I’m holding my breath. At the grocery cashier or when passing someone in the street, I’m holding my breath. Even before the virus I was a veteran at holding my breath. I was back in Australia for Christmas, where the worst bushfire crisis in history turned a continent to ash. A plume of smoke stretched across the Pacific, blanketing New Zealand and reaching South America; Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra vied day by day for the worst air quality in the world.
Every conversation began with a recap of the fires, inquiring after relatives in hard-hit areas (like my own aunt); every few minutes we would check the Rural Fire Service real time map; everyone knew someone who was badly affected. Thousands were stranded, unable to leave a Sydney ringed by fire-fronts to go to their Christmas vacations. Social plans were cancelled by people unable or unwilling to travel. There were so many friends I wanted to see, books to read, projects to finish. Instead I felt listless and ill-at-ease, cooped up inside with nowhere to go.
But to me it felt unreal until I couldn’t breathe. I was swimming in the harbour. Halfway between a boat and the beach, my arms turned to lead and my chest felt like it was on fire. It had been a decade since I had suffered an asthma attack. Struggling back to the boat, I was in agony. As I heaved myself onboard, I felt true fear of climate change: for the first time I was threatened concretely by what had been until then an abstract menace. The rest of the summer I spent indoors, looking out at sick gray-brown sky and a red sun. When I went outside, it would sting my eyes and throat.
I decided that by the next fire season I would buy a proper N95 mask. But coming back from Sydney I have gone from the fire back into the frying-pan, to the world’s coronavirus capital: New York. The pandemic felt real for me sooner than any of my friends in New York, because it felt like a return to the new normal. Again I catch my breath and stay inside.
I see a future of masks. Sleek and black to match formal attire. Brightly displaying the colors of Manchester United. Gucci and Prada, star spangled banners, camo for the preppers. In the future you will look good in a mask. Sometimes Sydney was a scurrying city of figures half-hidden in smog, faceless behind masks. Now New York streets are empty, the air is clear, and the fear is worse. Tonight my friend wears a red bandana pulled up over his face for lack of a mask. They are all sold out now. He looks like a Mad Max extra, but there are no spiky cars and flame-thrower guitars. We cycle around the silent streets together at night. I have a scarf wrapped around my face. If I’d invested in masks when it was the start of a bad fire season, I could be a millionaire. If I’d invested in one single mask, I might be able to breathe.
The Australian prime minister once brought a lump of coal to Parliament to illustrate his fossil ideas, and still shows no sign of changing tack. The country looks with trepidation toward the next bushfire season, and the world can expect a mix of death and isolation until a COVID-19 vaccine is ready. Things could get much worse. I’m holding my breath.
Benjamin Pope earned his doctorate in astrophysics from the University of Oxford in 2017. He is a NASA Sagan Fellow at NYU in the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics and the Center for Data Science, where he has yet to find a planet he likes as much as this one.