By Fred Plotkin / New York
It has been a pleasure to be a weekly contributor to The Insider since its inception at the beginning of the Covid-19 plague that swept the world. I am grateful to Andrea Sachs and her team for the opportunity.
The name applied to the disease that became a pandemic reminds us that it was described in autumn 2019. It seems to have first appeared in China and most people elsewhere chose to think of it as someone else’s problem. I never did.
At that time, I was in Milan (in Northern Italy), my most frequent destination for foreign work. To me it was not a matter of if, but when, this coronavirus would affect my life personally. I looked at my forward calendar and saw work travel booked into early 2021 and potential work pencilled in for after that.
As it happened, the second place in the world ravaged by Covid-19 was the region of Lombardy (whose capital is Milan) in early 2020. I immediately put question marks in my calendar for all Italian travel and, in short order, travel in continental Europe. The virus’ journey from China to Lombardy with no intermediate stops told me that it could be carried on an airplane and spread wherever an infected person arrived.
I had a scheduled trip to London from March 3-8, 2020 that I very much wanted to complete. The work was attractive and prestigious and I wanted to maintain contacts there. As my departure date approached, Covid’s growing shadow loomed. I pulled out the N-95 masks that I have always had on hand since 9/11. I always have abundant hand sanitizer and took a lot along. I also packed latex gloves.
On my flight from JFK to Heathrow, I was the only person in view wearing a mask. None of the cabin crews were. The woman seated next to me (with an empty seat between us) became upset because I wore a mask—I must be sick, she assumed, and she did not want to catch it. I posted a picture of myself on Facebook and normally smart people ridiculed me for being what they deemed a fraidy cat.
Upon arrival at Heathrow, no airport staff I encountered wore protection. I did spot small signs suggesting that people use caution before undertaking travel to Italy or China. By March 6, 2020, London’s stiff upper lip began to do some serious quivering. You could not find masks, gloves or hand sanitizer anywhere. Covid was all over the news and the screaming headlines of the British tabloids. I learned that the same thing was happening in the U.S.
My last job in London, on March 7, was a long-scheduled event at one of the city’s top clubs. I was the featured speaker, and had planned the menus, picked the wines and arranged for opera singers to perform. I arrived with my mask, gloves and Purell and was startled to be the only one so equipped.
Complete strangers hugged me and kissed me. I constantly ran back and forth to the toilet to wash my hands and face. I spent as much time as possible at the lectern to avoid being seated near unmasked people speaking loudly in a room animated by good wine.
The next day, flying home, there were a few more people wearing protection. I suspect that more would have had they been able to locate masks and gloves. When I landed at JFK, I told myself that I did not expect to travel for at least two or three years. This assumption informed how I lived the next phase of my life—however long that phase might be.
I planned to take care of elderly and vulnerable relatives. Since at least the Y2K scare in late 1999—but, really, always—I have had a pantry full of food and provisions so I did not have to worry about emergency shopping.
Although I am a busy writer—author of 10 books and thousands of articles—most of my income and much of my pleasure came in travel, public speaking, and broadcasting as well as work in the world’s leading opera houses.
Opera houses, theaters and almost all public venues shuttered by early April 2020. All my work was canceled and force majeure saw to it that no one was obligated to pay me for lost employment. My friends in the medical world told me they were bracing for the worst and—by the third week of April— New York City would become one of the most affected places on earth, with thousands of infections and deaths.
By May 2020, I personally knew 15 people who had died, including one relative and one very close friend. Neither of these fellows was in what could be described as a high-risk cohort, and yet they died all the same. I learned of at least 40 people who were infected. Each day and all night, I heard the constant wail of ambulance sirens, the only sound to regularly pierce the eerie silence of my normally noisy Manhattan neighborhood.
I decided that my priority was protecting my health and that of my family. This implies not only the physical health but the mental health. A constant flow of doomsday news would not benefit either. I limited my news consumption to two hours a day.
I cooked delicious healthful meals rather than eat junk. I did not gain the proverbial 20 pounds most people did.
I listened to a lot of music but could not bring myself to watch opera videos because they represented things I could not do. TCM became a lifeline and I programmed a film to watch—really watch and listen to—each day. This was not distraction. It was engagement with art and creativity and ideas.
I also reached out to friends in the opera world—singers, conductors, instrumentalists, stage directors, designers, arts administrators—because they were all uncharacteristically locked away, not doing what they worked so hard to achieve.
They saw income vanish and, because singing near one another (unmasked) was considered high-risk, opera houses were among the last workplaces to turn on their lights again. Theaters in Europe tried to open earlier than in the U.S. and often had to cancel performances when a new variant of Covid-19 surged. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City waited longer than most to reopen—September 2021—but remarkably has never canceled a performance since then.
