Journal of the Plague Year 2020: National Critical Infrastructure

A few figures from The New York Times:

On Wednesday, March 18, Arizona had 27 confirmed cases of Covid-19. As of yesterday, we had 70.

My sister lives in Colorado, with 364 confirmed cases. That’s a 253% increase from March 15 to March 20.

Aside from the Times, I’ve been reading the Guardian for its excellent international coverage, and the Washington Post. Stories coming out of Northern Italy, New York, the Bay Area and London are genuinely frightening.

It also concerns me to see that many Americans are still going about their lives. Some of them lack accurate information about what’s happening elsewhere. Some still believe that young and healthy people won’t be affected.

In fact, young people in the U.S. are getting critically ill and dying at much higher rates than in China and Italy. Remember, too, that “critically ill” means hospitalized and on a respirator. I did that in 1999; it’s not an experience I can recommend.

Of course, you might not get critically ill. You might just be too sick to leave home for six weeks, which is what happened to me this winter, no Covid-19 needed. It’s demoralizing and frustrating and isolating. Again, I can’t recommend it.

Start social distancing now. Send messages to businesses and lawmakers, and start applying social pressure where you can. Follow the advice of national authorities even if your state and municipality are lagging behind; if your state or city is locked down, respect that fact and stay in.

Support businesses in any way that you can, but know that the problem is much bigger than all of us, and you’re not personally responsible for propping up the economy. I’ve renewed subscriptions to all the publications I read instead of relying on free coverage; I’m paying the people who clean my house, buying gift certificates to local restaurants, and supporting businesses that are keeping their employees safe.

I can do this because I work for a large defense contractor. I get paid sick leave and health insurance, and an engineer’s salary. We’ve been designated National Critical Infrastructure, along with grocery stores, laundries and health care services, so next week I’ll have to decide whether and how much to stay home from work. I have a few different thoughts on this subject.

It’s impossible to do my job from home for long. I’m a flight test engineer. My work requires travel to remote locations and hard physical labor. Man Raised by Spiders started as a story I told myself driving to and from Yuma Proving Ground. I wrote The Magnificent Five in airports and hotel rooms, and at Dugway Proving Ground, a super-cool test range that actually features herds of wild Indian ponies just like Inglorion’s black stallion, Paris.

I know that many of my coworkers are sick, and that most of them haven’t been able to get tested for the novel Coronavirus. Tests are unevenly available, and there’s been little guidance about who should get them. I know of at least one coworker who’s been seriously ill at home for more than a week, who has been turned away multiple times when he’s tried to get a test. Officially, no one in my company is sick, and there are only 70 confirmed cases in the state. In reality, we don’t know.

When people talk about how young, healthy people won’t be affected, that bugs me. First of all, it’s not true. Second, lots of people — young and old — have underlying conditions: Diabetes, asthma, immunosuppression, heart disease. They’re at heightened risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19. Finally, the defense industry skews old. For the last decade or so, the average age of our engineers has hung around 45, which means that lots are in their 50s, 60s and even 70s.

When we talk callously about people who are sick, we’re talking about early- and mid-career people. When we’re talking about old people, we’re talking about late-career and retired people with hard-won wisdom and grace.

If you take away the old people, and people with underlying conditions, you’re taking away some of the people who I admire the most, the people who guide and teach younger, less experienced workers: My program manager, who’s in his 60s and has battled cancer for three years; my department manager, an incredibly wise and kind test engineer who beat cancer five years ago; our senior systems engineer, a gracious, brilliant guy who’s approaching 70, and has worked in engineering his whole life.

My coworkers don’t think of me as old or sickly, because I’m a rock climber and I wear leather jackets and know all the new rap songs. But I’m 51, and I have asthma, and my lungs are scarred from multiple bouts of pneumonia in my 30s. So, really, when people talk about the old and the sick, they’re talking about me. Leading a flight test team on an advanced development program, I worked 60 hours a week, and a huge part of my job consisted of giving technical, ethical and career guidance to engineers fresh out of college. I loved doing it.

If we all keep going to work under these conditions, we’re going to lose a lot of people. Not just coworkers: Friends, family, people who provide critical services who make a lot less money, and who may be undocumented, and therefore ineligible for government help. If I don’t work, critical technologies will be delayed, and, of course, the company will struggle to meet contractual commitments. I hope — I pray — that we’ll balance these ethical problems carefully over the next several months.

Now I shall tell you some happy things.

First, my parents gave me some toilet paper, relieving the pressure on my Kleenex supply. Yay, mom, dad and Costco!

Second, my cough has improved so much that I can sing again! Just today I was able to belt out Adam Ant’s “Shake Your Hips” and “Wonderful”; Frank Turner’s “Recovery” and “Four Simple Words”; and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Third, by working from home, I have renewed my bond with my cat Lyndon Johnson, an amazingly precious creature whose defective tongue retraction mechanism remains unfixed, despite multiple firmware downloads from the Mother Ship.

siamese cat
London B. Johnson, showing off his defective tongue retraction mechanism.

I’ve resumed critical housekeeping functions such as cooking, composting, and mulching and weeding. I’ve extended my efforts at the latter, and now hope to have a much nicer showing of desert mallow, and significantly less ragweed and Bermuda grass.

desert mallow, 1929 adobe bungalow
Desert mallow, a modest native plant that gets vivid orange blossoms. With appropriate weeding and mulching, it will outcompete less-desirable volunteers. The mulch consists almost entirely of roses bought at Trader Joe’s, a elegant choice, I think.

As I was preparing to publish the first episode of The Last Days of Tereus Shelawn, I took the still-life photo below. I wrote the bulk of the novel in a white-hot burst of inspiration after seeing a photograph of Adam Ant as the Blueblack Hussar. Storm of Steel and War inspired many of Tereus’s descriptions of battle. When I was struggling to write the sections where Tereus reflects on moral injury, I found inspiration in David Wood’s What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars.

ernst junger, Sebastian Junger, David Wood
Key texts and reference image, lit by the crystal girandole on my bedside table.

For the next few weeks, I plan to use this space partly as an old-school online journal, devoted specifically to hyper-local observations on the Covid-19 outbreak. Those entries will be titled Journal of the Plague Year, while episodes from the Biography of Inglorion will have chapter numbers, and appropriate categories and tags. 

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