Saturday, March 21, 2020

Plague journal #2

It has been one week now that we've been isolating at home.  John worked Tuesday, and then they closed the library because too many people were congregating there. Luckily he is on civil leave and is still getting paid. So far I think we have escaped being exposed, though it's hard to say because the incubation period is so long. The kids have played with one neighbor, but I've kept them away from everyone else.

John has gone out to get meds and pick up takeout one night from a Chinese restaurant that is still open. I have not left the yard except for a brief walk Sunday. I should take another one soon. I've never been one to go out if I didn't have to; leaving home exhausts me. But I worry that, having lost the habit of going out, it'll only be harder for me to get back to it later. And probably taking a walk would help my mood.

I'm struggling with anxiety and sadness. It's so hard to deal with knowing the virus is marching on while we hide from it. Reading the daily death tolls. Seeing the posts of doctors and nurses telling what they are dealing with; the masks they don't have and the contagious patients they still have to see. Hearing my friends say they are sick and can't get tested. And worst of all, the people saying it isn't really a big deal, it's a hoax, it's no worse than the flu. I know carelessness will cost lives. So I feel like I should argue, but looking up the data and the symptoms to respond just makes me more anxious and upset.

And there's nothing, nothing at all to distract ourselves with. The kids are doing fine; their imaginations are vast and they aren't worried. After all, they're safe at home, where they can't catch anything. But we adults can't so easily tune it out. We've done a lot of cleaning. I've tried to craft and do puzzles and read. It's hard to focus though. If I could finish my novel, it would be something, but it's hard to keep my mind on it.

I did manage to write a short story. It's about pandemics. I'm pretty sure nobody is going to want to read it anytime soon; and by the time people are over our collective trauma and ready to read about it there will be thousands more jamming up the editors' inboxes. But it made me feel a lot better--both writing it, and later showing it to people and having them say it was good.

At night, I try to fill my head with nice things before bed. I'm rewatching Good Omens and planning craft projects. So I try to think of those things as I go to sleep, but instead I think about the virus and my stomach and chest are caught in a vise. It's hard to make myself relax and rest.

I haven't felt that great for about four years now, since I got pregnant with Jackie. I felt like it was slowly getting better, as she gets older and I get further from the horrific memory of that pregnancy. But this school year has been hard. When it's just me and Jackie at home, she gets even more clingy and demanding. And work on top of that hasn't been so much a break as a source of stress. I was badly needing a break, or I thought I was.

But now that the break is here, and I don't have to work, and John is here to help, and Jackie is playing with her big siblings, I don't feel better at all. I feel a lot worse. I'm not completely sure if it's worry about the world, or just being forced to pay attention to how I feel instead of being numbed with hours of children's nursery rhymes. All I know is I haven't felt this bad in some time.

I think it's time for me to go see a therapist. I don't want to, because it's scary and because it reminds me of spiritual direction. The thought of opening up to a stranger, somebody who isn't anteing up with their own secrets and needing their own comfort, makes me want to puke. But trying to ride this out is not really working. I've been trying so hard to be the emotionally stable one for my whole family, but that extra pressure is only making it harder to manage.

Of course, I picked the worst possible time to decide that I want to make an appointment for anything. Virtual therapy is a thing, but if typing my feelings made me feel better, I'd be fine by now. There's nothing like saying things out loud to a person who's actually there.

There will be weeks more of this at best. The school is hoping mid-April. Others are saying June. And when we do get back--slowly, cautiously, waiting to see if the beast re-emerges--it'll be with a new fear. My dream of spending the summer taking my kids places, now that they're all old enough to be taken most places, has vanished and been replaced with the dream of getting to go anywhere at all.

I am staying very closely in touch with people. I'm on facebook more than ever. I'm chatting in several different bubbles all day. I'm calling family I haven't called in a while. I think this has served to remind me just how important all my loved ones are to me; how irreplaceable they are by any book or TV show or game.

