One year into the pandemic

posted by Jeff | Saturday, March 13, 2021, 12:51 PM | comments: 0

A year ago this week, we ate inside a restaurant for the last time, cancelled a cruise and stocked up on liquor for the spring break that didn't end. The last year caused a lot of chaos, and the dark anniversary causes a lot of reflection for me. For some it results in a lot of entitlement and righteous politics, but I'll get to that later.

Just before Covid-19 started to spread in the states, the thing that already concerned me was the middling nature of the threat. The early science, which panned out even if the "right" mitigation strategy was a moving target, suggested that this was a disease that was frighteningly easy to transmit, but the odds of dying from it if you were hospitalized was 1 in 4. It took six months to get that down to 1 in 10, mostly by changing the drug treatments and getting people off of their backs. But just looking at general odds of dying of the disease painted a picture that disadvantaged those over 50, because if you were under, the odds of you dying were very low, but in the process you became a transmission vector that was a real threat to lives over 50. We also know now that "long Covid" is a thing that knows no limits. Regardless, the disease was going to be bad, but not bad enough that people would take it seriously. Catastrophic consequences for relatively few from a disease easily transmitted is a recipe for apathy.

So far, 530,000 Americans have died from the disease, and it didn't have to be that way. Some of my friends lost parents, coworkers and friends, but my immediate circle has been spared.

I work remotely, so nothing really changed in my day job capacity, except that I've not had the chance to meet any of my team in real life. Well, the importance of the job changed, I suppose, when your company handles online ordering for major restaurant brands. We've obviously done a lot of take-out and delivery in the last year, and we're not alone in that.

For a good portion of the summer, our sunny Friday evenings involved making drinks, watching Suzy & Alex play covers and lots of neighborhood walks. That was the crazy thing, that I had never seen so much of my neighbors in the 300 or so units that make up our subdivision. Diana bought her first new bicycle in her life. There was a comfortable rhythm to life, though it sucked not having the theme parks, where we went not just for our own amusement, but to meet our friends.

Then came the Zoom calls... so many Zoom calls. Diana had a regular cadence with her work friends, we did calls with family and friends. I had virtual happy hours with my coworkers. On Christmas day, we just left a call open, posted the link online, and people dropped in whenever they felt like it. We had our Seattle counterparts on for about six hours. It wasn't ideal, but it was nice to catch up.

Diana was able to go back to work late in the year for outdoor shows, in an industry otherwise destroyed by this thing. No sooner did that begin that she was hit by a careless driver, totaling the car. I spent some time talking to the deputy as we waited for FHP to write up the accident, and I asked him how the pandemic affected his job. He told me he lost three friends to the disease, likely exposed from a public that was apathetic about the pandemic. Knowing a few nurses and doctors, I know it had been pretty terrible for them, but framing the problem in the context of a non-medical, first responder, that frustrated me. It still does.

We've been careful not to be shut-ins, but at the same time tried to avoid obvious risk. Diana and Simon have had their share of bronchitis and pneumonia, so there's some elevated risk there. We've all had our share of time in retail establishments and outdoor activities. Simon went back in to school once their mitigation strategy was validated. We've avoided grandparents since they're the most vulnerable, especially with surgeries and cancer treatments.

The end of this is in sight though. I've had my first vaccination, and April 19 I'm two weeks after the second, and protected. Diana could get her first maybe as soon as next week if the state or county decides it's time. Simon may not be eligible until later in the year, but if adults are doing their thing, they become extremely low risk for infection, let alone serious illness.

We may have to wear masks in many public indoor places for awhile, but I don't think that's a huge deal. The mask thing is the single most frustrating aspect of the pandemic though, because this relatively simple and effective thing has been made political to an insane degree. Americans have demonstrated a willingness to be entitled and selfish in a way that made the pandemic far worse than it had to be. People (usually white, well-off people) say things like, "I should be able to choose what's right for me and my family," not grasping that defeating disease is not something that comes down to individuals, but collective effort. One's actions affect everyone else. So explain your grasp of freedom to someone who lost a parent or coworker or friend, I'm sure that will be reassuring for them. Explain it to people in New Zealand or Australia, where they have concerts and don't have to wear masks anymore.

American reaction in general seems typical of our culture: Think about right now and disregard the future. What we've learned from other nations that mitigated hard up front is that the short-term economic damage was worth it in the long run, because it led to better economic and health outcomes in the long run. We collectively have ignored this, and we've had more deaths per capita and the economic carnage to go with it, because all of that death isn't free.

Having wholly incompetent leadership at many levels didn't help, especially those that thought it prudent to hide or question the scientists. A friend of mine who leads a municipal government in Florida has repeatedly over the last year expressed his frustration with the fact that no one at the federal and state level was really doing anything to help. Even fundamental and honest communication based in reality would have been a great start. To that end, the clarity we've seen in the last two months, with a CDC enabled to do its job, things are getting better. Vaccine distribution and manufacturing has ramped up and has clearer outcomes.

The biggest question for me is, how do we move forward? The investment to plan for this sort of thing isn't large compared to the possible outcomes, and it was on the Bush administration's radar almost 20 years ago. Furthermore, the pandemic has demonstrated how broken our healthcare system is, how vulnerable we are to hunger and homelessness and the cultural destructiveness of those inequities. We can't just sweep that under the rug and pretend it's OK. After two hundred years of American exceptionalism, it's time to own up to the fact that we're not all we're cracked up to be, but a little self-awareness could lead to action that would give us something to really boast about.

Psychologically, yes, this has been a challenging year, though in my case, much of that had to do with other factors outside of the pandemic. But realistically, my societal rank allowed me to coast through the year with minimal risk or difficulty. I'm not going to insult anyone who had to stand in line for food by complaining I had to have my wine delivered to me. I'm definitely not going to claim entitlement to freedom of masks when the FedEx delivery woman has to enter a crowded warehouse and then go door to door dropping things off to uppity suburbanites who get to work from home. We might all have our struggles, but they're not the same.

As we emerge from this, we need to do a better job at being a functional society. I don't think that's political, it's about basic human respect.


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