I continue to mend after my little omicron adventure of the last few days. I only had one really bad day. After that, it’s just been a bad cold and I’ve had those every few years throughout my adult life so I know how to deal with that. Thank you all for the offers of chore work, telephone companionship, and deliveries of chicken soup to my balcony via drone but I am surviving just fine thanks to Uber Eats, a number of good books, Netflix, Xbox, and Oliver the noisy cat who insists on occupying the bed with me and yowling every few minutes for no particular reason. If he keeps that up, he’s going to learn how to fly. I remain under quarantine through the weekend. My five days are up as of Monday morning but my being cleared for work will be up to UAB and Birmingham VA employee health departments. I haven’t had a fever for days and my cough is much improved so I don’t think they’ll hold me out much longer than that. if they do, I guess I have some more time to try and escape the asylum in ‘Call of Cthulhu’. I’m quite good at solving the puzzle pieces of video games but have much more difficulty with the action sequences as I wasn’t born with a controller in my hands the way younger generations are.
This enforced time out has given me a good deal of time to think about where we are as we enter year three of pandemic life. Will it be the last year? I have no idea. The speed with which omicron is taking advantage of the social habits of the Western World to propagate itself suggests that it may burn through the pool of possible hosts rapidly and therefore recede due to that favored mythical phrase of ‘herd immunity’. Of course, we have no idea what novel mutations are percolating out there in the background. Some new Greek letter may be on all of our lips by Valentine’s day with a whole new set of problems in terms of transmissibility, virulence, or symptomatology. We’re all learning the meaning of that old curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ together.
I’m going to put on my prognosticator’s hat again for a bit and see if I can read the tea leaves as to what may be coming over the next year or two. There are a number of trends that seem quite salient to me and I’m curious to see if any of my assumptions are going to come out the way I’m thinking. The first is, of course, the course of the disease. I think we’re going to continue to see successive waves of variants for another year or two. Some will be relatively minor in scope, others will dominate headlines for several months. I don’t think we can escape this due to the continued inability of governments to get their populations properly vaccinated. In Western societies, politics stands in the way. In Developing Nations, it’s economics. It doesn’t really matter what the issue is but as long as there are significant portions of humanity that remain unvaccinated, there will be a pool in which the coronavirus can circulate and mutate and spring up again. And it will continue to happen. The flu virus has never really gone away. We’ve adapted to it and live with it and get flu shots and accept a certain amount of death. Covid will be here to stay in a similar way but it’s numbers will remain significantly higher than flu for quite some time as it’s so new and our immune systems are still working out exactly how to combat it. We can, of course, get our act together and get all eight billion of us vaccinated and boosted routinely but under what authority? We live in a global society, but not under global governance and that mismatch give the virus the advantage.
I think the biggest change for those of us here in the good old USA is going to be having to adjust to not getting what we want when we want it. In order to feed our society of consumerist instant gratification, we made a lot of changes to how things work over the last half century or so. We took our communal resources out of the public commons and long term planning and infrastructure and instead put them in private hands allowing certain segments of the population to get rich; they did this by creating a marketplace in which you could get pretty much anything at any time making consumerism the heart and soul of the economy. Of course, the side effect of this was an over abundance of retail, a shift of jobs and economy away from manufacturing to service and a general downward drift of purchasing power in most jobs. Manufacturing was outsourced to countries with lower wage scales. Service jobs, be they in retail, health care, hospitality, or any other sector, had stagnant wages with business models built on minimums that could not keep up with inflation or the cost of living. Low end retail thrived while middle class retail with higher quality goods designed to last longer struggled. We became a society of disposability. This spilled over from the commercial business place into sectors of the economy that, in most societies, are not viewed as being places of profit or privatization. Prisons became private for profit institutions. Public education was undermined by the charter school movement and other privatization mechanisms. Health care went from being a system that provided for the nation’s health to an industry that provided for the profits of the owners of the industry. The military became more and more dependent on private contractors . Things may have looked fine on the surface, but underneath the society had been hollowed out. The traditional rural/small town societies dependent on a major manufacturer or an extractive industry such as mining or logging started to feel the negative effects of all of this first and have understood for more than a generation that the system does not work for people like them and has no interest in working for people like them. They’ve been ripe for a demagogue to follow for years.
The pandemic has exposed all of this to those of us who still lived and worked in the bubble of function that existed in upper middle class urban USA. Now it’s not people in fly over land whose lives aren’t working and whom the system can’t help. It’s the people next door. It’s the people on whom we depend for groceries, for transportation, for health care, for assistance in child rearing who aren’t there where we’re used to having them quietly go about their tasks that allow our lives to be comfortable and seamless. As Covid either directly or indirectly takes significant parts of the work force down, there will be empty shelves. You won’t be able to count on your child’s school operating normally. You take your car in for repair and it will be three weeks rather than the usual 48 hours. We don’t like this and there’s going to be a lot of demands to speak to the manager but the manager isn’t going to be able to help.
I’m seeing this a lot currently in elder care. I know of no agency that provides direct hands on service to older adults that’s been able to field a full complement of staff in recent months. People have quit or retired. People are constantly out with Covid or quarantine because of a family member with Covid. People have moved up the career ladder to better paying jobs and the usual individuals who take lower end jobs (immigrants) aren’t available due to Covid and recent immigration policies. Everyday, my office gets a couple of calls from a patient or family complaining that the home health nurse hasn’t been or the therapist has cut visits, or that the time allotted by staff has been cut, or someone simply hasn’t shown up. They want a referral to an new agency that won’t have these problems. Sorry. Such an animal doesn’t exist. Nursing homes are running on reduced staffs. There will be poorer outcomes because of this. People will die who might not have otherwise, victims of the pandemic who never caught Covid. We as a society made the decision years ago to run these industries on low wages and poor working conditions. Now we must pay the price for those choices.
Need to travel? You may or may not be able to due to the availability of flight crew. Want a clean hotel room? Don’t depend on there actually being maid service available. Interested in going out to eat? The dining room may or may not have any waitstaff available. It’s going to take years for all of this to be sorted out. Unfortunately, we’re not a people with the patience to wait years and we’re going to do a lot of yelling at authority stating something must be done to fix this. Those who promise the biggest and quickest fixes, whether they have any ability to deliver on those promises, are likely to get the most traction politically going forward. Those who tell the truth about conditions and suggest that the way forward is through cooperation and restoring public spending are going to have an uphill battle (even though that’s going to be our way out of this mess).
From where I sit, there’s only one way for any of us to move forward through the next few years. We’re going to have to become more communal. We’re going to have to band together in our tribes and families of choice and care for each other. We won’t be able to go it alone in our little nuclear family enclaves heading for the store whenever we need something. We’re going to need to bring back a culture of watching out for each other, lending a hand, giving a little of our excess to those without and not being afraid to ask for or take a little when we need something from someone else. Nothing else is going to work.
In the meantime: Get your vaccines and boosters. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. Wear your masks. We’re all in this together.