Thank you for all these stories of readers losing their little kids in public. Here’s mine: I was on the 22nd floor of a downtown office building with my baby in a stroller, holding the hand of my three-year-old son as we waited for the elevator. When the doors opened, the older boy slipped free and darted in. As I struggled to get the wheels of the stroller over the threshold of the elevator, the doors closed.
I am not sure why or how the elevator automatically went to the ground floor. Perhaps that was the default for the car, in case no one pressed a button. Or perhaps the kid knew to push G! We never figured that out.
The minutes I spent waiting for a second elevator and traveling down were some of the longest of my life. This was before cell phones. My three-year-old was waiting for us, in the lobby, crying, holding the hand of a uniformed janitor.
So yeah. A split second.
Dana’s story reminds me of this scene from Louie, when CK loses his daughter on a subway platform after she suddenly lunges through the closing doors:
This next reader, Anne, also has a story of a little kid getting through a door and exposing himself to danger:
I know this story isn’t about losing a child in public, but it really does take seconds for them to get into a situation. Toddlers can be amazingly curious, agile, and very quick.
I worked in child care for many years and lived for a while with friends, Russ and Cass, who had three kids. We traded partial rent for baby-sitting duties. Their two-year-old son, Rickie, was the challenge, as he was big for his age and quite the handful.
One day, while the kids were watching cartoons, Rickie suddenly decided to climb a bookcase.
I had my back turned, since I was washing our lunch dishes, but I heard a little something. I don’t know if it was a creak from the shelf or something else, but it caught my attention just in time. I turned to see Rickie almost six feet up this seven-foot-tall shelf! I ran and pulled him off in an instant. I was terrified! A minute earlier he’d been sitting quietly on the floor enjoying the cartoons.
The shelf was made of that pressboard material I find to be very heavy but somewhat flimsy. It was also a little warped, not bolted to the wall or anything, and full of big books. When I asked Rickie, he couldn’t even say what made him want to climb that thing! Of course he was oblivious to the danger he’d been in and seemed surprised at how distraught I was. We bolted down the shelf after I talked to his parents that evening.
I have another story where Rickie ends up in the middle of the road while everyone else is in bed. That one might have folks tut-tutting his dad, though. Let me know if you want to hear it.
Sure, I replied. Anne:
Russ and I worked a late shift together and Cass worked a regular day shift. She would leave in the morning and Russ would watch the kids until I got up and took over. When Cass handed off the kids, Russ would take them to the kids’ room, push one of the beds against the door, and let them play while he slept in the bed for another hour or so.
One morning, Rickie and his older sister Carrie figured out they could move the bed if they pushed it together. So these kids, who were just two and four, moved an entire bed with a 200-pound guy on it without waking him up and then got out of the room.
They had some cereal out of the box before Carrie went back to the room and Rickie decided to go play outside. This little toddler figured out the front door locks to get outside! I tell you, kids are clever and almost always on the move.
I was awoken by someone pounding frantically on the front door. It was the landlady who lived next door. She had found Rickie in the middle of the street in nothing but his diaper. Mind you, we lived on a road that fed into a freeway on-ramp and was always busy. Understandably the landlady was freaked out.
This happened over 20 years ago, but the names have been changed to protect Russ from internet outrage!
Via hello@, a reader in Queens flags a video from 1986 showing a five-year-old boy British boy at the Jersey Zoo—but this story doesn’t end with a dead body and the shaming of a distraught mother. As Tim notes, “This video is bubbling up a bit thanks to the Cincinnati incident, but mostly in the British press [the boy’s British], so Americans may not know the charming tale of Jambo the gentle silverback” (“jambo” means “hello” in Swahili):
From the YouTube caption:
Jambo shot to international news stardom overnight on August 31, 1986, when five year old Levan Merritt fell into the gorilla enclosure [at the Jersey Zoo] and lost consciousness. Jambo stood guard over the boy when he was unconscious, placing himself between the boy and other gorillas in what ethologists analyze as a protective gesture. He later stroked the unconscious boy. When the boy regained consciousness and started to cry, Jambo and the other gorillas retreated, and an ambulanceman and two keepers rescued the boy.
