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March 2020

Quarantine Thoughts, Part 1: Reshaping the World

PandemicMoi

"Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate."

–Michael O. Leavitt, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 2007

 

Soooooo many thoughts. So many.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the Big Picture lately, and that's where I want to go right now. I'm not all that detail-oriented as a person but I'm good at pulling back and seeing patterns in events. If I could parlay that into working the stock market, or cared enough to, I'd be rich. But I'm more interested in the ebb and flow of history and social trends. Fascinated by it, really. William Gibson's book Pattern Recognition really spoke to me. I think I may have to re-read it. Anyway, I fear this will be one of a multi-part series. If the pandemic goes on long enough, I'll have my own collection of plague letters.

Because you realize that's what this is right? It's a plague, like the Black Death. A plague, but not The Plague. Not as virulent, thank goodness, but potentially able to wipe out a significant percent of the total population. And the Black Death, when it swept through the world in the Middle Ages, changed everything, in a way the last great pandemic, the Spanish Flu, did not. I'll append some links to useful information and science-geek sources on Covid-19 (the disease vs. the virus) at the end, but I've been doing a lot of that at my Facebook page (yes, I caved and went back; more on that in another post), where you can search the #covid19 hashtag, but that's not where I'm heading right now.

Right now, I'm seeing this as a watershed moment not just in the US, but the world. We are at a tipping point of many consequences, one that has the possibility to change the way we work, the way we interact socially, our political systems, our economics. Even how we arrange our lives. I don't think it will be long before most of the U.S. is forced into quarantine like China, because our response has been so woefully inadequate from the git-go. Americans don't obey orders well, and the last several years have seen us inundated with scientifically illiterate talking heads, poor scientific education for the masses, and most recently, a demagogue who is a moron and a fool who believes only in what he knows, which ain't much. So this is unlikely to be the orderly quarantine of China or Europe.

As an example, there's "Katie Williams, a former Ms. Nevada who was stripped of her title for putting pro-Trump postings on the non-political Ms. America social media accounts [responding to AOC's call for people under 40 to stay the hell home:] 'I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I’m 30. It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want,'” cited by the indispensable Heather Cox Richardson. I had an argument just last night with a young college-age idiot who repeated the "this is just a media hoax to weaken the president" party line from Fox (the perpetrator of which has since been put on leave, to Fox's credit). Assholes like that, and like a well-educated Facebook acquaintance—who insists on traveling because he's old, and he's got a zillion frequent-flyer miles to use up, and doesn't care what happens to him—are what make pandemics what they are. Quarantines only work if people have no physical contact with infected people or surfaces. It's not about you getting it, dumbasses, it's about you spreading it. This is why I'm at home right now.

I've been a little under the weather since about last Thursday (March 4th). The symptoms have been so mild that I didn't think much of it: a teeny fever I didn't know I had until I bothered to take my temperature; an almost-sore throat; a cough I attributed to seasonal allergies, though my nose isn't running much. By the time I had the information and presence of mind to think I might have been infected, it's possible that I'd been spreading it for at least a week, if I've got it. I'm not happy about that. I'm not sick enough to warrant going anywhere for treatment, and I couldn't get tested if I did, because our government has fucked this up so royally that we may never get a good count of how many people this virus infected, unlike China or Korea, who will have tested hundreds of thousands if not millions of people to get accurate data. But the idea that I've possibly been infecting other people really bothers me.

But this post is not about me. This is not me virtue-signaling either. This is me trying to model what the right thing to do is because so many people don't understand how serious this is. Stay home if you can. If you must go out, keep your distance, wash your hands, cover your mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough and throw the tissue away, wear gloves you can either throw out or wash. Stay. Home. I've been self-quarantining now for a week, and will continue to do so. My office asked us all to work at home if we could on March 5th, the day after I decided to stay home and take a sick day. Yesterday, our CEO announced that it seemed likely we would be working at home beyond the initial projection of March 23rd. I think we're likely to be doing it for a long time.

A looooooong time. Like, months. (A friend who was on a CDC conference call today said they are predicting ongoing infections into next year.)

And the longer that time is, the more businesses shut down or shift the way they do business—from us going to them to them coming to us—the more changes happen in our economy. The more changes in our economy—lost jobs, mandatory paid sick leaves, quarantining of all non-essential workers (medical personnel, people in infrastructure jobs, repair people, banks, pharmacies, grocery stories, delivery people) the more our way of life changes. The longer that goes on, the more normal it becomes. The more normal it becomes, the less we want to go back to the old ways when this is over. The end result is massive social change.

