Journal of the Plague Year 2020: A Task Suited to the Times

A lot has changed since I started writing this journal, an answer to Daniel Defoe’s fictional account of the Black Death, Journal of the Plague Year.

Arizona made national headlines over the summer with a horrific spike of Covid-19 cases and deaths. People started wearing masks; cases and deaths eased. On October 30, I scheduled elective surgery: A double-mastectomy and reconstruction, also known as FTM top surgery. I agreed to travel for work in November, directing two weeks of test in St. Louis.

Somewhere between October 30 and November 15, the omens started to look really bad. I told my lead I didn’t feel comfortable traveling. My lungs are scarred from multiple bouts of pneumonia and time spent on a ventilator in my 30s. I’ll be damned if I’ll do that again.

I kept coming into work every day. I’m defined as a frontline worker in a critical industry, and I’m working a high-priority program. When someone shows symptoms or is exposed, the company performs contact tracing, quarantines all close contacts, and cleans the employee’s work areas. The two labs I work in have been closed at least weekly, sometimes daily, usually without warning. Just before Thanksgiving (or that week, or just after), I went to an hour-long Engineering Leads meeting, and came back to find that both labs were shut. The lab lead opened up so that the team could retrieve our laptops and squat in abandoned conference rooms.

My sister and brother-in-law got it. He had it worse, but they seem to be okay. My sister hopes that people will wake up, and stop being so afraid of the virus.

On December 9, I started to have flu symptoms at work. I did what you’re supposed to do: Went home, called my doctor, scheduled a PCR test, called the company’s health hotline. Another cycle of closed labs and quarantines. Those of us who still work onsite are chronically in quarantine, working split shifts, hearing about false alarms and new cases, most of them from community spread. IT, Security, Test and Evaluation, lab leads, maintenance workers, material handlers. We’re often called wrench-turners to distinguish us from engineers who can work from home: systems, reliability, mechanical design. It’s considered pejorative, like you’re too dumb to get a job performed remotely using PowerPoint and Microsoft Project.

My test came back negative.

Right after Thanksgiving I realized that it wouldn’t be safe to have surgery. The hospitals in Pima County are packed, and the caseload continues to climb. According to the University of Arizona’s December 18 Outbreak Forecast, “Arizona is experiencing a public health crisis where access to critical care services is limited due to shortages of space, personnel, and critical supplies. If not addressed in the next 1-2 weeks, this crisis will evolve into a humanitarian crisis leading to hundreds of preventable deaths.”

One of my parents’ friends went to a hospital in Oro Valley with heart attack symptoms. He waited in a hallway for hours, then left without seeing a doctor.

Which brings us to today, my first day back from quarantine. I had a migraine like a jackhammer. The cleaning crews had moved around all my Adam Ant memes and snarky engineering cartoons. In my haste to go into quarantine, I’d left an enchilada on my desk wrapped in plastic. Curiously, neither the cleaners nor the mice had touched it. I slogged back and forth between work sites, rounding up equipment. Got a call from my surgeon’s office: The hospital had finally canceled elective surgery. I could have it done at an outpatient surgical center in two weeks, or reschedule for the end of February. Both plans seemed optimistic to the point of delusion.

Back into the lab, where a software engineer and I crouched over equipment and screens. Missing connectors, absent drivers, software that resolutely declined to compile. When I crawled under the lead engineer’s desk to move an old Red Hat 5 box, I found the remains of a Dixie Cup, shredded and fashioned into a mouse’s nest. Cute, but also horrible. The trash next to my desk seethes with them in the morning. After a few more absurdities of that nature, I left to nurse my headache.

I retrieved my phone, listened to voice mail.

My mom called to say that both she and Dad are sick with Covid-19. She takes immune-suppressant medication; he had thyroid cancer a few years back. They’ve been in strict isolation — groceries and takeout only, the occasional visit masked, outdoors and distanced.

Reader, I’m afraid for them.

I drove home, head pounding, thinking, It’s weird that all my characters are orphans. I don’t want to be an orphan.

Today during his Covid briefing, Andrew Cuomo read out the day’s statistics, then said, “One hundred and nine deaths. I can’t tell you the pain it causes to read that number every day for 296 days.”

Later, commenting on the relief bill, he said:

What [U.S. Senate leadership] did to the Democrats, is they gave them a Sophie’s Choice. Which life do you want to save? We don’t choose, in this country, between who lives and who dies. Everyone should live. We should be fair to everyone. When you don’t fund states and cities, [they] have to lay off police and firefighters and nurses and teachers…. You hurt people. It was a Sophie’s Choice. Do you want to help some people while other people struggle and are in pain? Or help no one. It was an impossible, unfair and un-American choice.

A commentary in the Washington Post said that people care less about death as the numbers climb. People cry for a single death, shrug at 319,000. The author also pointed out that bystanders care less about some deaths — people in nursing homes, prisoners.

I thought of Matthew 25:36:

I was naked, and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.

When I talked to my mom today, she called me by my new name, Alexander. That makes me really happy. They’ve both been so sweet and generous and easy.

This weekend I wrote a key passage in Duke of the Underdark, when my hero sees a frigate fire grapeshot and chain into picket line of striking dock workers. I’ve been reading accounts of the Kent State Massacre, listening to Tin Omen, which Skinny Puppy recorded just after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. I’m trying to think how to capture the blank horror of state-sanctioned murder. A bleak task, but one suited to the times.

Love to all,


Total cases in Arizona: 461,345

Current hospitalization: 3,925

Total deaths: 7,972

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