Tim adds, “For what it’s worth, the boy Jambo protected, Levan Merritt—now a father himself—believes the Cincinnati Zoo did the right thing given the way Harambe was behaving. (His mother disagrees.)” Here’s another reader, Brandon:
I’m not here to take a position on whether this Cincinnati mom is a bad mom or not, but as a non-parent, it’s a bit tiring to hear parents tell non-parents that they can’t judge her. Why not? Do I really need to be a parent to understand that losing a child in a potentially dangerous location is a difficult scenario that may call for added attention to the child? Or can I just use my own experiences and common sense to make a determination?
This is just a friendly reminder that there are groups of people who may not share an experience with a person but make big decisions about such persons everyday. They’re known as “juries,” which literally decide life-and-death matters everyday, and they’re the foundation of our justice system.
Another reader, Brett, broadens the topic even further:
The death of the Cincinnati gorilla seems like a tragic situation, and certainly an avoidable one. Yet, amid all the commentary, I’ve yet to see an answer to a key question: Why do we need to keep gorillas in captivity for human entertainment? What other purpose is being served? If it’s for the health and welfare of gorillas, wouldn’t that be better served by letting them live in their natural habitat? If it’s for “awareness” of some kind, does that “awareness” translate to any benefit for the gorillas (less habitat destruction, fewer threats from poachers, etc.)?
Weston today tackles that question: Do we need zoos? If you have any strong views on the matter, drop us a note. Here’s one reader, Chris Crawford, responding to Weston’s piece:
Bit by bit, we are chipping away at many of the natural habitats in which these animals live. The question then becomes: when the lowland gorillas have no place to live in the wild, where will they live? Africa is full of important animals and African nations don't have the resources to properly protect them. So they’re steadily being driven toward extinction. We have a responsibility to preserve these species, and for some of them a zoo is the only place where we can do it.
I agree that zoos are important to inspire young people with the realities of animal life. The film documentaries that we have are magnificent, but, as Weston wrote, they just don’t have the impact of seeing the real thing.
Certainly we should put an end to the barren cages. Certainly we should expand the areas available to the animals, allowing compatible animals to mix naturally. It’s expensive, but it’s still cheaper than trying to keep them alive in the wild.
“I was a perfect parent before I had a kid,” quips a reader responding to our callout for stories of losing a child in public:
There are a lot of childless, perfect parents in the world lately. Parenting is the hardest job in the world that no one can prepare you for and everyone thinks they can do it better then you.
Our story: My husband and I decided to do yard work on a gorgeous spring day, our almost-two-year-old son in tow. He was alternating between helping push the wheelbarrow and scooping up dirt.
And in a split second he was gone.
“I thought you had him,” followed by mind-boggling panic. You can’t really describe what it feels like when your world disappears in front of you. It only took a second. It was maybe two minutes before we found him just a few yards away checking out my husband’s car. But it felt like a lifetime.
Another reader can relate: “As any parent knows, it only takes a few seconds for attention to be diverted and something horrible to occur. Not minutes—SECONDS.” That’s the pattern I’m seeing among the dozens of notes coming in from readers: “split second,” “I looked away for just a moment,” “blink of an eye.” That tiny fragment of time, followed by a seemingly endless span of dread, is illustrated in the following scene from The Witch, a brilliant and unnerving film I recently watched and rewatched. (The full scene of the missing baby is so deeply disturbing—one of the most disturbing I’ve ever seen in cinema—that I cut most of it out to create this custom clip on YouTube.)
This next reader, like most of you writing in, wishes to remain anonymous:
I have a story of a lost child. It’s a story we thought of immediately in the aftermath of the Cincy Zoo incident.
We live in Cincinnati, coincidentally. We were at a Cincinnati Reds game and our four-year-old daughter wanted to go on the big, enclosed slide that goes down a full story to a garden area. My wife was at the top of the slide, and I walked down to the bottom—maybe a two-minute walk. Thinking I’d be down there already, my wife let her go down the slide and find me.
I stood at the bottom of the slide for a good three minutes, and my wife and younger daughter come down. She looks at me and asks, “Where is she?” I’m sure my eyes looked like dinner plates as I turned and sprinted through the garden to the top of the slide.
