of the early Fifties when we stayed away from beaches and public pools and didn’t go to movie theaters. I was brought up fundamentalist so we didn’t go to movies anyway, and thus felt that God was protecting us and had sent the polio as a warning to Catholics and Episcopalians. So we avoided them, which we would’ve done anyway. To us righteous, polio was not that scary. Nobody in my family got it. A girl named Shirley did and she came from a family that drank and took the Lord’s name in vain. Case closed.

What spooked the stock market last week was not only the virus but also the spectacle of the Leader of the Free World announcing that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. He looked like a sixth-grader giving a science report who had not bothered to read the textbook. This was slightly terrifying. A reality TV star in charge of national intelligence. The gentleman is an ace at twittering but when he says more than the 280-character limit he becomes vacuous and blathery. His strong suit is insult and ridicule — reassurance is alien to him, he’s a New Yorker, when a New Yorker hears tones of reassurance, it means “Put the pen back in your pocket, don’t sign the paper” — so the assignment has been passed to his mannequin friend Mr. Pence who is good at silence, which is better than blather at this point.

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At a time of political unreality, it feels good to have something real to worry about, even if it’s mostly imaginary, and people have latched onto COVID-19. It has a nice ring to it and the OVID part makes it sound classy, poetic. People are talking about canceling trips, staying indoors, restricting contact with others, and considering their doomsday options, perhaps a houseboat on Lake Superior, maybe the Mojave desert. It’s exciting, having a possible black plague on the horizon. It takes your mind off the election.

My dear wife, who caught germophobia from her mother, has made our kitchen and bathrooms so clean you could eat off the counters, if we were eating, which we’re not since we heard that there are 19 foods that carry the virus and nobody knows which 19. She has turned the temperature of the dishwasher up to where it melts plastic and so our mixing bowls have become platters. Our bedsheets have been boiled so that a king-sized sheet now only fits a narrow cot. My jeans are two sizes smaller so I am wearing PJs. We are using motorized brushes in the shower and our skin is rubbed raw. Our only intimacy is an occasional elbow bump.

Everyone is watching the situation closely. Republicans believe the epidemic will hit big cities hardest, keeping Democratic voters home in the fall. Democrats believe it will knock the Dow Jones down to where Republicans are disheartened. As for me, I think the Leader is inhaling so much hand sanitizer that he doesn’t know a Corona from a White Owl or an El Rey del Mundo. What provision does the Constitution make for ditziness? It’s not a High Crime or Misdemeanor but isn’t this guy supposed to have helpers around?


Garrison Keillor

Republished from Prairie Home Productions with permission.