Notes From a Pandemic: March 21st, 2020

by Miles Raymer

Greetings, dear friends of the present and curious citizens of the future.

These words are reaching you from the upstairs home office of a residence in Humboldt County, California. The sun is rising, inimitably bright on this clear, crisp morning. Shining dewdrops bedeck every blade of grass and the crimson flowers of the season’s first rhododendrons. The Redwoods and Douglas Firs outside my window are tall, and quiet. And across the planet, the novel form of Coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is rapidly reshaping human civilization.

It’s been clear to me for a couple weeks now that I––that we––are about to experience something beyond the scope of living memory, and something that those who survive may never see again. It will be a time of compromises and consequences, of losses and discoveries and courage and cowardice. No one will escape unchanged, and the world we find ourselves in on the other side may seem strange to us. So, among other things, humanity will need a story of how that world was made, so that we may better find our new place in it. It is my hope that these journals, which I plan to release at least once a week until the crisis abates, can play some small part in that collective process.

What does this moment feel like?

One thing that’s critical to record right now is the phenomenology of pandemic. Words like dread, panic, indifference, anxiety, foolishness, and fear all come to mind, and they all apply, but the most surprising aspect for me thus far has been the peaceful nature of this event. This feeling of peacefulness is due largely to my geographic location and personal circumstances; I do not expect it to persist.

As of midnight on March 20th, the County of Humboldt implemented a “shelter in place” order, mandating that all County residents stay home as much as possible, and nominally bringing an end to all “non-essential” activities through April 9th. This followed the implementation of a similar order in Mendocino County, which itself was preceded by shelter in place rules put in place by a host of Bay Area Counties on the 16th.

It’s only just begun, but sheltering in place has not been difficult for my family. My wife’s school district shut down on the 15th, so we both worked from home all week and spent a fair bit of time stocking up on critical supplies and food. We’ve been practicing social distancing with increasing severity since the 9th, and now have cut off almost all in-person social contact. We are not allowing anyone who doesn’t live with us inside our home. These tactics, which might seem extreme for two healthy people in their thirties, are largely designed to protect my 71-year-old mother from exposure to the virus. She hasn’t left the house in a couple weeks, and we intend to keep it that way indefinitely. And, of course, we don’t want to get sick either.

It’s been an unusually dry and sunny winter (now early spring), with delightful weather more often than not. We are fortunate to live on a 6-acre parcel with a big garden to tend, and a neighborhood where it’s easy to run and walk around while keeping a suitable distance from our neighbors. Life seems to have simultaneously slowed down and sped up. This has been one of the most action-packed weeks of my life, one especially strained by my frantic efforts to help my colleagues figure out if and how our cannabis company can weather the coming storm. It has been punctuated, however, with moments of hyper-vivid serenity. I wouldn’t say I feel safe, but I do feel immensely grateful for my circumstances, and for the fact that no one I know has yet been diagnosed.

Yesterday, I went on my usual Friday run around town. It was the first day after the County’s shelter in place order went into effect, and I expected a significant decrease in traffic and pedestrian activity. Instead, I honestly couldn’t have distinguished it from other Fridays. I observed a typical level of traffic on Central Avenue, people making errands, construction happening in neighborhoods, and lots of businesses open. The normalcy was unnerving, as will be everything that comes next.

What does this moment mean?

I’d like to use this section to rattle off a host of thoughts I’ve had in recent weeks about what COVID-19 is teaching us about 21st-century humanity. The first is that, even if this novel virus ends up being more deadly than we currently presume, we are fighting this worldwide war with weapons that were simply unavailable to previous generations. From the perspective of someone not embedded in the medical community, the most obvious example I’ve come across is the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, which I’ve been glued to for a couple weeks now. It allows anyone with an Internet connection to watch the virus spread virtually in real time. Some people might find this scary, perhaps to the point where they’d rather ignore it, but I think it’s the best way to make the threat visceral for those who haven’t yet been directly impacted. Humans are notoriously bad at scaling our emotions appropriately when confronted with statistics, and the Dashboard’s interactive map makes the scale and celerity of the virus’s progress more graspable than numbers alone. This incredible tool played a major role in helping me grok just how grave the global situation has become.

