It took covid-19 to show us Americans how dirty our country is. It  always has been but until we saw the possibility of death on all the uncleaned surfaces, we were able to ignore this. Even when the virus forced us to look, our sense of cleanliness tilted askew. Some of us washed our grocery purchases in disinfectant. We microwaved our mail. We hoarded bottles of rubbing alcohol and made our own hand sanitizer; one man used Everclear instead when rubbing alcohol vanished from drugstore shelves. We washed our hands as obsessively as Lady MacBeth. But we still ignored threats like door handles and the hand rails of escalators. The floors of transit stations went unmopped. The treads of public stairways were darkened by substances we chose not to identify and when we had to leave home, we made our way carefully down city sidewalks so we could avoid human saliva and excrement. 

In Hong Kong, years ago, I was surprised when I saw women wiping down door handles and banisters with disinfectant, often as regularly as every fifteen minutes, or so the public notices claimed. In Shenzhen elderly people endlessly mopped the floors of public spaces and swabbed the railings of fences that enclosed sidewalk cafes. They chiseled chewing gum from the sidewalks. When I remarked on this with amusement to a Chinese friend, he replied “You’ve never lived through SARS.” Now in America we’ve survived a descendant of that danger and we continue to live in filth, which has gotten worse.

To avoid crowded city shelters where covid is apt to lurk, more people than ever live on city sidewalks with no place to urinate, excrete, or get rid of their garbage. They have, to everyone’s surprise, a remarkable amount of waste and it stays right where it was left. It’s amazing that we haven’t had a national surge of cholera but then we have that abundance of hand sanitizers. God only knows how bad off we’d be without those little spray bottles and saturated hand wipes.

Even so, our mortality rate from covid rivals that of many third-world countries. So does our public hygiene. Even before the covid era, when I returned from countries in Asia, the dirt and squalor of America’s streets horrified me by comparison to what I had recently left. 

Considering that America’s a country founded by people who swore that cleanliness is next to godliness, our disregard for public hygiene seems a bit peculiar. But then who knows what the Puritans standards of “cleanliness” were? We do know that Beatniks and the Flower Children were noted for their dirty feet and their disregard for deodorant so they might have come into play in creating our current ability to live with dirt. And if “God is dead” is a sentiment once popular enough to have made it onto the cover of Time Magazine, that may have put the kibosh on cleanliness too. If it’s no longer an avenue to the Divine, why bother?

Perhaps keeping the dirt in place is a ploy to keep us all within our own spaces. If the world outside is dirty and full of health hazards, who would want to venture into it? With that in mind, isolation isn’t an imposed mandate; it’s become a personal choice. When we stay home, the dirt we encounter is our own, familiar and comforting and easily washed away. 

But the past two years of isolation are as unhealthy as other people’s germs. Public service advertisements claim this is a threat to longevity that’s as severe as smoking a pack a day. The results that come from thinking of other people as dangers to be avoided are ones we have yet to understand, but it can’t be good. We’re social animals who need our tribes in physical ways. Without seeing facial expressions flicker during a conversation, feeling the comfort of touching a friend’s hand or giving a quick hug, even smelling the particular scent that each person owns, a smell that drifts into our nostrils without our awareness of it, we shrivel like the babies in the orphanages who were given no physical contact and died for the lack of touch. 

Sartre was wrong. Hell isn’t other people. They’re the yeast that turns inertia into growth. They’re what make cities great. Living without the stimulation provided by others is akin to death because our spirits begin to die. So does our compassion.

Covid and its effects make me wonder if we’re not living in a giant petri dish, under conditions controlled by unseen beings who ask, “What happens if we cause this? How about doing that? How interesting.”

Believing in the Malthusian theory and giving the natural world credit for the diminishment of human experience is a speculation that’s much more sane. The beauty of the past two summers are unforgettable, the clarity of the air, the sharpness of the colors, the triumphant calls of the birds. The world without us would become the Garden of Eden. With us in it, it’s rapidly going to hell. We’re not just an expendable species; we’re a threat to all other life on this earth. Why wouldn’t the viruses, each one of them a creation of nature, fight back?  We, oblivious and self-centered, insist on providing perfect breeding grounds for them, with our unvaccinated hosts and unmasked faces. If we win on this particular battlefront, it will be because we’re incredibly, undeservedly lucky–until the next variant shows up.

In Seattle, our downtown is in a coma and nobody’s sure that it’s ever going to snap out of it. A mile or two away, rabbits and coyotes have taken to the streets. Within the urban core that’s bordered by a waterfront, the wildlife that’s always lived here is much less attractive. We’ve always had a persistent colony of rats.

While in New York the rats are supposedly in tough shape without the piles of restaurant leavings that kept them fat and healthy, Seattle’s casual attitude toward overturned garbage cans, along with the food scraps discarded by people who live on the street, is probably making our wharf rats very happy. Bubonic plague, anyone? Oh no, it can’t happen here…and if it does, it will probably hit the street residents first. Who cares?

Yeats is most famous for his line “What rough beast, its hour come at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born,” but the one that best suits these covid years is “Too much sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.” Enforced time in our private isolation has cut us off from the human contact we need in order to remain human. It’s becoming easy to think of “the unsheltered” as “the expendable” and to walk past them without giving a damn about their lives. We ignore the filth because that makes up their environment, not ours. If they all disappeared tomorrow, even though we might never admit it, we’d be relieved. Without them, maybe our real lives might begin again.

We’re at risk of turning primitive–let’s find scapegoats for existing problems and get rid of them. Compelled to give up the lives we always thought would be permanent, living truncated, isolated versions of “normal,” we feel cheated, frustrated, frightened, and not far from our own version of Shirley Jackson’s classic horror story, The Lottery. 

We once believed that except for outer space there were no new frontiers but covid smashed that delusion. The unknown that waits for us to explore, dark and uncertain terrain, lies within us. When we walk into it, will we fall off the edge of the earth into anger and chaos or will we discover a new foothold that takes us to a cleaner, kinder place?