Lockdown, But Not Out: A Lawyer’s Personal COVID-19 Journey

The Bencher—July/August 2020

By Anthony B. Haller, Esquire

I was born in Africa. Disease was no stranger. Mosquitos carried malaria. Tsetse flies transmitted sleeping sickness. Bilharzia (which attacks major organs) lurked in the water. Venomous snakes slinked silently in the long grasses. A swarm of locusts could blacken the sky and leave devastation in its wake. I don’t ever remember being afraid or told I had to stay inside. The first time I can remember that happening was on March 16, 2020, in the most affluent country in the world.

Shock and Self-recrimination

My first reaction—after the shock of the shelter-in-home orders, as the economy ground to a halt, and as the markets melted down—was self-recrimination. I looked back on the past three months and wondered how I could have missed the warning signs. We all knew about Wuhan and the lockdown in China. A quarantine had been ordered in Northern Italy as the death toll spiraled. Our borders are not impervious. How could a relatively informed and relatively well-educated citizen be so overtaken by events?

I should have foreseen that New York City would be an epicenter with all its tourism and huddled masses. I should have had my two daughters leave there earlier. I should have protected precious retirement savings. I should have warned my clients that a viral Armageddon was around the corner. After all, I am an employment lawyer. My job is to anticipate trends and developments. It became so obvious. All of a sudden, the economy was like a train hurtling off its tracks. Businesses were shutting down. Law firms would be more stressed and challenged than in 2008 when the entire financial system went on life support. Survival became the watchword. Panic was in the air. With absolute clarity, I realized we were in the greatest health and economic crisis this nation had ever faced: 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic meets the Great Depression. This was too much to process, so I went inward and in denial. I told my daughters they should come home; it was time to batten down the hatches.

Resigned to Reality and the Clattering Train

My self-recrimination was soon assuaged by the knowledge that I was not alone. Friends and colleagues confided that they too had not seen the train careening toward them. It became obvious that those in the highest offices of the land, with the best intelligence in the world, had also been caught off guard and had not fully recognized the coming blow. It became evident that the country was woefully unprepared for the onslaught—there were not enough critical care beds, not enough ventilators, and not enough masks.

I was reminded of the verse published by Punch Magazine that Winston Churchill (reputedly and according to his recent biographer Andrew Roberts) recited during the Blitz as a metaphor for Britain’s failure to prepare for the Nazi menace until far too late. It is about a fatal Victorian railway accident and it goes like this:

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak, and the couplings strain.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear;
And the signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!

The sickness was multiplying. Hospitals were becoming overwhelmed. People were dying in isolation from their grieving families. Death was in charge of our clattering train. I knew that the lockdown would not end quickly. I took a deep breath and let resignation settle in.

Work and Dissonance

My way of coping was to work—to help clients as much as we could in a time of need. Suddenly, I found myself in a maelstrom of legal issues: layoffs, furloughs, government loans, unemployment subsidies, physical distancing rules for essential workers, and a patchwork of often inconsistent state and local guidance or regulation. Though this kept me busy, the litigation part of my practice became challenging as the courts shut their doors, retreating into a COVID-19–induced hiatus. I spoke to my friends at the Bar in England who told me how the judiciary was responding aggressively to keep cases moving through the system, quickly shifting to the alternative of virtual hearings and trials with a keen and compassionate understanding of how devastating a complete shutdown might be on the Bar. By contrast, I observed dissonance in the way our court systems have responded and, in many jurisdictions, the wheels of justice have been allowed to grind to a halt.

Meanwhile, as day followed day in the endless cycle of work from home, I began to see another form of dissonance as it became harder to mentor associates and to engage in intellectual exchanges among colleagues on points of law and legal strategy, and to enjoy the banter that comes with it. As commentators began to extol the virtues of work from home and predict the demise of the office as we know it, I felt a tangible void amid the moral imperative to keep working and to contribute to my firm’s well-being. My thesis was, and remains, if everyone does their part and we all row in the same boat, pulling our weight equally, then we will come out of this stronger and more united than ever. But the absence from the office was not a virtue.

The Unwelcome Visitor and Self-awareness

I did not pay much attention when my older daughter, shortly after her retreat from Manhattan, complained of a headache. A few days later, I experienced cold-like symptoms and a mild cough with a certain shortness of breath. One evening, I had to get up from the dinner table because a wave of fatigue hit me like a ton of bricks. I called the doctor, but he said the symptoms I described were not COVID-19. I battled on undeterred.

My wife soon began encountering similar symptoms. At first, her respiratory condition worsened, then fevers started and she could barely get out of bed. It was then I knew for certain it was here, in our house, despite all the safeguards—an unwelcome intruder threatening those I loved the most. My wife was very sick but rallied after many days in bed. My younger daughter then fell sick with classic symptoms: loss of smell and taste, aches, and fatigue.

It turns out we all had COVID-19. Each experience was very different. After many days on edge, one night we all sat together around the dinner table recovered and back in good spirits—the unwelcome visitor banished from our midst. I breathed a long sigh of relief in a renewed self-awareness of what really matters in life.

The End of the Tunnel: Resilience and Gratitude

We all now see a light at the end of the tunnel. It is not clear that the going will be smooth, and we have still a dangerous, winding road ahead. As restrictions ease, I find myself grateful for many little things that lighted the way through the darkness:

  • A Zoom 105th birthday party for my mother in England.
  • Making absurd TikToks with one daughter, playing scrabble with the other.
  • My wife playing the ukulele, which she randomly decided to learn during the lockdown.
  • Connecting with family and friends more meaningfully and more sincerely.
  • The health care professionals and other essential workers who have kept us going.
  • My partners for their collective strength and mutual support.
  • Our clients for their commitment and loyalty.
  • The American Inns of Court for its deep personal connections.

Despite how hard these times have been, we are all down but not out. There is an old African proverb: “however long the night, the dawn will break.” As I write, I imagine the pastel light of a crisp early morning on the African plain and see hope, and all of you, members of the American Inns of Court movement, who will carry the torch of a community now more important than ever.

Anthony B. Haller, Esquire is a partner in Blank Rome in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a member of the Temple American Inn of Court.

© 2020 By Anthony B. Haller, Esq. This article was originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.