My COVID Times Diary – Back to “Normal”
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. ~ Lao Tzu
So there’s been a lot of talk lately about getting back to “normal”, as if at some point we flip a light a switch and everything is suddenly like it used it to be before Covid Times. First of all, let’s talk about the changes because the world has certainly changed since March.
Let’s get right to the heart of it, since most of us came under shelter in place orders over 65,000 Americans have died and that number continues to climb. One of the favorite things the “coronavirus is no big deal” crowd love to say is that the flu kills more people. Most years somewhere between 4,000 and 50.000 die per year from the flu. Covid has killed 65.000+ in a couple of months, so let’s put that bit of misinformation to bed. And that’s WITH massive socially distancing efforts, without a doubt had we not done what we have, and continue to do, that number would be far higher.
We have been sheltering in place, learning how to do everything virtually. We have become familiar with lots of new terms like, flattening the curve, hell I even worked it into a presentation last week. Many of us have learned how to be elementary school teachers or at the very least assistant teachers. We’ve been learning how to entertain ourselves at home, workout at home, socialize from home, I even attended a birthday party in Spokane, Washington from home.
Milestones are being missed, lots of high school seniors are missing out on proms and graduations. They are teens, they are understandably upset but as I discussed with one of them, its not unreasonably to be said that the choice could be between the prom and your grandma living another ten years. I realize that’s a harsh thing to say, but it’s also the truth, sure, might not be their grandmother, but it would be someone’s granny. Here are some images of how life has changed in just the last two months.
People are understandably antsy after six to eight weeks of sheltering in place and having their comfortable lives greatly disrupted. Add to this fear, stress, the unknown, lack of certainty or knowledge and all of that really eats at people. Throw into it people, their family and friends losing or being in fear of losing their incomes through their jobs or even businesses they’ve built and it’s hard on people, really hard.
We have a really difficult decision in front of us as a country, what’s more important economic health, or human health. In our capitalist society we have typically chosen economic health at the expense of the health of people at the margins of our society. However now, those margins are far broader and choosing economic health means that we are choosing the economy over the very lives of the elderly (particularly in nursing homes), diabetics and people with other underlying conditions like high blood pressure. None of these conditions are rare, ten percent of Americans are diabetic, thirty percent have high blood pressure and 16% are over 60. The numbers are far worse in the African American community, 19 and 41% respectively. You see we’re not just choosing the economy over health, we’re making a decision that will have a much higher impact on minority and vulnerable populations. Obviously, there’s a point when the economic harm will outweigh the damage done than the virus is doing. Before reaching that point, we need to reopen the economy and make a move toward normalcy. The problem is that we don’t know enough about this virus, or the economy you might argue, to be certain about any of this.
However we do know what the best practices are in taking this action. The best practices suggest that we have to have a high level of accurate testing capability both for active cases as well as antibody testing to see who has had it, and give us an indication of what their immune status is at this time. Next, we have to have a high level of contact tracing ability. What this means is that if these things are in place, we can determine who has immunity and who is actively sick. We can quarantine the sick and quickly track down those they have been in contact with and have them self-quarantine. This is the only reliable way to keep the virus in check while re-opening the economy, it also means publicly maintaining social distancing. The problem is, is that we’re not ready to effectively do any of this.
What happens if we open without those capabilities is place is unreliably predictable. What do I mean by that? Well, in some places if people aren’t tested and tracked and people violate social distancing recommendations, the virus will rebound and we will see flare ups and even widespread outbreaks. But this is wholly unpredictable, and in some places you may get bigger flare ups than in other places. It’s based on random chance and luck, the number of asymptomatic carriers (think Typhoid Mary), and even the ways in which people ignore social distancing recommendations. I have no faith people that people will follow social distancing guidelines.
How do I say that with such certainty. Well, strict social distancing and shelter in place guidelines are in place right now and here’s what I saw just today. At the grocery store this morning, people ignoring all of the signage, going in the exit, not following directional arrows, standing too close to the person in line in front of them. I saw people everywhere with no masks, or masks around their necks. I saw a father and son walking down the street and an older man stopped to talk with them and asked and received a high five from the kid, it wasn’t sufficient, so he had him do it again.
