Sunday, March 22, 2020

Isolation Report, Week #2

[You could also read last week’s report.]

Well, it’s week two, and I don’t think it’s getting any better.

First of all, let me say that the major development in actual virus news is the release of a study by Imperial College in London that paints a pretty grim picture about what could happen with COVID-19 if we don’t take extreme measures.  If you don’t enjoy slogging through statistical analyses, NPR did a nice summary of it, but personally I like the summation by history professor Jeremy Young: there’s a text version, and also a more graphical version illustrated by artist Danny Colee, if that works better for you.  If you’re not much for clicking on things, the takeaway is that (according to these projections) doing nothing kills 4 million Americans—about 4x the number of Americans killed in the Civil War, or 2/3 the number of people killed in the Holocaust.  If the pattern extends worldwide (and, to be fair, the study only looks at the US and UK, so there’s no reason to believe it would ... just no reason to believe it wouldn’t, either), that works out to 90 million deaths: 15x the Holocaust number, or 1.5x the total numer of deaths in all of World War II.  And the reason (at least here in the US) is that extreme cases of COVID-19 will need respirators to survive, but when everyone gets sick more-or-less at once (that is, over about 3 – 6 months), the number of respirators we would need (again, talking about the US) is 30x more than the number we actually have.  So more people die than would otherwise.  Taking moderate social distancing measures could cut those numbers in half, but only the extreme measures really bring them down to where everyone who needs a ventilator gets one and no one (or at least very few people) dies when they didn’t need to.

So, first let me say, I get that.  I understand it, and I believe it, and I in no way am attempting to argue against it.  I don’t think the study is biased, or that it’s wrong.  Please keep that in mind as you read on.

But this is supposed to be a report of our family’s experience this week.  So how’s it been going?  Not great, honestly.  In the first place, we live in southern California—you know, that place where we don’t have weather?  Where the plot of both a movie (L.A. Story) and a song (“It Never Rains in Southern California”) revolve around the fact that it “never rains” and it’s always “72 and sunny”?  Yeah, that place.  Normally, not a bad place to be stuck at home, especially when you’re fortunate enough to have a pool with a jacuzzi in the back yard.1  But, here’s the rub:  Monday of last week (that is, two weeks from the day after this post), I went to work.  At our status meeting that day, we were told that we could stay home any time we were uncomfortable coming to work, due to the virus or whatever.  The next day, it started raining ... and I’m not talking about a little drizzle.  To call it a torrential downpour would not be exaggerating overmuch, especially considering how little it normally rains here.  The weather report said it would rain for a week.  I stayed at home that Tuesday, not wanting to fight the rain and the resulting traffic, and Wednesday was my normal work-from-home day anyhow.  On Thursday, the rain let up enough that I decided to go into work; I don’t like to wait too many days before I see my coworkers again.  But, as I was preparing to leave the house, I got the word: nobody’s coming in any more, for the foreseeable future.  So I stayed home.  And it kept raining.

The following Tuesday (i.e. 5 days ago as I write this), it was still raining, but the next day the weather cleared, as promised.  I went out to the grocery store, as I always do on Wednesdays, and let me tell you that wasn’t a barrel of fun.  And the next day it started raining again.  Even as I’m writing this, the rain is pouring down outside.  Now, while on the one hand it’s nice that by now we’re bound to be out of the drought conditions we’ve been under for the past ... months? years? I can’t even keep track any more ... but this is not a great time for stormy, overcast days and buckets of rain pouring down.  It’s difficult enough to keep one’s spirits up, but at this point it’s difficult to even get out of the house into our own yard.  It’s difficult to take the dogs out, and there’s certainly no sitting by the pool, or going out for walks in the fresh air.

Of course, getting out at all is problematic now.  Last week, when I told people I was worried about us (as a society) getting to the point where people couldn’t go outside for fear of other people freaking out and calling the cops on them, I sounded like a raving lunatic.  Now, an article in The Atlantic tells us that people going to restaurants and walking on nature trails are “more unnerving” than “empty streets and storefronts,” Stephen Colbert is yelling (his word) at young people in Florida to say at home, and Max Brooks is telling me that I’m going to kill his father Mel (and Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke) if I leave my house to become a “spreader.”  But, much more to the point, the governor of my state has ordered that my family (and the remainder of the residents of my state) are not allowed to leave our homes unless for “essential purposes,” under penalty of misdemeanor, and, when asked how in the world he planned to enforce this, he advised my neighbors to apply “social pressure” on me to feel bad about leaving my house.  So I’ve managed to go from raving lunatic to fucking prophet in the course of a week: not only could people conceivably be calling the cops on me if they deicde my purpose isn’t “essential,” but also they have permission from the governor to get in my face about it.

So, again remembering that I agree with and understand all the points about mitigation, and I agree with and understand that we must do something, perhaps you’ll understand that I’m worried that we’re going too far.  That same Atlantic article says:

But experts are saying that Americans can’t really over-prepare right now.  Overreaction is good!

