Every couple of days, “The Daily” podcast from The New York Times features a frank conversation with reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. He’s a health and science reporter who (amazingly) specializes in “plagues and pestilences”, the perfect reporting niche for this time. He usually also reports bad news.
I was cycling through Berlin’s afternoon sun when the latest episode came on, and as usual, it felt like the show dimmed the lights on the entire city. The pandemic, the reporter explained, could reasonably lead to restrictions lasting for another couple of years. We may get a dystopian two-class society, where immune people will be in high demand while everyone else shelters at home. And workplaces are likely to change significantly:
“For those of us who work most of the day on computers, there’s not a whole lot of reason to go back to the workplace. (…) Whereas if you work in a chicken processing plant you have to be near the chickens. Somehow they have to stretch out those chicken disassembly lines to do it safely. And they have to wear masks, and maybe there will be plexiglas between the workers. There’s lot of measures you can take and they’re going to be different for every single workplace.”
Plexiglas has gone up in several places over the last couple of weeks: You see it duct-taped to shop windows and kiosks, and a screen of plexiglas has gone up in front of most cash registers. When you pay for your goods, you’re separated from the cashier by this thin, wobbly sheet of transparent plastic—with only a gloved hand reaching out from a small gap in the screen.
Somehow, plexiglas and all of its haphazard applications seems like the perfect metaphor for this entire crisis: It has gone up quickly, seemingly temporary but possibly for good. Transparent as it may be, it enforces both the physical distance and keeps our personal spaces from intersecting. All the while we can see through it and notice exactly what we’re missing: Any sort of tangible human contact that we took for granted just weeks ago.
I eventually arrive in Wedding, daylight still intact, and take a socially distanced bike ride with Flo around Rehberge. I have never been to this park and I’m surprised how huge it is. In the middle of it we come upon a man standing under a bridge, playing the violin to himself.