Another factor that’s gaining notoriety each day is how the scourge of socioeconomic inequality exacerbates suffering worldwide. As with all natural disasters, the global poor are fodder for the front lines. Those without safe or permanent shelter, without familial or social support networks, without any liquid savings, and without jobs they can do remotely are systemically forced into riskier behaviors. As these folks scramble for islands of stability by continuing to work in order to put food on the table, they will facilitate the spread of the virus and die from it in disproportionate numbers. Tragically, many of the production- and transportation-based jobs undertaken by these people are in the essential service sectors that allow more privileged people to safely stay home.

As far as I can tell, there are two imperatives that will help ameliorate this problem––one proximate and one distal. The proximate imperative is to support the less fortunate in our societies in whatever ways we can, both in terms of government assistance as well as personal behavior. Everyone who can work from home has a moral obligation to do so for the foreseeable future; this will minimize overall transmission of the virus and hopefully make it easier for workers in essential service sectors to operate as safely as possible. Anyone who regularly pays masseuses, gardeners, home health workers, house cleaners, and/or folks working similarly-compromised jobs should absolutely keep doing so if financially feasible, even if delivery of those services is disrupted. We should also give our unqualified support to any and all government efforts to aid the poor at this time.

The distal imperative is that we need to view COVID-19 as an unwelcome but perhaps necessary opportunity to radically transform the way we think about economics, politics, and public health. Assistance programs that were unthinkable mere months ago are now receiving broad support, and America is closer than it’s been since the Nixon era to implementing some form of basic income, albeit temporary. If this happens, we will get a taste of what it’s like to have the government invest directly in its citizens, and will have the chance to fight for its continuance when the dust settles. Some of our most wasteful and destructive industries (e.g. cruise ships, air travel, resorts) will be compromised or crushed by COVID-19, and we will have a chance to choose if and how to reconstitute those industries in a more sustainable fashion. America’s broken health care and insurance industries should be completely restructured in the wake of the pandemic. Capitalism itself is about to be tested; we’ll see if it helps more than it hurts as the pandemic unfurls, and we’ll get a unique look at the features of our global economy that serve the common good and those that don’t.

Two final thoughts before I sign off. While social distancing is of course a matter of life and death right now, I feel solidarity with those who have been pushing the idea of “physical distancing” in recent days. Our bodies need to stay separated, but our hearts and minds must come together like never before. This is an instance where digital technology and social media––both of which have been rightly criticized in recent years––reemerge as nothing short of a modern miracle. Use it. Dig in and reach out. Send that text or make that call you’ve been putting off. Write letters. Tell everyone you love them. Hug those you can hug. Don’t turn on people––turn to them.

Let’s also remember that our doctors, nurses, and hospital workers, who work a tough job in normal circumstances, are now unequivocally the most important people on the planet. I’ve been celebrating this by re-reading Albert Camus’s The Plague. This brilliant book first came to me years ago from my father, a physician who recognized a kindred spirit in the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux. The Plague‘s freshly-topical subject matter, combined with Camus’s superbly sensible prose, is helping me connect remotely to the understated heroism at the heart of the medical profession. Here is how Dr. Rieux reacts when the Black Death breaks out in his town:

These extravagant forebodings dwindled in the light of reason. True, the word “plague” had been uttered; true, at this very moment one or two victims were being seized and laid low by the disease. Still, that could stop, or be stopped. It was only a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized; of dispelling extraneous shadows and doing what needed to be done. Then the plague would come to an end, because it was unthinkable, or, rather, because one thought of it on misleading lines. If, as was most likely, it died out, all would be well. If not, one would know it anyhow for what it was and what steps should be taken for coping with and finally overcoming it.

The doctor opened the window, and at once the noises of the town grew louder. The brief, intermittent sibilance of a machine-saw came from a near-by workshop. Rieux pulled himself together. There lay certitude; there, in the daily round. All the rest hung on mere threads and trivial contingencies; you couldn’t waste your time on it. The thing was to do your job as it should be done. (39).

Until next time, be well, and good luck.

Global: 289,948 confirmed cases, 11,942 deaths

United States: 22,043 confirmed cases, 278 deaths

California: 1,267 confirmed cases, 24 deaths

Humboldt County: 2 confirmed cases, 0 deaths