Journal of the Plague Year 2020: A Guy Walks into Town Telling a Crazy Story

siamese cat
Gratuitous cute cat photo. Note tongue protrusion, a.k.a, “mad blep.”

I was chatting with my friend Kelly last night, and we both confessed that we’re entirely baffled by some people’s behavior surrounding the pandemic.

Kelly is one of the toughest people I know. Anytime I fancy myself a bit of a badass, with my live warheads and sightings of test pilots, I remind myself that she’s dealt with everything from bomb threats to psychotic breaks. Kelly is a psychiatric nurse practitioner. A big part of her practice consists of confronting her patients about long-term use of prescription opioids. That’s the easy stuff. She started her nursing career in an ER, and has had patients code and die in her care. She’s cute and tiny — smaller than I am, which is very small indeed for an adult human being — and she reports that acquaintances patronize her all the time in conversation because she’s only a nurse. I love her because she has that hilarious, deadpan quality that people get when they’re used to making tough calls under pressure.

So we were free styling, trying to sketch out exactly why we’re shocked and dismayed about the drive to reopen the economy.

I said, “It’s this weird insistence on, ‘Oh, it’s so sad, people are overdosing and killing themselves during lockdown. The only possible solution is to force them back out into the workplace.’ If people are ODing — and I’m sure they are, it only makes sense — fucking solve for that problem. We should have fixed that years ago. In New York they realized, shit, the subways are dirty. They didn’t throw up their hands and resign themselves to dying of Covid-19, they cleaned the fucking subways.”

Pure engineer here: Hey, Dumbass! Stop fixing that! That’s not root cause!

Kelly said, “You know what’s funny? Everyone keeps saying, ‘This must be great for business!’ I keep having to explain, trauma doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t make sense to schedule tele-therapy with someone who just lost their parents to Covid. You have to be in the same room, face-to-face. You’re there to bear witness. And anyway, of course people are depressed. We’re having a fucking pandemic.”

“Remember what you said the other day? ‘I feel really weird saying this, but some people need more hardship. Rape helps to level-set your expectations in life.’ I keep thinking of that.”

“Rape is terrible. I don’t recommend it. But it can really help you later,” said Kelly, proudly recalling her own point.

“Because here’s the thing,” I said excitedly. “I keep hearing, ‘It’s hurting kids to stay out of school. They miss their friends, they’re falling behind,’ And I think, ‘Look, Primo Levi was getting his bachelor’s in chemistry when Fascists took over Italy. He was stripped of citizenship and forced out of the university, and packed into a sealed cattle car headed to Auschwitz. He got his doctorate later and worked as a chemist his whole life, but he had to wait until he was liberated by American soldiers and traveled home from Poland on foot. So, you know, sometimes there’s a little break in your education.'”

“Right. Let the genocide settle out, then worry about finishing your degree. You know what it is with masks?”

“What?”

“People have all this anger. This is an opportunity. I see all this pent-up rage, and the mask issue lets people scream and spit on a clerk in the grocery store, and that feels good to them.”

“That’s really dark.”

She said, “It’s interesting, though. There’s this real anger, and the masks allow people to express it.” She told me about a sculptor she knows who fled communism as a child. “They woke up one morning, and it was literally, ‘You have to leave all your worldly possessions and flee. Now.’ She showed me the house she grew up in on Google Maps. I thought, Wow, that’s a nice estate you had there.”

We considered this for a moment. I said, “I keep thinking that people fall into two groups. Do you know that during the Holocaust, when people escaped from the cattle cars and came back to the ghetto to say, ‘Hey, they’re not resettling people in the East,’ they were physically attacked? Because about 85 percent of people need to believe that everything’s okay, and we should just get back to normal.”

“What’s the other 15 percent?”

“People who looked around and saw that things would never be the same. And they thought, ‘Fuck it. I’m gonna put a hand grenade in my panties, walk up to a German soldier, and pull the pin.’ That happened during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.”

Reader, none of this is to advocate violence. In this case, a hand grenade will not address root cause. What interests me is perception. There’s a real advantage in understanding that sometimes all your choices are shitty, and things will be hard.

This line of conversation started because Kelly’s out of work. She started a private practice in January, and decided to close it when she saw from her tax returns that she’d netted a few thousand dollars in six months. The job market has dried up in Tucson, naturally. She’s looking at selling her house and moving to a state where she’s certified, and the virus is under control.

I love Kelly with my whole heart, but I think she’s right to leave Arizona. It’s not just that the state government is ideologically opposed to taking rational public health measures. Even if our governor acknowledges that there’s a crisis, he’s not equipped to handle it. He could run a pizza parlor or a fast-food franchise profitably, but he doesn’t have the skills and experience to govern a diverse state during a pandemic. Or any state, ever.

So here we are. You see the numbers. Confirmed cases rose, then hospitalizations. Now we’re seeing deaths start to tick upwards. It’s only been a few days, so that may just be noise in the data. We’ll know soon.

So, I return to the problem of perception. We saw people dying without medical care because the hospitals were overwhelmed in Bergamo, Italy. In New York City, they used refrigerated trucks as temporary morgues, because they couldn’t bury and cremate the dead fast enough.

States that are just starting to spike are saying, “We’re not Florida. We’re not Arizona. It’s different here.”

Sure. It’s colder, or more humid, or your population is younger or whiter. Remember when everyone thought the heat would kill it? The predicted high temperature in Tucson today is 110.

A guy walks into town. His clothes are filthy, and he’s telling a crazy story about how he escaped from a cattle car at a rural train station: Posen, or Treblinka, or Auschwitz. Someplace you never heard of, far from Warsaw.

It’s crowded here, but you’ve still got a roof over your head. You know people who took the trains east: Old folks, kids, people in nonessential professions. You’re not them. They were encouraged to pack their valuables, to take food and warm clothing. Furs, even. The process was orderly.

His story doesn’t make any sense.

Do you drive him away, or do you listen?

It’s a bad analogy, Reader, and perhaps a dangerous one given all the loose talk about fascism these days. The point is perception: What we need and want, versus what’s actually happening.

And it’s not just a failure of perception. It’s a problem of empathy.

When people die in another state or region, do you think, “That’s urban and dirty and crowded. They have a lot of old people and immigrants. I live in a suburb and work in an office.”

Or, “That’s rural Georgia. They have a high rate of obesity and diabetes. They’re uneducated, stubborn hicks. We have the best hospitals in the nation. We’re young and fit.”

Are you human? There’s your problem. And your salvation.

Here are the numbers from yesterday (7/10/20):

Confirmed Covid-19 cases in Arizona: 116,892
Current hospitalizations: 3,432
Deaths: 2,082
Recoveries: 13,853

The New York Times reports that Arizona is at 10% of its target test rate, according to a standard set by the Harvard Global Health Institute; the positive rate for tests conducted is 27%. By both measures, Arizona ranks at the bottom of all 50 states.

You’re welcome, New York.

One thought on “Journal of the Plague Year 2020: A Guy Walks into Town Telling a Crazy Story

  1. I feel shy. Strength is hard to come by, and I’m hoping for more for this extraordinary time. I appreciate your kind words, rants, and wide open perspective! I need more. I hope to keep listening into the splintered world for news and awakening. You help me with this. Sending love.

    Like

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