Glimpses From The Plague Year

One nurse comforts an exhausted colleague.

The first official COVID-19 death was 60 days ago. There’s evidence there were deaths ea.rlier, but for now let’s go with that February 29th death as the moment things started to get real here in the US. We’ve averaged a thousand deaths a day since. On that day there were fewer than 100 cases nationally. Sixty days later there are over a million. An ER doc from NYC committed suicide over the weekend. Families get separated by hospitals when members are admitted for COVID-19. Some people never make it to the hospital, dying in their homes. We don’t have anything near the number of tests we need. We’re still over a year out from an effective vaccine. Along with respiratory distress and pneumonia, we’re learning the novel coronavirus also causes permanent or near-permanent damage to the lungs, the kidneys, and the lever. Some patients seem to have clotting issues, with random clotting causing strokes in some patients. We’re only a few months into studying the virus and what it does to its human hosts. Healthcare providers, exhausted physically and emotionally, are prime targets for infection. There are shortages of proper PPE, made worse by apparent confiscation by the federal government where they’re put into pools that the states are then forced to bit on in order to buy back.

Anti-lockdown protesters demanding an end to stay-at-home orders

Meanwhile, a small yet very vocal minority, fueled by money from far-right donors, are demanding an end to the stay-at-home orders that have slowed the spread of disease and death. In the name of saving the economy, or protecting fundamental freedoms, or denying the severity of our current situation, these protests certainly make a lot of sound and fury. I know the current situation is both frightening and frustrating. It would be great if we could just end various shutdown measures in order to return to something resembling the “normal” that existed before all this happened. There’s a lot of comfort in the thought this could happen; a greater sense of security in a return to our usual patterns of social behavior than in the odd, worrying new-normal of staying in and isolated, watching our economy collapse as part of the horrid collateral damage from the coronavirus.

Even understanding their frustrations and fears, however, it’s difficult to have sympathy for these protesters because, in the end, they seem far too willing to sacrifice vulnerable populations as a balm to their own uneasy psyches. They often insist the reality we see around us is false; that shadowy forces of one sort or another are exaggerating the threat in order to accrue more power at the expense of our Constitutional liberties. We are told the virus is artificially enhanced, produced either here in the US then sneaked into China, or created by the Chinese themselves and accidentally released. Ships at our two major metropolitan centers, New York and Los Angeles, serving as extra hospital space, are, we are told, actually serving a far stranger purpose, part of which is rescuing supposed “underground children” from sexual slavery.

And now we are facing the prospect of states reopening before there enough tests, enough contact tracing, enough redundancy in our healthcare system to handle the inevitable rise in infections and hospitalizations. After a couple weeks delay due to the time lapse from infection to first symptoms, we will see a steep rise in infections first, followed by a steep rise in the mortality rate. This second wave will be that much worse because, by the time states manage to find the strength to reinstate social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the damage will be done and the virus will be moving swiftly through a far larger portion of the population. Trying to get people back home will be that much more difficult. The ineffectiveness, counterproductivity, and irrelevance of the federal government will make managing things in a second wave far worse than the first wave (because it’s not starting from zero this time, but from an average of nearly 17,000 new cases daily). States will find themselves with fewer resources, the economy will take an even deeper hit as more and more workers get ill, some either permanently disabled or dead, and pressure to continue to operate in the face of danger continuing, social stress will increase leaving those who haven’t contracted the virus with more psychic pain and the promise of PTSD looming into the future.

This is not a happy scenario right now. It’s actually more frightening than things were at the beginning, a mere sixty days ago. We face more sickness, more lifelong damage, more death, more social and economic dislocation, more political unrest, and more uncertainty. Whether this could have been prevented will be the great unanswered, unanswerable question of the 21st century. My hope and prayer is that we make it through to the other side of this season of sickness and fear with a greater sense of what our collective needs are and how best to satisfy those needs in a way that respects freedom without leaving anyone behind.

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