There is a tsunami of things that need to happen to support ordinary people in the midst of a pandemic, especially in a country like ours where there is very little in the way of social safety net. When people get sick or infected, we don't want them working in public or with pubic goods. That means mandatory sick days or loss of jobs for people who are running public transportation, delivering your mail and goods, manning the gas pumps. When people lose their jobs, they can't pay bills or rent. Landlords and banks lose mortgage and rent payments. They can't pay their bills. Wealth doesn't trickle down, but poverty sure does in this instance. Our lack of mandatory paid sick days is a major failing. My vote for Most Despised Motherfucker in the World, Jeff Bezos, owner of Whole Foods, has offered his serfs two weeks of paid sick leave and unlimited unpaid sick leave, and urged his workers to donate their vacation time to their colleagues. Like he couldn't afford to absorb a month or more of paid sick leave for all his Amazon and subsidiary employees without missing anything in his grotesque pile of cash.

Hoarding wealth & TPI can rant about Bezos's lack of humanitarian values all day, but Amazon, especially, is illustrative of the underlying problem. If you cannot afford to not work, you are a source of contagion. If you are too sick to work, your fiscal house of cards falls over in the winds of a system that demands money for everything. When enough houses fall over, when enough people are evicted, have their utilities cut off, their internet turned off, their houses repossessed, their cars—that plunges more and more people into the kind of poverty it's almost impossible to get out of later. Capitalism has no mercy. And with the majority of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people, we are in no position to weather even a couple of months of non-payments. That will lead to economic collapse. And the dispossessed are an excellent pool of vectors, so the pandemic takes longer to burn itself out, and then they become endemic sources. Trade and tourism get shut off because we can't get our shit together. That tanks our economy further. The cause and effect here is really fucking brutal. 

Closing schools is another example of the unintended consequences problem. School is a source of contagion. Kids are germ factories and snot everywhere. We all know this. But if you close schools, who's going to watch the kids of people who can't afford childcare and must go to work to pay the rent, many of whom perform vital services for the rest of us? Where are the kids who depend on school lunches for their main meal of the day going to eat? What if we had a basic income? What if we had affordable childcare for all? What if we had a president who wasn't eviscerating the food stamp program? What if he hadn't bankrupted so many farms with his stupid manufactured trade war bullshit? 

And don't even start me on healthcare. I don't think I need to explain what a hot mess that is in the middle of a pandemic, with or without gutting the CDC and making us utterly unready to face this. Or the fact that so few of us have access to healthcare that won't bankrupt us. And when people start dying in large numbers of something their government should be helping to alleviate, it tends to make them a little testy. That can lead to all sorts of world-changing things. Or at least regime-changing.

So the system we have now, of unfettered capitalism and the sequestration of wealth among a few people, along with a group of leaders who think less government is more, is abysmally failing the test of the pandemic. Now what?

I can see this going a couple of ways, one good, one not so good.

After 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers did an amazing job of helping each other out. People lined up to give blood, to volunteer, to search, to help rebuild, to feed, clothe and shelter each other. Sure there were some ugly incidents. There always are. But overall, we pulled together and helped each other. We became not just a city, but a community. Even when government failed, and it did in both instances in a big way for many people, the community didn't. 

Now, we've had too many years of meanness both on social media, via Faux News, and from our own elected officials. I don't think there's ever been an American administration as gratuitously, indifferently, indiscriminately cruel as this one is, even the ones that practiced genocide on Native Americans, supported slavery, and locked up Japanese Americans in concentration camps. This one fucks over everyone who is not a rich white male of a certain age. If you are not rich, fuck you.

One way this pandemic can go is that we can follow the lead of the administration and adopt an every man for himself attitude. Can't get healthcare? Too bad. Die, motherfucker, and your little dog too. Can't afford to not work or don't have any paid sick leave? Too bad. Work while you're sick, spreading the disease. We don't care. Quarantined and can't get out to get food? Too bad. Starve. Lost your job and can't pay your rent or mortgage? Too bad. Out the door. In this scenario, disaster capitalism rules and everything gets privatized or bought up that isn't already. The black market that is already getting started continues unchecked and encompasses more and more goods, including food and medicines that may or may not be efficacious. T-Rump uses this opportunity to impose martial law at the height of the quarantine and institute his favorite fascist policies. Your civil rights, always dicey during national emergencies, are "temporarily" suspended. Elections are "delayed." Schools and universities are permanently closed. Big business is bailed out but the common consumer is not. Eventually, the pandemic subsides, but we are left with a massive number of homeless people, and more dead than we should have had. The National Guard, or perhaps the army, deployed for the first time on American soil to enforce the quarantine, remains in place to suppress citizen unrest. The U.S. becomes a fascist state with Trump as president for life, our government pared down to nearly nothing, the rich getting rich and the poor—eh, let them eat cake.

Probably the sole check on the full horror of this scenario is that the pandemic is not Ebola or something more virulent and deadly. With that kind of a disease, even close neighbors can easily get panicked enough to weld you into your house and/or set it on fire with you inside, while handing over all their authority to whomever's in charge, hoping to save themselves.  Covid-19 is pretty mild by comparison. Being an old fart with at least two contraindications myself, I'm not going to say it doesn't matter that it mostly affects older people and the immuno-compromised. I have two friends with new kidneys I'm deeply worried about. But that it doesn't prey indiscriminately on everyone is far better than otherwise.

