Postcard: Life in Washington at a time of coronavirus

From how and where people go to how politics is infecting the debate, the spread of Covid-19 is changing life in America's capital

SEATTLE, WA - MARCH 03: Tyler Goodwin, a utility service worker for King County Metro, deep cleans a metro bus as part of its usual cleaning routine at the King County Metro Atlantic/Central operating base on March 3, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. Buses are deep cleaned every 30 days but later today Metro plans to ramp up their efforts to super clean buses to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 outbreak.   Karen Ducey/Getty Images/AFP

“No masks ... we don’t know if or when a new order will come.”

This has been the generic response from more than 20 pharmacies and hardware stores I visited in the last two weeks looking for anti-viral mask ahead of an international trip.

There have been no reported cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Washington yet the US capital is very much operating under modified social and shopping rules to cope with the new reality.

Shelves, where the masks are usually stacked, have been emptied, and even hand sanitiser is running short.

Yoga and Zumba classes all of a sudden feel much less crowded and public transportation is more spacious. I dared to cough on a recent bus ride, and it was enough to be subjected to stares and suspicious looks from passengers. I walked on the way back.

TOPSHOT - US Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a COVID-19 response briefing at the White House March 3, 2020, in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski

At George Washington University where I teach a class, extra hand-sanitising stations have been installed, extra wipes at the food court and more people can be spotted wearing anti-viral masks.

But perhaps the most evident change is in social interactions. Shoulder bumps and shoe shakes are now forms of greeting among some friends – if we mark a greeting at all. Meetings with diplomats and officials to discuss non-coronavirus topics end up almost always discussing coronavirus. Is it really that bad? Who is hiding their numbers? How many conspiracy theories are out there?

Speaking of conspiracy theories, the coronavirus has become very much part of the partisan bickering between Republicans and Democrats and a driver of disinformation campaign. At a rally last week, President Donald Trump called the panic about the virus and criticism of his administration “a hoax” promoted by Democrats.

Pro-Trump Republicans such as right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh declared that, “there’s nothing unusual about the coronavirus”.

Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s former campaign chief, peddled a conspiracy theory on “biological labs that happen to be in Wuhan” and that allegedly created the virus.

Another pro-Trump group, America First Policies, blasted the World Health Organisation as an arm of communist China. The respected health body is, it said, “a case study of how the Chinese Communist Party infects supposedly apolitical institutions”.

On the left, the Associated Press found that Democratic presidential candidates are distorting the picture by claiming the government is ill-prepared to deal with the disease.

They “are describing the federal infectious-disease bureaucracy as rudderless and ill-prepared for the coronavirus threat because of budget cuts and ham-handed leadership" by President Trump.

“That’s a distorted picture. For starters, Trump hasn’t succeeded in cutting the budget,” it said.

The virus is even hurting sales of Corona beer, according to a recent poll issued by 5W Public Relations. It claimed that “38 per cent of beer-drinking Americans would not buy Corona under any circumstances now”.

But the company has called the poll “unfortunate”.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that recent misinformation about the impact of this virus on our business has been circulating in traditional and social media without further investigation or validation,” chief executive Bill Newlands said. “Our company does not have much exposure to international markets such as China that have been most impacted by this situation.”

A major Chinese food chain in the larger DC area is reporting a decline in business as people reconsider both where and what they eat or how to travel if any travel is necessary at all.

This is despite the fact that neither food in Chinese restaurants in America nor Corona beer have in any way been linked to the spread of coronavirus.

With the virus continuing to spread and with no vaccine in sight, this may become the new normal.

“Wash your hands and carry on”, read a flyer shared online by the Centre for Disease Control. For the time being at least, that may be all DC can do.