It's too soon to say how much this will change the world. An economic depression is certain. But that won't be all of it. I feel like it's revealing how much of our economy is necessary, how much is optional, and how much is completely fake. We can simply decide to push all mortgage payments back three months, and it's so. Tax day can be pushed back. Rent can be waived, a lot of the time. And yet the truckers must drive, the cleaners must clean, the nurses must work. What will that new realization do? Will we start taking better care of the people who kept us going through this? I certainly hope so.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Plague journal

I should be working on my novel right now. There are a lot of things I could be doing, during this time of social distancing, but I just keep going back to my phone, checking on my friends, checking the headlines, checking on the numbers. I don't want to think about the coronavirus, but I can't seem to think about anything else.

So I figured I'd just write about what it's like. My kids will remember it as a time of fun, lots of screen time, playing in the yard, and no school. But when they're older, I want to be able to tell them what it was like for me.

This certainly is going to go down in the history books; we'll be feeling the cultural and economic effects of it long after it's stopped going around. Maybe, reading the death tolls, people will think, "Well, obviously it was going to be big." But of course, we don't have those death tolls now! We have hints and signs and fears, we have countries beginning to be hit hard and countries with a few cases and people saying it's a huge overreaction.

I first thought it might be a big deal when a friend of mine shared an article to that effect, maybe a month ago. I thought, yeah, okay, that's a little concerning. I picked up an extra package of rice and one of beans, got serious about handwashing, and hoped it would be handled well.

Of course it was not. This country is not being run by adults at the moment. I have ideas for how things could be managed better, but nobody is asking me. If my kids ask if people realized it was being so badly mismanaged--well, I did. But some people even now think that we're lucky to have the leadership we do.

I watched the cases get closer and closer. A few here and there, no worries, they're isolated. Then oh dear, a cluster here and there, community transfer. The sports leagues had cases; they canceled all their games. Broadway went dark. The first cases were reported in our state.

On Thursday I asked my boss if our school would close if the public schools did. She said, oh, that's not going to happen. Just because the schools are closing other places doesn't mean it will happen here. But sure, if that happens, like, next month, no worries, we have spring break soon anyway. We're certainly not going to be the only school open.

So I told my students, if there's no school next week, keep working on this chapter. They were shocked. Surely they won't cancel school, no one is saying that, it's not going to happen. But I thought, with cases already in Virginia, it would happen soon. Sure enough, the governor made the call on Friday. I went shopping before the kids got home, because Friday is my day to, but I wish I had gone earlier. It was very busy. There was plenty of most food, but no toilet paper and little bread.

Our state has had its first death. Most people I know did not go to church on Sunday. A lot of people are still saying it's a massive overreaction; it's one death and people die of flu all the time. I'm watching the news from Iran and Italy and seeing how fast this thing spreads, how high the death rate is, and I am pretty sure it will soon be that way here. I am glad the schools are shut down and I wish people were distancing themselves more than they are. Doesn't do much good to shut things down halfway.

At this point, some people are staying home entirely. Plenty of people are still going out--congregating in restaurants, congregating at bars, getting the kids together for playdates. I'm trying not to. I let the kids play with a neighbor and now I'm second-guessing it. After all, John's work still isn't canceled. I don't want to be a vector between his work and another family.

The stores are still a nightmare. I thought people would have stocked up by now and would be staying out of the stores, but they're not. Everyone wants toilet paper; no one could possibly need that much toilet paper. Somebody bought up thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer so he could resell at a profit. That kind of thing disappoints me. I would like to believe that in a crisis, we'd all choose to be community-spirited and pull together, but unfortunately in a crisis people remain about the same.

Our capitalist economy, so good at handling other kinds of change deftly, is hindering us here. People go to work sick because they don't get paid if they don't. Plenty of companies will fire you for being sick too much. People are scrambling for childcare because they have to work but the schools are closed. A coronavirus test, if you can get one at all (you can't in my town) will cost over a thousand dollars. We're beginning to realize that we are only as safe as the poorest and most vulnerable, but not in time to do very much about it. We desperately need some kind of economic help: a fund to cover sick pay for people in quarantine; eviction freezes; no payments needed on rent or loans. Instead there has been a bailout only for the banks.

Here at home, we continue on. The kids have painted, done puzzles, played with playdoh, watched documentaries, played on the computer, read books. They would like to go somewhere but don't seem too upset yet that we can't. Tomorrow it should be nice and they can play in the yard. Maybe go for a walk.

