Some things clicked later than others. As my flight to Israel approached in early March, I was looking in vain for a face mask and a bottle of hand sanitizers to carry with me to the airport – all while still dining in my favorite Indian buffet, from where the virus seemed to be a faraway problem, not yet acknowledged or urgent in our hemisphere. That night, I spent an hour in a mega-sized supermarket waiting for a secret supply of hand sanitizer to arrive from the warehouse, from which I could get only a single small bottle. I hid this bottle all the way to the cash register.
I did not fly to Israel. I worried that my two-week visit will be spent strictly in self-quarantine and then two more as I returned. Until late March, CoVid-19 in New Haven was a problem of international travelers. Then the semester was to resume online, but it was coming to an end anyway. My summer, until 15 days ago, was still scheduled to be spent in Ukraine and Serbia, even as they closed our most cherished location: The library. An “invisible enemy”, as Trump insidiously calls it, was now threatening us even as we touched books, not even sparing my obscure books about 19th Century Eastern Europe deep in the basement.
The disruption in our ability to research has been worsened by the slow and uneven reaction of the U.S. government. Whereas some criticize the current plans of European governments to return to normalcy as haphazard, this kind of danger multiples the closer one gets to New York; the daily death toll in the U.S. is still in the thousands. New Haven County has the second largest share of cases and death cases in Connecticut. Compared to most of what I hear from abroad, our civil liberties in this city were rather kept. Even wearing masks has been nothing but a recommendation, no lockdown was announced. Most public places are still closed, however.
The first wave here will likely end no more than a few weeks before a second one erupts, and the personal tragedies that occur will be aggravated by professional ones. Libraries shall remain closed, archival visits – cancelled, entire research programs that depended on institutional leaves will be forfeited. An entire new genre, it seems, will come to represent this period in historical research: Research based on material solely available online or kept in our homes.
As a scholar of Eastern European history at Yale about to embark on dissertation research, I am only rather fortunate. While Eastern Europe (with the exception of Hungary and somewhat the Czech Republic) is not heavily digitizing historical materials, my work is only delayed and my institution has the financial ability to extend my funding. I could tolerate the separation between my family and significant other in Israel for some more months. In all other respects, however, we all live in the dark: We need to make plans for a semester at a time where news arrives one week at a time at most. Will there be a fall semester? Will we finish our research projects? Will the second wave devastate the already overburdened health system here?