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.

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