This week has brought back two of my most enduring memories of 9/11 and the immediate aftermath.
The first is of sitting in a blood bank in Boca Raton, Florida. I’d waited most of the afternoon to even get inside; the line was so long, they took my name and number and told me to go home for a few hours. The rest of us there had filled out our forms and were eating pizza and making hushed and awkward small talk; one older woman was reminiscing about dining at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the North Tower, suddenly gone. There were so many volunteer blood donors that they were turning people away; I think by that point, people on the ground in New York were starting to realize that they wouldn’t be needing blood after all. And then, a commotion at the front desk, an angry old man who had come in demanding to give blood. It was his right! He berated the nurse on duty for a while, even after she explained that there would be a need for blood later, just not at that particular moment. I remember thinking that this was one of the most Florida things I had ever seen—belligerent old men who were rude to service workers were quite common there, but yelling about blood was something new—and also a bit smug that I had gotten in and that there was something I could do to help.
The second is from a week or so later, after the mail had started running again. There was a copy of Entertainment Weekly in my mailbox. It had clearly been printed before September 11 because the cover was the fall TV preview featuring Judd Apatow’s new show Undeclared, which I had very much been looking forward to since I had loved Freaks And Geeks so much. It was also the first piece of media I’d seen in days that didn’t mention the 9/11 attacks. I have never been so delighted to read a magazine in my life. Quite honestly, it did a lot more to lift my spirits than the National Day of Prayer. Previously, I think I had mostly considered myself a realist who liked to face facts, the more dire the better, but that day I discovered the appeal of pure escapism.
I’m thinking about all this now because this is the first time since then that we’ve had such a crisis of national proportions and it brings a lot of that confusion and uncertainty back. I want to help: I’m following doctors’ orders, socially isolated in my apartment, washing my hands regularly, staying far away from people I encounter on the street when I go out for a run or to walk my dog. I haven’t been hoarding food, hand sanitizer, or toilet paper. I check up on my mom and other relatives and friends. I’ve signed up for my city’s mutual aid brigade, but no one has called on me for anything yet. Besides that, I’m not sure what else I should be doing, but I want to do something. I want to be one of the helpers, not one of the people who stood by and did nothing! I’m not as belligerent as the man at the blood bank, but I understand his frustration now.
I’m lucky: I have a job that allows me to work from home. Other people are dealing with containing the virus and finding a vaccine and taking care of people who are sick and making sure everyone has food and medicine and that the trains run on time. The one thing I can do besides not bringing my possibly-contaminated self near anybody is to share by good fortune by donating money. And I can help out local restaurants—now closed in Illinois, where I live—by ordering takeout. Many chefs, restaurant owners, and food writers are sure that the entire restaurant industry is fucked unless the government intervenes. But would ordering food and supporting a restaurant compromise the health of a line cook or a delivery driver and maybe myself?
Amanda Mull has written an essay for The Atlantic that examines the ethics of ordering takeout. She talks to epidemiologists, ethicists, and philosophers. She learns that it’s most likely safe to eat the food:
Even if the person preparing it is sick, [Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University] told me via email, “cooked foods are unlikely to be a concern unless they get contaminated after cooking.” He granted that “a salad, if someone sneezes on it, might possibly be some risk,” but as long as the food is handled properly, he said, “there should be very little risk.”
Morse’s assertion has been corroborated by a group of experts convened by the French health and safety agency ANSES, who claim that the COVID-19 virus can’t be transmitted by the digestive tract and that four minutes of heating at 63 degrees Celsius (approximately 145 degrees Fahrenheit) “reduces contamination of a food product by a factor of 1,000.”
But what about the safety of delivery drivers? Todd May, a philosophy professor at Clemson University, suggests that people ordering food take into consideration whether the delivery person will be traveling alone or fighting for groceries in a crowded store and if their business will support a local restaurant or a large third-party service. In other words, is your money directly supporting someone’s ability to pay rent and buy groceries?
You could, of course, keep buying groceries and cooking at them at home. But grocery store workers interact with many more people than delivery drivers do, and so they face a higher risk of infection. They also get paid hourly wages and most likely, unless their employer is unusually generous, need to keep working to get a paycheck. How do you best protect them?
“We’re so connected to each other and reliant on people working in the background, but we don’t even see who keeps the shelves restocked, or who brings things” to us, [Steven Benko, a professor of religious and ethical studies at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina] says. “People only become visible to us in the perception that they could harm us, as opposed to becoming visible to us in the fact that they’re taking a risk to their health by being helpful to us.”’
It’s a lot to think about. But we have a lot of time to think now. Maybe that’s what’s making it so hard, because we’re so much more used to doing. But as Mull and Benko point out, this pandemic has shown us very starkly how a society functions, and how the actions of an individual affect the whole organism. So think about all this. And then maybe read the trashiest book or watch the stupidest thing on TV you can find.