Being locked in and taking great care about avoiding infection (remember, there were no vaccines available until winter 2021 and only then for the very old and the immunocompromised), I decided to make the proverbial lemonade from bushels of lemons.
With the collaboration of the Berlin-based music streaming service IDAGIO (www.idagio.com), I created a weekly show called “Fred Plotkin on Fridays” that was also featured here at The Insider.
This was not meant to be a talk show for people to kvetch about Covid-19 but, instead, the chance for me to engage via Zoom with some of the world’s leading musicians, writers, actors, visual artists and thinkers about their art and ideas. People who normally would have 10 minutes at most could suddenly give me 90 minutes or two hours to go deep into their branch of creativity.
These Friday conversations gained a following around the world. My guests appreciated engaging on issues that lockdown prevented them from working on in theaters and classrooms.
And I, via Zoom, was able to connect with people all over the world, finding out what was happening in Washington, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Dublin, Parma, Zurich, Dresden, Helsinki, Lagos, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, Auckland, Tokyo and even Kathmandu (Nepal), where I spoke to one of the world’s foremost tiger conservationists. All while not leaving my bedroom.
Even though public opinion and many politicians have decided to move on from Covid-19, I have chosen to keep doing my “Fred Plotkin on Fridays” shows. There is hardly a surfeit of cultured conversations in our world. It has been part of my mission in life and certainly here to document the ideas and creativity not only of the very famous and celebrated but also people less known but no less impressive and meaningful in their contributions.
But there is another reason: even if the pandemic has been declared over, I don’t buy it. Anyone who meets with President Biden must have a Covid test first. That is how it should be. In the past couple of weeks, there was a surge of infections in London. I know 10 people who were infected, some who live in London and others there for work, visiting from Atlanta and Geneva. They likely brought the latest variant of this virus back to Georgia and Switzerland.
I have kept a list of every person I know who has been infected since March 2020. I personally knew 26 people who died—including the parents of a friend who died three days apart. My friend is still in shock 17 months later.
As of this writing, there are 182 people I know who have been infected. Many of these have been infected twice or even three times. People are still being infected, even if not at the same rates as before. No doubt there are folks I know who have not disclosed that they were infected. Some of my friends had mild symptoms but others suffered terribly. I know at least 20 people with “Long Covid,” including a friend in his 30s who was hale and fit and now has had chronic illness for two years.
I am a student of history (it goes with my professions) and know that some societies seem to never forget anything (especially a grudge) while others—including the U.S.—excel at collective amnesia, especially when it comes to racism, economic inequality, lurid conspiracy theories or business downturns.
Add to that our seemingly constant election cycles and sectors of the media (not all) that are irresponsible, and you have a recipe for an ugly disaster that will come back and make itself felt. Just look at climate change and all of the deniers who have had their homes destroyed by flood or fire. American Covid deniers died in hospitals, still denying that they had Covid.
COVID-19 is only the latest coronavirus. There have been MRSA and bird flu, among others. There will be new ones. HIV-AIDS was first described in July 1981 and, 42 years on, there is no cure. There might be medical regimens to keep persons with HIV infections alive but there is still no cure.
Polio, measles and smallpox seemed to be eradicated but some members of certain religions claim that children should not be vaccinated against these diseases. So we are seeing outbreaks that merit our concern.
We know the maxim by Santayana that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Yes, of course. But I also believe that we are only as strong as the weakest link. Denial, or lack of vigilance, has been the wellspring of so much human misery.
I believe that we can read history and “quality media” to learn certain facts. But I prescribe art and creativity to understand why things happen. Going back to the Etruscans, ancient Egyptians, Athenians and Romans and just about every world civilization and society, we turn to their art, literature, music and theater to learn about them and, if we pay attention, about ourselves.
There were plagues in Athens, Renaissance Florence, Shakespeare’s London. Writers from Boccaccio to Manzoni and Kafka to Camus and Susan Sontag have told us about societies held under siege by rampant disease. Painters from Titian and Rembrandt, van Gogh to Schiele to Keith Haring have all given us a window into the world of illness.
The collective mindset about Covid-19 may have changed, but the virus will mutate whether we like it or not. Scientists and public health officials toil—often under intense criticism—to stay ahead of the potential predations of communicable disease. Rare politicians who take a long view back to have a better long view forward, courageously plan not for the next election cycle but the next generation or century.
These scientists and public servants have my highest admiration because I share with them—through my life immersed in art and creativity—the credo to prize not what we choose to forget but everything that we still have to learn.
Fred Plotkin is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."