June 28, 2020

Plague in the classical world

As a student of history and prior pandemic illness, I am relatively optimistic that we will pull through this particular plague all right. We won’t be unscathed, but our understanding of infectious disease has come a long way from such ills as The Plague of Justinian, The Black Death, The Sweating Sickness, and even The Spanish Influenza (a misnomer if there ever was one as it had nothing to do with Spain, most likely originating in the farm country of the good old USA – Spain, as a neutral country in World War I was just more honest in its reportage than most everywhere else). Even though the long term prognosis for most of us as individuals is pretty good, I’m not so sure about what’s going to happen to various societal institutions.

I read the same news as everyone else (I avoid television news like the plague (so to speak) as there’s very little actual news coverage available and nothing nuanced or in depth). I try to seek out sourcing for some of the more outlandish claims and rumors and then try to digest it all and try to let my rational brain sift through it and not leap to the conclusions my intuitive brain wants me to take. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I don’t. If any of you catch me posting something with a factual error, please point it out and I will immediately edit or take it down. I don’t get taken often, but I am human, and a rather tired one at that. Week after week grinding on through the stresses of a health care system in crisis, the move, a lack of rejuvenatory activities, and a somewhat dysthymic personality type will do that to you.

Breugel – The Triumph of Death

I’m feeling rather low at the moment as I am sure many of you are as well. Caseloads of Covid-19 are surging in my region of the country and the mostly conservative state governments seem either oblivious or hostile to the very basic public health measures that could curb this. People seem to have forgotten two basic facts. The first is that this virus takes time to fully manifest itself. The numbers we see now stem from what we were doing or not doing in May and it takes some weeks after the virus establishes itself in a population for enough people to get critically ill and the death toll follows some weeks after that. We won’t really know the mortality from the current surge until late July. Second, exponential numbers don’t work the way our linearly oriented brains think they do. Using the old example of powers of two and the metaphor of lily pads on the pond that double daily. If the pond is covered today, then yesterday the pond was only half covered, the day before only 1/4 covered and last week you would have barely noticed there were any lily pads at all. In the same way the virus is there, growing slowly, stealthily and then all of a sudden it’s everywhere.

I’m not sure if I should feel angry or sad over all the examples of American entitlement that have been running around these last few weeks. From the people delivering word salad against the use of masks at various council meetings to the people on social media complaining about poor restaurant and retail service to the pictures of people crowding into bars and onto beaches as if opening back up means that life has somehow returned to pre-Covid normalcy. The results of this willful ignorance to how infectious disease works has led to the USA, with five percent of the world’s population having twenty-five percent of the Covid cases. To the rest of the world contemplating banning travelers from the USA for the foreseeable future (which is a huge problem for my friends in the opera and theater world who depend on international gigs). To socially responsible merchants having to close their businesses to protect their staffs from inconsiderate and mindless customers. To my friends who work in the performing arts realizing that gigs won’t be back in the fall as they had hoped as society’s unwillingness to do something so simple as wear a mask is going to make it impossible to safely reopen indoor gathering spaces for some time yet. Of course all this strikes me exceedingly personally as the two things I have always done to renew my spirit are travel and theater, neither of which is possible so I really do want to reach through my computer screen sometimes and slap some folks silly for robbing me of my personal joys.

Where do we go from here? I wish I knew. There are a few scenarios that could happen. First, the virus continues to spread, we all get sick, most of us recover and we develop something akin to herd immunity. We seem to be choosing this option by default thanks to inaction on the part of our elected leaders. Of course, this option is likely to pull down the health care system as we know it and is going to lead to a lot of other collateral societal damage. And as all this is going on, the federal government is again trying to invalidate Obamacare. This, of course, will invalidate its ban on discrimination for pre-existing conditions which will, ironically enough, include Covid-19 so anyone who does get sick would essentially become uninsurable in a hypothetical future. We have no idea what the long term consequences for non-fatal cases might be and I can assure you, the health insurance industry has no interest in footing the bill for finding out. Second, the virus ravages for a while and then dies back into the background, similar to influenza and we all learn to live with it. This will likely cause some major changes in how society operates but what these will be is anybody’s guess. Third, we elect a new administration which takes its public health mission seriously and we put appropriate resources and measures in place. There will be reactionary complaints against this and it will continue to drive a wedge between red and blue America and won’t happen without additional civil unrest. Fourth, someone stumbles upon a vaccine or medical treatment which allows us to go back to usual patterns. We won’t go back to where we were in February, we’re too changed, but at least we can cling to some familiarities.

I was looking at the local statistics at Birmingham area neighborhoods. If you look at the rates of infection per population, the highest rates are not in poorer or in minority neighborhoods. The highest rates are in the moneyed white neighborhoods known collectively around here as Over the Mountain. I surmise this is due to higher collective rates of entitlement and feelings that rules and masks are for the little people. I had toyed with the idea of going someplace for the long weekend with fresh air and water, but I think I’ll be much safer in my central city neighborhood among medical types who understand how serious this all is. Might be a good weekend to get all the books on their proper shelves.

As always, wear your mask, stay home when you can, and wash your hands.

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