Living in the Plague Year*

(*Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was published in 1722. It recounts the experiences of one man during the Bubonic Plague in London in the year 1665).

If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights how we perceive the dynamic nature of time and events. And it will certainly challenge all assumptions we’ve made about our lives and our hopes and plans for the future.

It seems as if COVID-19 has been with us forever.

However, the first cases in China were only reported on December 31st, 2019. It was only January 21st that the first case was reported in the United States – here in Washington state.  The first Chinese death was reported January 11th. The first death in the US was reported on February 29th.

Since then, the virus spread rapidly worldwide and here in the US. Worldwide, there are (at least at the time of this post) over 218,000 cases with over 8,900 dead. Here in the US, 9,200 cases with 150 deaths. And there is no end in sight.

The global economy is in meltdown,with looming corporate bankruptcies, widespread unemployment, and the possibility of a global depression.

The depth of panic is evidenced by the action of the Federal Reserve to remove all reserve requirements from the nation’s commercial banks. This action, never before undertaken, is to prevent the collapse of the reputed $1.5 quadrillion derivatives market (1 quadrillion is 1,000 trillion) – derivatives collapse when the underlying stocks and commodities collapse.

The real hardship to people who will lose jobs and have no money for food or rent is difficult to conceive. And if they have no health insurance or medical coverage and they get the virus, what do they do?

Two to three weeks ago, one could go into a grocery store and buy whatever was needed. Now, try to find key items – toilet paper is worth its weight in gold.

We’ve watched as it became clear this country was not prepared in any regard. Even with at least two months of warning, this country lags the rest of the developed world in testing for the virus.

The real heroes – doctors, nurses, and other health professionals – have warned of a crisis in the hospital system – that crisis is happening now. There were limited stores of protective clothing; now there are close to none. Our just-in-time medical system (except for executive bonuses) has a limited surge capacity in both beds and ventilators.

And what has been the government response?

Until this week, the President of the United States called it a hoax; a plot to hurt his Presidency; or no big deal as it would go away by April. It is only this week that he appears to be taking it seriously.

However, reporting from the White House suggests this sense of urgency is driven more by reelection concerns than care for the health and economic well-being of his citizens, let alone him taking a lead in the global response to the pandemic.

To be fair, and with him I find that difficult given he’s a malignant narcissist and sociopath, while he has failed the short-term tests of leadership he only took office in 2017.

Yes, his administration eliminated key monitoring and response roles for pandemics and bio-security that might have given the US a few weeks to a month head start.

But the failure to fund CDC over the years; the failure to establish properly-sized strategic reserves for protective gear and hospital beds; the failure to protect the nation’s drug supplies (most generic drugs come from China); the failure to establish a manufacturing capability for critical equipment – these are all bipartisan failures. Blame the corporate oligarchy and its paid whores in Congress (both Democrats and Republicans).

All of this has led to a good deal of stress and anxiety. You can see it on the faces of nearly everyone you meet.

So what do we do?

First, I think we need to start acknowledging reality.

We need to recognize this pandemic is not going to go away anytime soon. An internal government report, released March 13th, estimates the virus could last 18 months with multiple waves of the virus spreading among the population. Economic disruptions of an unimaginable scale; temporary (hopefully) supply chain problems affecting food and other necessities; the collapse of everyday living as we’ve come to know it; and probable exposure to the virus are all to be expected.

As the virus continues unabated, unfortunately I think we can expect to see violence – as has been seen in some Costco stores when carts collided. I’ve said to friends I expect someone to cough and be shot for coughing near someone else. Black markets will rise with “cures”, protective gear, and maybe even toilet paper.

The “wartime President’s” increasingly racist attacks on China, with his “China Flu” – abetted by the evening idiots on Fox News, are leading to increased tensions at a time that sharing information will be desperately needed. Where this will lead is nowhere good.

And the Trump administration’s incredibly cruel efforts to increase sanctions against Iran – even as that country struggles with the third highest numbers of deaths in the world – will not be forgotten by Iran and the rest of the world. One can only assume the pro-American youth of Iran will grow to hate us as previous generations have.

Next I think we have to get mentally tough for what’s ahead.

I asked my father once – he was of the Greatest Generation – how people felt in the early days of the Second World War. I said reading about the war made victory seem inevitable. It was Pearl Harbor, Battle of Midway, D-Day, VE Day, and VJ Day.

He said that wasn’t how it was in 1942. People were scared at the thought of what the country was facing with two powerful rampaging enemies; it wasn’t so much victory they were thinking about as survival.

Then he, his brother (who was killed in 1945 on Okinawa), and the millions of other men and women, both those deployed overseas in the military and working the home front as civilians, set their jaws and did what was expected of them.

Maybe that’s our calling.

The rendezvous with destiny that Roosevelt spoke of in 1936 regarding that generation wasn’t one age group – it was everyone. And the same is true today.

We have to set our jaws and do what we have to do to survive and ultimately prevail. There will be many hardships; difficult sacrifices will be required; and there will be losses, perhaps among some we know and love.

The third thing is we have to become more empathetic.

Humanity faces a common enemy in the COVID-19 virus. We have to mourn the deaths elsewhere as much as our own. We have to look at what other countries are doing and see what works (and what doesn’t). We have to see in everyone what we see in those we know and love.

This is no time to think we Americans are exceptional or that the “land of the free and the home of the brave” is the only place that matters.

We share common fears and hopes with the factory worker in Wuhan, the shop owner in Tehran, the businessman in Milan, and the peckerwood truck driver in Alabama.

Finally, remember that social distancing is not emotional distancing.

We may have to stay six or more feet from one another, but we can strengthen the human bonds necessary for a society to endure. A smile and a greeting in this time helps remind each other that we are all human and we are all afraid.

For those further away and those you may be unable to visit, call them on the phone. A human voice is more important now than a text message or email. The human voice can betray the fear that is felt more than an emoticon. A caring word that is spoken can give strength and convey love.

There will come a time when the worst of this has passed. Things will be much different as they inevitably are with dislocations of this magnitude. Hopefully those on the far side of this curve can soberly look at what they endured and suffered and recognize the strength they had to have, and then resolve to build a more just and equitable society for everyone.

One other thing. Wash your hands frequently and cover your coughs and sneezes.

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Tom

Author: Tom

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