The panic was unbelievable: How in the hell am I going to find a little kid amid a 6th-inning crowd on a Sunday afternoon?! If she got scared and turned and started running in the wrong direction, I’d never find her.
Luckily, I did find her: at the the top of a slide, clutching a stranger who was comforting her.
Does this make me and my wife negligent parents? Turns out, there were two walkways through the garden. I was walking down one, and she must have gone down the other. We didn’t see each other. My wife, a borderline “helicopter parent,” was certain we couldn’t miss each other, so she let her go. Was it our faults? Absolutely. Could it have happened to anyone? Absolutely.
Losing a kid in a split second can happen to anyone, the best parents included. We are good, attentive parents, but this isn’t the only story we have. And it will happen again. As always, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Tens of thousands of online commenters should have considered that Christian adage before assailing the Cincy mother (whom Ron defended at length). This Notes thread is already becoming a sort of confessional space for parents to open up about the extremely common, though extremely judged, experience of losing a child in public. From a reader in Indiana:
Oh boy, do I have a story. Let the parents and non-parents judge me all they want, but make it anonymous so I don’t have to read the comments or fend off death threats.
I was a single mom on a vacation with my kids at a beach in Florida. My daughter was eight and my son was five. We walked down to the beach right after breakfast, where we played in the sand, poked our toes in the water, and generally romped around. I was swinging my daughter around the water’s edge and making her squeal with delight as my son waited for his turn.
But—when we fell onto the sand and I turned to him to take his hands, he was gone. In the blink of an eye.
I looked up and down the beach with my daughter’s hand clutched in mine—no sign of him. The most terrifying panic came over me when I saw that his shoes were gone. There was a pool at our hotel, right next to the beach, and I was sure he’d decided to go swimming without us. But the pool gate was locked and he wasn’t there.
By this time, maybe two minutes had passed, and in those two minutes my mind went insane thinking of horrible possibilities like kidnapping, lurking pedophiles, being sucked out to sea—anything and everything. It was the most incomprehensible, visceral fear I have ever felt.
I ran into the hotel frantically and grabbed the hotel concierge and said “I can’t find my son! I can’t find my son!” The hotel security manager came out to me as I stood on the beach, babbling the story of playing with my kids, trying (but failing) not to weep while comforting my daughter, who was screaming “What are we going to do without him? Mommy!! Mommy!!”
Another agonizing 15 minutes passed when a maintenance man at the hotel radioed the security guard and said they’d found a little boy in a blue t-shirt trying to get into a hotel room. It was my son.
They carried him to me and I picked him up and said “What on EARTH made you leave the beach? You KNOW you never leave Mommy in a public place! We almost lost you!” He told me he’d decided he didn’t want to play and promptly picked up his shoes, went into the hotel and got in the elevator, and went up to our room on the 11th floor to wait for us.
So do not underestimate the ability of a small child to do something in a split second. My story has a very happy ending, although I had flashbacks for years about those 20 minutes of hell. I know the fear that parents can feel in that first moment when they notice their kid is out of sight. But that doesn’t make them bad parents; kids are slippery little devils.
If you haven’t yet heard about the story of the four-year-old kid at the Cincinnati zoo who climbed into the pen of a gorilla that was subsequently shot dead, Ron covered it yesterday. He defended the mother against the hordes of online commenters blaming her for the child slipping away in a split second. (An edited version of events is embedded above, and the original smartphone footage is here in full.) One reader’s reaction to the story:
There’s a post going around Facebook from a woman on the scene who indicated that parents simply lost their kid in one of those “blink of an eye” moments. Most parents will tell you that yes, small children are curious and impulsive and can act stupidly in an unbelievably short span of time. In the meantime, the rush to judge the parents has led to:
Avoiding the question of why the zoo didn’t have better protection against a stray kid falling in
Valuing a gorilla over a child
Monday-morning quarterbacking the decision to shoot the gorilla. (Show me your gorilla-expert credentials before you judge the zoo.)
Here’s a quick rule: If your reaction to a gorilla’s death causes you to lash out at a set of parents and call for their deaths and/or criminal prosecution (speaking as a lawyer, I can’t imagine what charge you’d bring against the parents, much less how it would possibly stick), consider whether you’re acting more like a rational human or an angry gorilla.