I saw a group of six men talking two feet apart from each other. Some with masks, some with masks covering their mouths but not their noses, others without, just chatting away. Californians took great joy when the governor of Florida reopened the beaches near Jacksonville and people flooded those beaches. The hashtag #floridamorons was very popular on social media. Then it got hot in Southern California and tens of thousands flooded the beaches of SoCal, pictures in California were indistinguishable from the Florida pictures. A Norther California County opened this weekend, a restaurant in El Dorado County opened and packed it’s tiny dining room. This is what’s happening with the restrictions fully in place, I have no faith in people to do whats smart and right, once the restrictions are lifted. Oh, without a doubt businesses will make more money, unemployment will start to reduce and more people will die. We will clearly have chosen economy over humanity.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that the corona virus outbreak is our next 9/11. I don’t think that is a terrible comparison, especially for the point I want to make about returning to “normal.” You see 9/11 was an acute trauma for America, in a single day thousands of Americans were killed. It damaged us, not just physically, but it drove a stake through the center of our psyche. That day and the acts that followed over the next years have permanently changed America. Now, almost twenty years after 9/11 we’re back to normal. But think about what normal is now.
If you’re old enough, you remember when returning home from a trip meant meeting friends or loved ones at the gate right off of the jetway. When you went to the airport you could get there 30 minutes before a flight, hustle and make your flight. But now, no one but ticketed passengers can get past security. You have to partially disrobe on your way through the checkpoint, you can’t carry on any liquids or even a big tube of toothpaste. The whole process means now arriving a recommended two hours before your flight. It used to be your lazy friend who didn’t want to come to the gate would sit in their car outside of baggage claim. You can no longer loiter at the curb in your car without the police asking you to move on.
In the late 70’s my uncle thought he was funny on a trip with his friend to Mexico. He let his friend get in front of him on the way to the plane and then yelled, “Hi Jack.” Yes, his name was Jack and that little prank earned him some dirty looks and a quick word from the flight staff. Now, a prank like that gets you kicked off the flight and some time with TSA with the possibility of federal charges. People of Arab descent, men in particular, and Sikhs, seem to very frequently get pulled for “randomly selected” additional security screening. This is what we now consider normal.
What will our new normal be like? This question is really relevant to me in my job. I’m part of an administration that will need to figure out how to reopen campus. How to bring students into classroom with social distancing, how to operate a division office, how to appropriately run labs under the new “normal.”
Think of how deep this goes. How do you open schools where you need young kids to not touch each other, to wash their hands often, to cover when they cough and not to touch everything? As a friend said on social media recently, you can’t put two little kids together and have them not touch each other, now scale that up to 25 or 30 kids. Think about pre-school and day care where small children and toddlers need hugs and other contact to feel safe and loved. Sure, children seem to be doing better when they get the disease, but they do still get the disease. And what about the custodians, teachers, cafeteria works, aides, principals, office workers, school nurses and counselors? I guess we finally designate educators as heroes, like grocery store workers. If you’ve had children you have no doubt experienced how much more often your children and you yourself got ill after they started school. Small children are fabulous disease transmission vectors, COVID transmission will be no different. I’m not saying don’t open schools in fall, I’m just saying lets not pretend there are no consequences or that things will be our old version of normal. Children eating lunch in their classrooms, will they have PE or recess?
Grocery stores have already showed some of the changes that will occur in the shopping environment and that will continue. Taped down lines to help people understand what six feet apart means. Limiting the number of people in stores, in the dining room of restaurants, paper plates and throw away utensils in restaurants. No more buffets, servers wearing masks and gloves and what else? Will we ever shake hands again or hug, we will, but should we, before this is over? Particularly if there is no vaccine and no solid curative agents, how we will date in Covid Times? The definition of bravery will be going to a new therapist for a massage, sustained close quarter contact is the perfect method of transmission. Our new “normal,” will not be the normal you saw in November of 2019. You will never be the same again, the world will never be the same again.
I said when all of this began that this would be a far bigger economic than health crisis. I stand by that assertion, it’s horrible that likely 100,000+ people will die from this illness this year, that millions will become ill, maybe even you or me. But 30 million are already filing for unemployment which means like 40 million are already out of work or have had their incomes seriously impacted. Millions more are stressed wondering if they will be laid off soon. The economic impact has been acute, reaching Great Depression levels in a very short period of time. This will be the worst economic pain we have felt in almost 100 years as a society and very likely the worst of our lives. Now the only good news is that the path to recovery is clearer than it was for the Great Depression or the Great Recession. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be long lasting impacts from this disease, there will be. So there’s not just a battle against a disease but also an economic recovery that has to happen before we even get to our new “normal.’ ~ Michael “Rev” Kane
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