Br(u)no: Life in the Time of Coronavirus

Photo: Namesti Svobody. Credit: TMA / Brno Daily.

I was teaching a class of high school students on Tuesday morning when my wife sent me the news via WhatsApp: the Czech Republic had suspended school indefinitely to lessen the spread of the coronavirus.

This, of course, would change 50 hours later to be even more restrictive, including banning gatherings of 30 or more people, closing bars and restaurants at night, severely limiting travel and making it a crime to knowingly spread the coronavirus.

Yet, on Tuesday morning, in front of a class of teenagers, the school-closure news rendered useless my lesson about European geography and the way country names change into adjectives. Instead, I told the students to take out their mobile phones, find a reputable news source, translate it and explain what was happening.

The spontaneous adjustment worked, kind of.

* * *

It is understandable that teenagers would be happy to be free of school. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find this situation fascinating, if worrisome.

We may feel the same as we did yesterday, but that is precisely what makes it so disconcerting to hear that doctors and scientists consider the coronavirus to be a dangerous global threat. Huge cities are not locked down for no reason. Countries do not suspend school on a whim. And capitalist societies do not hurt their bottom lines without cause.

Everyone knows an elderly person. Everyone has heard of the Black Plague, SARS and AIDS. My wife and I had to cancel a post-Easter week in Northern Italy. I have elderly parents in Washington State.

The scariest part is that there are so many questions that experts cannot yet answer:

– How long will our lives be upended by this coronavirus?

– Will there be food and supply shortages?

– Will this country be overwhelmed with patients like Italy?

– Will doctors here have to make life-and-death choices for who will receive intensive care?

– Are little kids, and young people in general, really unaffected?

– What about pregnant women or people who have survived cancer or other health scares?

What about me? I smoked a moderate amount of cigarettes for about two decades. Does that mean that my lungs are extra susceptible to this COVID-19 respiratory disease?

Nobody knows. Only time will tell.

* * *

This uncertainty has made life in this city exceedingly strange.

Schools closed down on Tuesday. The World Health Organization officially labeled the coronavirus a pandemic on Wednesday. Then, Thursday dawned as a beautiful and unseasonably warm day. Everything was still abstract and far away — but still top of mind.

At my main job, I found myself looking out the window, watching trains coming into Brno from the south while pondering the coughing and sneezing of my colleagues and me. Anyone could be unwittingly carrying the virus.

In the afternoon, many people were walking the bike paths, drinking beer outside snack-bar pubs and watching their kids play on jungle gyms and slides. Teenagers were battling for space in a skate park. The Svratka River was flowing and the birds were chirping. It was a pleasant, late-winter afternoon.

Yet, in a few hours everything would be shut down for the night.

In a few days or weeks, perhaps, an outbreak would change the world forever.

On Friday — the 13th, no less — we woke to find out that local hospitals had been subject to a cyberattack. The internet had small hiccups throughout the day. And, while I was frantically working on a deadline document, I got notifications in the corner of my computer screen: A New York Stock Exchange sell off trigged an automatic stop; Tom Hanks tested positive for coronavirus; the NBA suspended its season; Disney World and the Louvre will close; and The Show Will Not Go On: Broadway Theatres Go Dark.

The notifications, including the ones from, are important and informative — but anxiety-inducing, too.

* * *

I was in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. I remember the quiet and somber atmosphere of a Chelsea supermarket as people tried to buy food and supplies, and the emotional dinner in a restaurant that night. Every overheard conversation was about the terrorist attacks. The sense of uncertainty was palpable.

To a large extent, Brno feels like that now.

A State of Emergency has been declared and we are waiting for the next piece of news.

Hopefully, people will use their experience and education and street smarts to make the right decisions.

Be safe.

I hope that this column will provide thought-provoking observations of local life that will be interesting for a Saturday-morning read. If you have any suggestions or comments, please pass them along to

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