Over my life I have seen, and occasionally been affected by, a lot of crises and disasters beyond my control. I have been scared, knowing that there was nothing much I could do to protect myself and the people around me.
I grew up during the Cold War, when every so often the U.S. and the Soviet Union rattled nuclear swords at each other. I recall watching a TV show about radiation poisoning when I was maybe five or six, a show that, conflated in my mind with the Berlin Wall, shaped itself into a recurring dream and underlies my story “Three O’Clock in the Morning.”
I’ve been through a number of hurricanes on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, though living far enough inland not to suffer more than a power outage. I was in Wichita Falls in 1979 when a mile-wide tornado tore through town. It didn’t harm me (except for the power outage), but I worked disaster relief and met plenty who suffered. The fires in Northern California get worse every year and I live in earthquake country.
I remember when AIDS was out of control and nobody knew where it came from. For that matter, I remember when polio was everywhere and there was no vaccine as yet. I was a little kid, but you picked up the fear from adults. I have friends who had polio as kids.
I’ve been unemployed during recessions and watched all kinds of things fall apart. I’ve seen government incompetence and way too many unnecessary wars.
But I’ve never seen anything like this Covid-19 pandemic. I suppose the 1918 flu is the only real counterpart in recent history.
It’s everywhere. Some countries are doing a good job of taking care of their people, though most aren’t. I’m pretty sure that any country claiming that it’s not a problem there is lying.
I’m old enough to be extra worried. I don’t have chronic diseases, but I’ve had enough bouts with bronchitis and its kin over my life to think that there are some weaknesses in my respiratory system. Plus I have pollen allergies and cough easily when there are irritants in the air like pollution or cigarette smoke or just an abundance of dust. I can talk myself into feeling sick.
So I’m scared on the very personal level. I don’t want to get this and I don’t want to give it to anyone. And there’s no way I can be sure. You have to be famous or pretty damn sick to get tested.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area things are pretty much shut down. You can go out for groceries or for other essentials and you can go out for a walk. You’re supposed to stay at least six feet from other people and I work at doing that. I hope we set up these rules in time. I’m not sure we did.
I’m grateful for those rules, because they keep us from trying to figure too much out on our own. I’m down to wondering whether I should do a bit of shopping in case things get more difficult next week and contemplating the ethics of using delivery services since that forces others to be out.
I’m trying to network with my neighbors a little. In fact, one way I’m getting through this is to try to do something that might be helpful, no matter how small, every day. I’ve put together a list of phone numbers and email for people in our building willing to help each other. I ordered a book from a local bookstore that I hope will be able to survive the shutdown. I’ve emailed friends far away, just to stay in touch.
And I greatly appreciate the mail carriers and bus drivers and staff at the groceries and pharmacies, not to mention all those people doing deliveries and the fact that garbage pickup continues. All that in addition to the health care workers on the front lines. Once again it is clear who the essential workers are in our society. Once again it is clear that they aren’t being paid for it.
The U.S. federal government has failed us. If they had acted back in January, when the news of this first broke, had worked with the World Health Organization, had reacted as well as South Korea, we might still have a problem, but it wouldn’t be of this magnitude.
It all sounds like a near future science fiction novel. I may write stories like that, but I never wanted to live in one.
But it has put a lot of other things in perspective for me. I’m no longer freaking out about the minor disasters that always abound in life. Our landlord screwed up and charged us twice for March rent this month, but after spending an hour straightening that out, I’m not even ranting about it In another time, that would have left me mad for days.
This isn’t going to be the last worldwide crisis like this, and it isn’t going to be 102 years before the next one hits. And in between we’re going to have the storms and fires and floods and heat waves and polar vortexes — the kind of disasters we’ve always had, made much worse by climate change. Those won’t hit everyone in the world at once like this pandemic, but they’ll be out there.
We need to come together in our communities, but we also need governments and international organizations that are capable of effective action. Most people are good to each other in crises, but we need information and guidance, not just kindness.
I’ve been writing a daily senryu (a haiku-like verse) for the past five years. One recurring theme among them involves the same last line: “Not civilized yet.”
I’ve often thought that most human beings believe that they now live in civilized times (whatever era we’re speaking of), unlike the poor ignorant people who came before. But in truth, we’re very much still a work in progress.
I’ve been holding out hope for a long time that the human race would one day become truly civilized. I’m trying to hold onto that hope right now.