But this next reader, Olivia, doesn’t think the scrutiny is entirely unwarranted:
I am not a parent, but I have a gnawing question about this incident that I cannot shake. In 38 years (the zoo opened in 1978), not one person has ever fallen into the enclosure. In that 38 years, I have to assume there were thousands of toddlers and curious four-year-olds. Why did none of them make it over the barrier? Is this four-year-old boy deeply rare in his abilities? This is the main reason I feel there may be justification for the scrutiny of the parents.
A few core points from Ron’s piece:
Our judgment matters. Twenty years ago, a story like this would have been heavily covered by three broadcast networks and the wire services. There might have been some tut-tutting by those media gatekeepers, but nothing like the internet mob that rallied against this Cincinnati mom.
Where is our empathy? Show me the parent who hasn’t lost sight of a daughter or had a son bolt from their grasp and run into danger. I’ll show you a parent who’s either uninvolved in his or her children’s lives or is lying.
On that note, have you ever been in a situation similar to the Cincinnati mom’s, losing your kid in a public place and narrowly averting disaster? Let us know if you’d like to share: firstname.lastname@example.org. Update from a reader with a quick story:
When my son was around three, we went to a bookstore at the mall. I had to let go of his hand briefly to bend down to pick up a heavy book from a bottom shelf. He ran from me so fast. I raced through the store, my heart pounding, tears welling in my eyes, when a member of the staff up on a ladder called out where he was running. He had gone back to see some stuffed animals at the front of the store.
I’m a good mother, but a child can get away from you in less than a second. What happened in Cincinnati was an accident. Instead of turning our fury toward this family, we should be looking for ways to protect animals in the wild, so we don’t have to see the last of them in a zoo.
Another reader also opens up:
I think most parents, if they’re honest, have a story like this. While I’ve never “lost” either of my kids in the store, a miscalculation nearly cost my oldest her life.
I was heavily pregnant when I took my then two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to the local park. It was surrounded by a fence and had a gate at one end leading out to a very quiet residential street. Usually, I would have followed my daughter around to make sure she didn’t get into anything, but it was humid, I felt horrid, and decided to sit down on a bench and watch her play.
She got it in her head that she was going to make a run for the gate. Why I don’t know, but she did and the latch on the gate wasn’t fully secured. I immediately saw what she was doing and tried to run after her, but I simply couldn’t move quickly enough (I didn’t anticipate that either) and she ran toward the middle of the road. A car was coming down the road, and I only managed to get her to stop by screaming as loud as I could. It startled her; she stopped, the car stopped. I was hysterical.
So, yeah, I never lost a kid, but I almost lost a kid.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
How the coronavirus travels through the air has become one of the most divisive debates in this pandemic.
Updated at 7:22 p.m. ET on April 4, 2020.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are now overthinking things they never used to think about at all. Can you go outside? What if you’re walking downwind of another person? What if you’re stuck waiting at a crosswalk and someone is there? What if you’re going for a run, and another runner is heading toward you, and the sidewalk is narrow? Suddenly, daily mundanities seem to demand strategy.
Much of this confusion stems from the shifting conversation around the pandemic. Thus far, the official line has been that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could be transmitted only through close contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces. But recently, news reports have suggested that the coronavirus can spread through the air. After 60 choir members in Washington State rehearsed together, 45 fell sick, even though no one seemed symptomatic at the time. Now people who were already feeling cooped up are worrying about going outside. Many state guidelines are ambiguous, and medical advice can muddy matters further. When the writer Deborah Copaken came down with COVID-19 symptoms, her doctor chided her for riding her bike through New York City a week earlier. Going outside in the city wasn’t safe, the physician implied, with “viral load everywhere.”
The Trump administration has just released the model for the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in America. We can expect a lot of back-and-forth about whether its mortality estimates are too high or low. And its wide range of possible outcomes is certainly confusing: What’s the right number? The answer is both difficult and simple. Here’s the difficult part: There is no right answer. But here’s the simple part: Right answers are not what epidemiological models are for.
Epidemiologists routinely turn to models to predict the progression of an infectious disease. Fighting public suspicion of these models is as old as modern epidemiology, which traces its origins back to John Snow’s famous cholera maps in 1854. Those maps proved, for the first time, that London’s terrible affliction was spreading through crystal-clear fresh water that came out of pumps, not the city’s foul-smelling air. Many people didn’t believe Snow, because they lived in a world without a clear understanding of germ theory and only the most rudimentary microscopes.