Facebook is full of selfies and memes and conversations--for me, not many arguments, just checking in. We are a little bored and a lot scared and that makes us need to talk to each other as much as we can. If we can't be together in person, let's text each other fifty times a day.

This is three days in; it's nothing yet. We're going to get a lot more bored yet, and a lot more scared. A few people I know have fevers and can't get tested. That's going to increase. Some people I know may die. I hope not. Both of my surviving grandparents are isolating themselves; everyone sick I know is doing what they can. I'm not afraid for myself; I don't want to be sick, but I am in good health generally. I'm likely to be able to get over it on my own. And I'm not afraid for my kids. They're supposed to be pretty resistant. But I am afraid for the 3% who will die if they get it, people I know and people I don't know. And I'm afraid for the many more who will die if they get it and can't get medical care because the hospitals are overwhelmed. There's a "flatten the curve" thing going around, but there's no scale bar given. And why? Because the peak of the natural curve is so steep that it's many, many times the level we can handle. To flatten it out enough, we have to stop it almost in its tracks. Which I hope--I wish I could believe we will.

I don't feel very hopeful. I feel like I'm watching a car wreck in slow motion; the outcome already determined, my feet glued to the ground. Nothing I can do can make it not unfold this way. All I can do is watch and root for humanity over a virus. I grew up thinking plagues were over; that pretty much everything serious was eradicated or treatable. Now I just worry that after this one has its way with us, there will be another, and another. And humanity too divided, too suspicious, too panicky to do anything but run and hoard and spread it.

This has been a really hard four years for me. I was just recovering from losing my faith in 2016. I thought, you know, it's a shame God doesn't have it all worked out, but we have each other. Humanity's doing pretty well considering. I read The Better Angels of Our Nature and felt like maybe things were just going to get better all the time, as we learned how to do it.

And every damn thing in the past four years has been reality hitting me with a wet smack in the face: NO! IT'S! NOT! GETTING! BETTER! Maybe there's a hard upper limit on how civilized humanity can manage to be. Maybe we're just too broken inside, not from a fruit but because evolution didn't care if we were happy or good, only that some of us were strong enough to live. Maybe we'll wipe ourselves out from our stupidity, sooner or later, with one thing or another. Maybe that's why we've never found any aliens: because nature doesn't create anything that can handle getting this far from barbarism.

I'm sorry about these negative reflections. I know it's not the whole story. I know that people are good and kind and that I'm not the only person sacrificing all the things I might rather do to save the lives of others. My neighbor braved the stores and brought me a pack of toilet paper today. That has to count for something. I want to believe things can be better. I make plans for how we'll handle the next pandemic, how prepared we'll be, what leaders I want handling it. I wait and see what will come. I wash my hands and share funny memes and try not to spiral. That's kind of all I can do right now.

That, and I can make my kids remember this as the fun school break where they played cards and got to watch so much TV.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Utilitarianism is for pandemics

It's hard to make decisions right now. Different sources are saying different things; one minute you read about people hoarding toilet paper and laugh, the next you read about how close the closest case is to you and your chest gets tight with panic.

Or maybe that's just me.

But emotion, of course, isn't a good guide for action. It's almost impossible to choose to be exactly as scared as a situation warrants, instead of falling prey either to panic or to normalcy bias. (That would be the one where you think, whenever I get scared it always ends up being nothing, I'm going to sit tight and not worry while everyone else runs around the room fills with smoke.) And even if you could choose to be the right amount of scared, adrenaline doesn't actually tell you what to do. It just makes you want to do something, and sometimes you pick something wildly unhelpful like stealing masks from a doctor's office.

So we need moral reasoning to get us through. Deontology asks: is there a moral prohibition against ever spreading illness? No, there is not; while it's generally wise to wash your hands often and to stay home if you're sick, none of us is used to cancel whole conferences because of one sick attendee. So deontology would have us carry on as usual, following usual rules. Unless your usual rule is "listen to public health organizations," which is probably a good one unless your government is so corrupt you can't trust it.

