“There’s something happening here. And what it is ain’t exactly clear.”
-Stephen Stills (with Buffalo Springfield)
Just what is this thing we’re living with – living through? And where will we be when it’s over? I’ve gone around and around with those questions as the days and weeks, and now months, pass. I watch the reports and read the information, study the data and contemplate the significance, and the more I do, the more I gain a sense of what Armageddon might look like. Stop reading now if you want to sleep well tonight.
First of all, just what the hell are we dealing with? Yeah, I know it’s a coronavirus, same kind of little gremlin that causes the various strains of the flu we’re forced to inoculate ourselves against every year. And it’s also the same family of mini-microscopic things that cause the common cold.
Until most recently, I understood that it was a bug that attacked the respiratory system, principally the lungs. The early reports were that it made those people with pulmonary issues least able to fight the disease, and that type of person may still be at the top of the list of endangered patients.
But we are now learning that the bug also attacks other organs in the human body, with some patients reporting GI issues (diarrhea and vomiting) and others experiencing losses of taste and smell. Headaches are a common sign of infection, as is a fever, but neither is a for-certain indicator.
At first those over 75 were thought to be at greatest risk of death from the disease, but that age has dropped – to 70, 65, and now 60, and deaths keep being reported of much younger individuals. To be sure, many of them have compromised immune systems, but some don’t. And yet, we are also told that a great number of people may have had the disease without even knowing it, since the symptoms can be so mild. I’m not a physician, but I’m sure making a diagnosis with such a wide range of possible symptoms is confounding, if not downright worrisome.
And then there is the matter of testing, which, one would think, would take away a lot of the guesswork. But first you have to have the tests available to be administered, and, even now, two full months into the pandemic, we are still far short of having them readily available, notwithstanding what that guy who claims to have “total authority” keeps saying.
But now we are learning that the tests are far from 100 percent accurate. False positives are said to occur in up to 15 percent of the tests. A false positive inaccurately indicates that a person has Covid-19. False positives are not confidence boosters, as they decrease the overall sense of reliability. But at least they qualify as good news for the patient. But what about false negatives? Those are being reported, too, which means you may get tested and think you don’t have it, but you really do. That kind of test result can be devastating, especially if, with that test result, you go back to your job or otherwise interact with others, thereby potentially infecting them.
And, of course, the pre-symptomatic period is also said to be contagious, so you might not even think to get tested, because you feel absolutely fine and have absolutely no symptoms, and yet you are infectious and contagious, thereby innocently putting the lives of others at risk.
Of course, you won’t put anyone at risk if you stay home. Sheltering-in (never mind social distancing, since we’ve now learned that the miniscule droplets from a cough can travel even 15 feet and remain in the air for up to two minutes) is the safest way to avoid infecting anyone. It’s the best method to “flatten the curve,” which is the goal we’re told we must achieve to avoid a potentially disastrous overloading of the healthcare system. But sheltering-in comes with a cost—a big cost. It results in a shutdown of the economy, which leads to the “cure is worse than the disease” line of thinking that initially caused many of my fellow California residents to demand the impeachment of Governor Gavin Newsom, when he effectively closed down the state’s economy before any real sense of the pandemic had hit the state.
Newsom’s decision doesn’t look so bad now, as California has had a relatively benign experience with the virus to date. Nowhere in the state has a crisis like the one that clobbered New York City developed. So, hurray for that. But the “cure” has been massive unemployment and an economic picture that makes the Great Recession of a decade ago look mild.
And the economic hit has been felt everywhere, with many businesses perhaps gone forever and others in suspension, with employees laid off and owners scrambling for loans that are all too elusive, if they are available at all. No one is happy with the closed-down economy, and we are now seeing sizeable protests of the like that the tea party promulgated a decade ago. I don’t know which are more pitiable: the protesters who are carrying signs against the lockdown while they are wearing masks or those who are pushed up against each other without masks.
The federal government can keep printing money to provide a modicum of relief to those entities who have the best lobbyists. (I’m being cynical, but it is how the sausage gets made.) But state and local governments are where the real pinch will soon exist, if it doesn’t already. They have to balance their books, and as emergency services require unbudgeted funding, something, inevitably, will have to give.
The hit to the economy most adversely affects the most financially desperate. People who live paycheck to paycheck cannot go unemployed very long without having to find ways to stretch their meager savings. And those who are even more destitute (a not insignificant portion of the U.S. population, let’s remember) are not only not making ends meet; they probably aren’t getting adequate health care either. The loss of health care for those no longer employed is another reality that puts everyone at risk.
How bad can it get? We aren’t at the point of facing food shortages yet, but if enough workers are sick, production in even the most essential of industries (e.g., meat processing plants) can suffer. Being out of toilet paper is a major inconvenience, but being out of food, or even having it rationed, is just plain scary. As is the loss of civic order. Desperation breeds things like riots and looting and home burglaries and not-so-petty theft that third-world countries experience all too frequently.
Nightmarish “what-ifs” are most certainly what we are all trying to avoid in the national shutdown we are enduring. The hope has been that once the curve is flattened (and with maybe a less active virus in the warmer temperatures of summer, and more people immune to the disease (having already had it), and, eventually, a vaccine that will prevent its infection), we will all be able to get back to our normal existences. Shops will re-open and welcome patrons, movie theaters, sports venues, concert halls, restaurants and bars will all once again welcome crowds to gather while their respective activities jump-start the economic recovery.
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. For now we are learning that the virus may be capable of mutating, so that it always stays one step ahead of us. Or maybe we are in for a second wave, even if we knock it down in the next few months, so that it will come back with just as much lethal impact next fall or winter. And the immunity that is supposedly developed if you’ve had it once may not last all that long anyway, so don’t think you can cavort as in days past, just because you tested positive and survived.
The future, in other words, is far from bright. It’s clouded at best. We may get through this one. Surely we will, in one form of societal regeneration or another. We’ll rediscover the joys of meeting and mingling, and our economy will reinvigorate or reinvent itself. But, have no doubt, this thing is going to change us. It is changing us.
We may not be dealing with the first stages of Armageddon, but it sure looks like we are experiencing a training period for the real thing.