Widespread social-distancing measures have produced some jarring effects across land, air, and sea.
From inside her living room in London, Paula Koelemeijer can feel the world around her growing quieter.
Koelemeijer, a seismologist, has a miniature seismometer sitting on a concrete slab at the base of her first-floor fireplace. The apparatus, though smaller than a box of tissues, can sense all kinds of movement, from the rattle of trains on the tracks near Koelemeijer’s home to the waves of earthquakes rolling in from afar. Since the United Kingdom announced stricter social-distancing rules last month, telling residents not to leave their home except for essential reasons, the seismometer has registered a sharp decrease in the vibrations produced by human activity.
With fewer trains, buses, and people pounding the pavement, the usual hum of public life has vanished, and so has its dependable rhythms: Before the spread of COVID-19 shut down the city, Koelemeijer could plot the seismometer’s data and see the train schedule reflected in the spikes, down to the minute. Now, with fewer trains running, the spikes seem to come at random.
More young people in the South seem to be dying from COVID-19. Why?
In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has gone from a novel, distant threat to an enemy besieging cities and towns across the world. The burden of COVID-19 and the economic upheaval wrought by the measures to contain it feel epochal. Humanity now has a common foe, and we will grow increasingly familiar with its face.
Yet plenty of this virus’s aspects remain unknown. The developing wisdom—earned the hard way in Wuhan, Washington, and Italy—has been that older people and sicker people are substantially more likely to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19 than their younger, healthier counterparts. Older people are much more likely than young people to have lung disease, kidney disease, hypertension, or heart disease, and those conditions are more likely to transform a coronavirus infection into something nastier. But what happens when these assumptions don’t hold up, and the young people battling the pandemic share the same risks?
The coronavirus’s overwhelming toll on jobs and businesses has only just begun.
Editor’s Note:The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here.
This is a tsunami, with a number of big waves dead ahead.”
Mark Zandi is not an epidemiologist, and he was not talking about the rapid spread of the coronavirus. He is the chief economist at Moody’s, an analyst highly regarded by both political parties, and generally not prone to hyperbole. Yet when I spoke with him on the phone yesterday, he immediately reached for the metaphor of a devastating natural disaster to describe the toll that the pandemic will take on American commerce—the businesses it will destroy, the jobs it will wipe out, the retirement nest eggs it will crack and shatter.
The greatest error that geopolitical analysts can make may be believing that the crisis will be over in three to four months.
At this stage in the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty prevails. The greatest error that geopolitical analysts can make may be believing that the crisis will be over in three to four months, as the world’s leaders have been implying. As documented in The Atlantic and elsewhere, public-health experts make a compelling case that COVID-19 could be with us in one way or another until a vaccine comes on the market or herd immunity is achieved—either of which could take 12 to 18 months, unless we get lucky with a cure or an effective treatment before then. A long crisis, which is more likely than not, could stretch the international order to its breaking point. Even after a vaccine is available, life will not go back to normal. COVID-19 was not a black swan and will not be the last pandemic. A nervous world will be permanently changed.
The shutdowns happened remarkably quickly, but the process of resuming our lives will be far more muddled.
Get your battle rhythm, I keep telling myself, as I put on my oversize sweatpants for the third day in a row. Staying inside, away from our offices, routines, and community, feels jarring even for those who, on a rational level, understand the need for extreme social distancing. The good side is having more family time. But everything seems upended, even to homeland-security professionals who argued for upending everything to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Just as seasickness abates once you can see the shore, the disruptions that the country is now experiencing would be easier to manage if we knew they would end soon. The community-isolation effort happened remarkably fast—within days, whole communities all but closed down, and earlier this week the federal government finally recommended the same. On Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the entire state of California to stay home “until further notice.” But the way the crisis ends will be far more muddled. There isn’t going to be one all-clear signal—and certainly not one anytime soon.
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
Updated at 4:40 ET on March 30, 2020.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored. (It may also turn out to be the case that people who are immune to the disease can still pass it on under certain circumstances.)*
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.