Catholic moral reasoning would ask if you intended to infect anyone. Could you know with reasonable certainly that going to work would kill someone? If not then it's probably not a mortal sin, which is all some people care about. (Meanwhile some aren't even worrying about that, because after all death isn't so bad. Which is odd if you're also het up about murder and abortion and so on. Death comes for all, but one doesn't want to be the vehicle delivering it ahead of schedule.)

Honestly, utilitarianism is the most sensible moral philosophy right now. Simply ask whether your behavior will cause or prevent deaths, and what number.

Now some are going to think that means we should never go anywhere or do anything, since there is always a risk of death. But that would ignore the risks of canceling things. School is where a lot of kids get lunch. If stores close, it will be hard to get food to people. In general, economic damage slows down the economy, which means layoffs and poverty. Poverty causes deaths.

This situation, though, may be worth the cost. Between coronavirus' virulence and its death rate, millions may die if it is allowed to spread freely. Already Italy is dealing with another kind of utilitarianism, more immediate and painful: who gets the limited ventilators. If you're very old and sick, you don't get one because they don't have high hopes for you anyway. My grandpa said this morning that, because of his age and cancer, they'd only send him home to die.

That's awful, and yet I'm not going to blame utilitarianism for it. They have to allocate those ventilators somehow, and it beats having people bid cash or something. Instead, I'd say it's utilitarianism coming into the equation too late. It should have been used to shut down towns sooner. It should have been used to stop people from leaving the virus area in China. It should have been used by Patient 31, who had a fever and yet went to church exposing thousands of people.

Use utilitarianism when you're weighing lives against things other than lives. Lives against how bored you are at home, how much you wanted to go to that conference, how much money you'll waste on those vacation tickets. And use it when you're not aware you're weighing lives against lives: do we close the soup kitchen, do we go into work at a hospital today, do we pass a bill to provide sick leave or a bill to bail out businesses for lost profits.

To practice utilitarianism, you need information. Even if it makes you nervous, it's good to read the news and check for up to date recommendations. Try, as much as possible, to think with your head.

Here are a few links I found useful.

Cancel Everything - The Atlantic

Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now - Medium

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Hygiene tips for toddlers

Of course we all have been extra careful about our hygiene lately, because of coronavirus. I'm sure everyone has been washing their hands to their favorite songs for a full twenty seconds, stopping themselves from scratching their noses at the last second, and staying home if their throat is scratchy. That's a given.

But kids, you know, have a harder time. So I thought I'd put together a few helpful tips for my toddler readers (ha!) because if there's one member of our family who needs to work on their hygiene, it's the toddler.

1. Eat a healthy diet. You know how you usually strive to eat as much food off the floor as possible? Try to keep it to 2-3 floor snacks a day. And only one of these should be off the floor of a disgusting gas station.

2. Cover your sneezes and coughs. If you can't get your hands up in time, mommy's eyeball is a great place to sneeze.

3. Wash your hands often. Mom is a horrible tyrant for ever making you stop. Turn both taps on full, splash in them, splash yourself, splash the floor. More splashes = more hygiene! That's just science!

4. If you're planning to lick your palms, rub them together, and apply them to friends and family saying you're "putting sunscreen on them," ask first. For some weird reason, some grownups don't want you to do that! It's like they want to get skin cancer!

5. Get a good night's sleep every night. Of course we all know that's impossible without a parent's presence. Wake every three hours to check that they're there. If not, bellow! You need your shut-eye and it's just inconsiderate of them to keep leaving like that.

6. Avoid contact with strangers, like babysitters, the doctor, and Grandma. I recommend the stink eye and an angry grunt if they try to talk to you. This doesn't count that nice kid at the park who is throwing sand with you. He is your best friend now. Borrow his sippy cup.

7. Bathrooms are unsanitary. Don't potty train. Just say no. Forever.

8. Pets help strengthen your immune system. Share your lollipop with the dog.

9. Stop grocery store hoarding. If your mom stops at the store for extra hand sanitizer to donate to the school, scream. Roll on the floor. Say you want to sit in the cart and then make your body rigid as a board. You know what to do.

10. Stay home if at all possible. And guess what, it's always possible! Explain to mom why she can't go to work. Grab the work clothes out of her hands as she tries to get dressed. Block her path to the shower. Hide her keys. It's for public health.

Toddlers, we are counting on you!
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