But I don’t buy this.  That article tries to convince us that “overreacting” isn’t inherently a bad thing because the original meaning of the word wasn’t negative.  But this is a bit like saying it’s okay to use the word “faggot” because it originally meant “a bundle of sticks.”  The word means what it means, now, and there’s no point in yearning for “the good old days” when it meant something else.  And what it means, now, is “to react or respond more strongly than is necessary or appropriate.”  So, while I can’t argue that we’re reacting more strongly than is necessary, I still have to wonder if we’re reacting more strongly than is appropriate.

My kids have barely left the house in 2 weeks.  My little girl has a birthday in nine days, and, despite the fact that her presents were ordered before this lockdown started, it looks like some of her gifts won’t make it in time.  I talked last week about how many of the shows I watch regularly are going to be gone now—The Daily Show has given up, Colbert taped a few half-hearted attempts at monologues via his iPad, there’s no Last Week Tonight this evening, and even Critical Role, my go-to, forget-the-world-and-just-watch-some-folks-play-D&D show, has gone dark.  Now, I know that last one sounds like me just whining about not being able to watch my favorite shows ... and, sure, it is that.  But these are also the things that are keeping me sane, and, judging from Internet comments, I would say I’m not alone in that.

The grocery shopping situation isn’t helping either.  My usual trek to Trader Joe’s was ... interesting.  I had to wait to get in, of course, but it wasn’t too awful.  Most of the people waiting in line were friendly enough.  Once inside, there was plenty of room to roam the store, of course, and there weren’t even that many things that were totally gone: no toilet paper or even tissues, of course, but there was enough milk and eggs, and those were the main things I was worried about.  Perhaps it was because of the restrictions: “loose” items, such as bananas or tomatoes, were unlimited, but pre-packaged items were strictly limited to 2 per customer.  Also, no more than 2 “uncooked meat products” of any kind, and hot dogs count as uncooked.2  The restrictions also included sparkling water, of which I couldn’t buy more than two bottles regardless of flavor, despite the fact that my attempt to get six was in no way hoarding: that’s just how many we normally get through in a week.  But, then again, the restrictions didn’t seem to help certain things: the pasta shelf was devastated, and I got one of the last 3 containers of sour cream.  There were plenty of frozen pot pies, but no frozen burritos or microwave Indian food.  There was plenty of canned tomatoes, but no cans of tomato sauce or tomato paste.  Plenty of regular milk, but no lactose-free milk.  There were plenty of bags of potato chips ... except for the BBQ chips, which were all out.  I have no idea if this was because the store didn’t get any of those items, or they just sold out of them before I got there.

The following day The Mother braved the lines3 at Costco, where the restriction was per SKU, so you could get different flavors or different sizes of the same thing, but there the limit was only one per customer.  Still no toilet paper.  We’re trying not to hoard anything, because that’s just shitty, and, also, where the fuck are you people hoarding milk and eggs putting them?  I just don’t have that much refrigerator space even if I wanted to hoard that sort of stuff, which I don’t, because it’s a shitty thing to do.4  On the other hand, stocking up on things just seems prudent at this point, given how horrifically annoying it is to get to the store.  And, given the aforementioned limited refrigerator space, a lot of what we’re stocking up on is prepackaged crap.  I’ve eaten my first really-truly Pop-Tarts—as in, actually made by Kellog’s—in probably more than a decade, and there’s plenty of other stuff out of boxes and cans and, in a few cases, freezer packs, that I wouldn’t normally touch.  But we’re saving the fresher food for special occaions at this point.

You know what isn’t limited?  Alcohol.  TJ’s made it very clear that we could buy as much of that as we wanted, and they were fully stocked in that department.  I bought a couple of bottles of wine and some hard cider.  Costco also excepted alcohol, and The Mother came home with a giant bottle of Absolut.

So, basically, my state government seems to be pushing me to become an overweight paranoid agorophobic alcoholic.

Because, you see, nothing is black and white.  All our overreacting will almost assuredly save lives.  But everything has a cost.  A lot of restaurants won’t survive this pandemic, and I’m almost positive that the movie theater industry is toast.  At least one local amusement park may disappear.  Will suicide rates spike during this period?  Maybe not.  But if I find out later that they did, I shall certainly not be surprised.  Will depression increase?  What will the long-term effects be on our mental health, on our economy, on our children?

The problem with saying such things, of course, is that people will assume I therefore advocate doing nothing.  The study says we have to! they’ll cry.  You quoted the results right at the beginning!  Yes, I did.  That report studied three possible scenarios, and there really is no doubt that, among those three, the shit-storm we’re stuck with is the best option.  But there are an infinite number of scenarios—an infinite number of things we could do.  Those are not the only options.  And I personally think it’s worthwhile to explore some other options, because this one ain’t really working for me.

But, then again, if it would just stop raining here, maybe I would take my giant bottles of alcohol and go work by the pool and be perfectly content.  Honestly, I’m not much for going out under normal circumstances.  But, you know, when people tell you can’t ... after a couple of weeks, you start to realize what you’re missing.


1 Okay, realistically, the pool is our back yard.  But still.
2 You guys know hot dogs are actually cooked ... right?
3 And don’t even get me started on how moronic it is to pack 50 people into a line together so that you can make sure they’re all 6 feet away from each other once they get in the store.
4 Did I mention how shitty it is?

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