Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Friday, January 24

Jan 23: China locks down 20 additional cities, including Wuhan, with a combined population of over 35 million. All movement in Wuhan ceases. Bernie Sanders moves ahead of Joe Biden for the Democratic Party presidential nomination and ahead of Donald Trump in polls.

Jan 24: President Trump thanks Chinese President Xi for his transparency in tackling the virus. The Lancet publishes a story on a ten-year-old boy who is spreading the virus and has no symptoms. The first cases in Europe are reported. The Chinese Lunar New Year begins. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases, says this could turn into an epidemic but that the risk to Americans is low . Trump tweets, praising the Chinese handling of the virus. Ontario Public Health director tells Canadians they learned many lessons from 2003 SARS outbreak and not to panic.

In Hilary Mantel’s book, Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell’s wife dies of the “sweating sickness” in half a day in 1529.[1] He kisses her goodbye, noticing her damp forehead, goes to work, and by dinner time, she is dead. This is the lived reality of epidemics in human history. We are so sterilized, so sure of the power of modern science. Trump says, “It will all work out well.” He applauds the Chinese.[2] I hope it is not a false security. 

When myopic politicians speak of the environment as being a playground for human expansion and commerce, they seldom think of the ways that nature fights back. As we creep into areas where bats naturally live, we run the risk of picking up these dangerous viruses. This is what happened in Malaysia in 1999, when farmers built pig farms inside a bat-inhabited forest, which lead to the first human outbreak of the Nipah virus.[3]

The rumor that this new coronavirus crossed over to humans in China by eating snakes sounds suspicious, and perhaps a little racist.[4] Predictably, the internet echo chamber has blown up with bigoted comments full of disgust at imagined Chinese eating habits. Old prejudices die hard. What we eat is weird to everyone but us. Southerners from Louisiana might love to suck the brain juices out of a super spicy crawfish, then shovel in a bite of black-eyed peas smothered in cornbread and mayonnaise, and finally chase it all down with a gulp of Tamarind Jarritos.[5] According to the Hebrew scriptures, they ate bread baked over excrement and spent a good amount of time eating “manna,” which was probably the gum resin of desert shrubs.[6] Americans may be repulsed by the idea of eating bats, but it isn’t clear why. We eat all kinds of mammals that are both smart and prone to disease. In truth, revulsion at the eating habits of other communities says far more about one’s own sense of group exceptionalism than it does about some objective notion of what-not-to-eat. 

[1] Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall, First edition (Picador, 2010), 84.

[2] Donald Trump, Twitter post, January 24th, 3:18pm,


[4] Ewen Callaway and David Cyranoski, “Why Snakes Probably Aren’t Spreading the New China Virus,” Nature, January 23, 2020,

[5] Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

[6] Although somehow the manna miraculously only fell six days of the week and disappeared if you tried to store it. Sounds like God was trying to run a company town during the Exodus. BAS Library, “Strata: What’s for Dinner? Restaurants Put Manna on the Menu,” Biblical Archaeological Review 36, no. 5 (October 2010),

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Begley, Sharon. “DNA Sleuths Read the Coronavirus Genome, Tracing Its Origins.” STAT (blog), January 24, 2020.
CDC. “Second Travel-Related Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Detected in United States.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 24, 2020.
Cohen, Jon. “Chinese Researchers Reveal Draft Genome of Virus Implicated in Wuhan Pneumonia Outbreak.” Science | AAAS, January 11, 2020.
Szabo, Liz. “Something Far Deadlier Than The Wuhan Virus Lurks Near You.” Kaiser Health News (blog), January 24, 2020.
Zhu, Na, Dingyu Zhang, Wenling Wang, Xingwang Li, Bo Yang, Jingdong Song, Xiang Zhao, et al. “A Novel Coronavirus from Patients with Pneumonia in China, 2019.” New England Journal of Medicine 382, no. 8 (January 24, 2020): 727–33.
Paules, Catharine I., Hilary D. Marston, and Anthony S. Fauci. “Coronavirus Infections—More Than Just the Common Cold.” JAMA 323, no. 8 (January 23, 2020): 707.
Wilde, Adriaan H. de, Eric J. Snijder, Marjolein Kikkert, and Martijn J. van Hemert. “Host Factors in Coronavirus Replication.” In Roles of Host Gene and Non-Coding RNA Expression in Virus Infection, edited by Ralph A. Tripp and S. Mark Tompkins, 419:1–42. Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2017.
Wit, Emmie de, Neeltje van Doremalen, Darryl Falzarano, and Vincent J. Munster. “SARS and MERS: Recent Insights into Emerging Coronaviruses.” Nature Reviews Microbiology 14, no. 8 (August 2016): 523–34.
Song, Zhiqi, Yanfeng Xu, Linlin Bao, Ling Zhang, Pin Yu, Yajin Qu, Hua Zhu, Wenjie Zhao, Yunlin Han, and Chuan Qin. “From SARS to MERS, Thrusting Coronaviruses into the Spotlight.” Viruses 11, no. 1 (January 14, 2019): 59.
Yu, Ignatius T.S., Yuguo Li, Tze Wai Wong, Wilson Tam, Andy T. Chan, Joseph H.W. Lee, Dennis Y.C. Leung, and Tommy Ho. “Evidence of Airborne Transmission of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Virus.” New England Journal of Medicine 350, no. 17 (April 22, 2004): 1731–39.
Huang, Chaolin, Yeming Wang, Xingwang Li, Lili Ren, Jianping Zhao, Yi Hu, Li Zhang, et al. “Clinical Features of Patients Infected with 2019 Novel Coronavirus in Wuhan, China.” Lancet (London, England) 395, no. 10223 (January 24, 2020): 497–506.
Chan, Jasper Fuk-Woo, Shuofeng Yuan, Kin-Hang Kok, Kelvin Kai-Wang To, Hin Chu, Jin Yang, Fanfan Xing, et al. “A Familial Cluster of Pneumonia Associated with the 2019 Novel Coronavirus Indicating Person-to-Person Transmission: A Study of a Family Cluster.” The Lancet 395, no. 10223 (January 24, 2020): 514–23.
“Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome: The Berlin Definition.” JAMA 307, no. 23 (June 20, 2012).
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* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.