Now, here's what I'm hoping will happen: 

First, all those old, rich, white, male Republicans who pooh-poohed the severity of Covid-19 and went everywhere shaking hands and raising money for their re-election get sick as dogs and die. Kidding! (Maybe. Something has got to stop that sociopathic fuckhead Mitch McConnell from using his ideology to obstruct anything that might help people who aren't his donors and cronies.) Somehow, we hold T-Rump's feet to the fire and Congress manages to pass a massive aid bill (suck it out of the border wall funds and some of the military budget) that includes: mandatory paid sick leave; free covid-19 testing and treatment; a basic income to tide over people who have no other source of income and can't work during quarantine, have lost their jobs, or who are too sick to work; a moratorium on evictions and mortgage, rent, and utilities payments for the duration of your illness; strict enforcement of the ADA regulations forbidding people from being fired for this illness; suspension of student and other loan payments for the duration; investment in internet infrastructure to facilitate distance work and learning (let's just call it a public utility and be done; we all know we're paying too damn much for it now). Let me know if I forgot something.

None of this is impossible. Some of it is being instituted now in New York City and California, who I hope are leading the way to more community-minded action. AOC, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi (and Bernie, I think; I haven't kept track) have all put forward plans to help ordinary people out, while T-Rump and his gang of robber barons are busy shoring up big business. But it's less the details of plans themselves that are important, though they are, than the message they send, which is, Take Care of Each Other. Help your neighbors. Don't pretend you can do this alone.  As my friend Sylvie Richards posted:

Do you know who the elderly people are in your building or neighborhood? In my building, the doormen have identified the elderly people who live alone. We are making sure that they have groceries, medicine, wipes, etc. and that they know that they are being cared for. Now is the time for us to take care of each other. Please -- identify and care for the elderly around you.

And of course, one of the reasons Mitch McSatan is fighting anything like this tooth and nail is that this legislation is a slippery slope to FDR-like programs: single-payer healthcare, free college, an infrastructure that serves the people not the corporations, loan forgiveness, job protections, maybe even—gasp!—higher wages. Not utopia, by any means, but a better way of life. Just as a sample of what this might lead to, the unintended consequences of supporting people: With better, cheaper internet service, maybe more of us will continue to telecommute, having broken the grasp of our micromanagers. Our cities would become less congested We'd need less office space and have more room for affordable housing. Imagine less commuting, less pollution from that commuting, less crowded public transportation. But again, the biggest change would be in us abandoning the bullshit myth of pulling ourselves up by our non-existent bootstraps, and bootstrapping each other instead. I'm not going to use the words kinder, gentler because they leave a bad taste in my mouth now, but there's so much room for us to become more humane. In becoming more humane, we become more human, less bigoted, more welcoming. 

My company had a massive Zoom meeting partially about our response to Covid-19 this Friday, followed by a note from our CEO. This is what she said, in part:

Please end the week by noticing what an incredible set of colleagues you have, and take time this weekend to rest and rejuvenate. I am so grateful to work with all of you, and proud of how everyone has engaged in problem-solving this week, across all levels of the organization and all our departments.  Take care of yourselves -- this is going to be either a half-marathon or a marathon, but certainly not a sprint.

Let's start work on Monday by finding ways to continue being kind to one another - for example, set up some cyber coffee breaks that help you connect with others at [work], relaxed time with either people you work with regularly or perhaps someone you've been meaning to get to know better. This is a weird circumstance in which our usual rituals of gathering with friends in our communities - whether at church or temple or at a restaurant - are being curtailed just when we need those comforting interactions.  So just as we have been creative at solving the challenges facing some of our projects, let's think outside the box about how to stay connected with one another and offer each other support. As one of many emerging examples, the intrepid group working on our Thursday 3/19 "critical conversations and celebrations" has been reworking it into a cyber-based community gathering. Something to look forward to toward week's end! 

In this spirit, I decided to organize a once-a-week or so Virtual Happy Hour in Zoom to keep track of my friends both online and the ones I usually see in meatspace. It's likely to be awhile before we can meet in person again, and seeing one another via videolink is far better than just interacting on social media. Let me know if you're interested, and I'll add you to the email group. Because our actions as a community and in-community might help tip this the right way for everyone and reshape the world in a good way.


Filthy mittnesAs promised, some #covid19 resources:

Natalie Dorfeld's Colonel VonMittens (left) says it all.

Advice and explanations from science reporter Beth Mole at Ars Technica.

Very in-depth and multi-sourced information on Reddit.

Geeky: Covid-19 Surveillance Dashboard. And this one, made by a 17-year-old. Watch this motherfucker spread.

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

For the thick among you, a vivid illustration of how your heedlessness and selfishness makes other people sick. From WaPo.

A really great podcast.