A Time to Give Thanks

photo by Doug Johnson

in which the US death toll from COVID-19 passes 260,000 and reported infections are nearing 13 million – the CDC reports that for every infection that is reported there are 8 that go unrepresented in these numbers; globally, there are 60.6 million cases and 1.4 million deaths

~

It’s been awhile since my last coronavirus journal entry. Today is Thanksgiving Day, and my husband and I are awaiting the results of his COVID test, taken two days ago. He gave a friend a lift in his car, windows down, for a ride that lasted less than 5 minutes, which seemed like nothing until the friend called to tell us he’d been exposed by another friend, who just tested positive. My brother, half a country away, has also tested positive, a week after his exposure to a client. No word yet if his wife has it. Now we all wait.

I have a few friends and relatives that have recovered from COVID. One friend, in her 70s, has what they call “long COVID”. One sister-in-law lost her sense of taste and is still waiting for it to return; half a dozen other family members were infected but experienced almost no symptoms. It’s easy to look at this handful of examples and think COVID is not very dangerous to most people, but I’m a social scientist and I know better than to succumb to the easy logic of missed disaster. No one ever thinks *they* will be an outlier. We humans have a tendency to think if we follow the rules we’ll be safe – I’m no exception, no one was more surprised than me when a car ran a stop sign and then smacked into my husband and dog in the crosswalk. Everyone is fine, but the words of the driver of the rented Jaguar that hit them still haunt me. “Sorry, I didn’t see you,” he said. “I was looking at my GPS.” Sometimes following the rules can’t protect you from wayward disaster.

Since my last entry, the election has come and gone, with Joe Biden declared the winner in most states, even after many lawsuits and several recounts. Joe Biden has 306 electoral votes, well over Trump’s 232 and the 270 required to win. Sixteen states have thus far certified election results before the deadline of December 14th. The fact that world leaders, as well as Fox News anchors, are agreeing Biden is the winner seems to suggest that on January 21st, President Biden is a fait accompli, but Mr. Trump continues to say that he won by a landslide and the election was stolen from him. Today, he told reporters that if the electoral college confirms Biden’s victory, “they’ve made a mistake,” but that he would leave the White House, adding he would probably not attend Biden’s inauguration, nor would he concede defeat.

Donald Trump, Melania Trump are posing for a picture: President Donald Trump speaks as first lady Melania Trump looks on during a traditional Thanksgiving Day event in the Rose Garden of the White House November 24, 2020 in Washington, DC.
© Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Thanksgiving dinner was just the two of us, and texts with our daughters, one across the country, one across town. My gratitude for the food was seasoned with sadness; listening to the radio earlier, a reporter in Brooklyn interviewed people in a food line that was four hours long, a story playing out all across the country today. Many of the interviewees were hungry but said they would not be in line if it weren’t for the anonymity of the masks. I cried at that. It is time we stopped boasting that America is the wealthiest country in the world. America is a country that contains many of the world’s wealthiest people, true, but when one in five people have food insecurity during a pandemic coupled with mass unemployment, we can no longer claim to be a country of wealth.

Despite the repeated pleas of public health officials and exhausted, demoralized frontline health workers to not travel, roughly a million Americans crowded the airports and highways to spend the holidays with loved ones. Will they bring on the disaster medical professionals have been predicting? Hospitals are already full to bursting – according to NPR, more people in the U.S. are hospitalized for COVID-19 now than at any other moment of the coronavirus pandemic — more than twice as many as just a month ago. I was shocked to read the famous Mayo Clinic Health System has moved beds into waiting rooms and even a parking garage. Hospital officials say the real problem is not ventilators or even beds, but trained staff who can care for severely ill patients.

Yesterday, the CDC said it expects the total number of deaths in the nation to increase to 294,000-321,000 coronavirus deaths by December 19 – that would be 1,015 to 2,251 people dying each day. I hope against hope it doesn’t get that bad, but my hope feels like fingers searching for a seam in smooth granite.

I grew up in the greater St. Louis area, so maybe paid more attention than most when Dr. Kenneth Remy, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis and a physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital (where my own sister spend much of the first years of her life) made a video everyone should see – a first-person view of what it’s like to be intubated, the last thing you see in the world a heavily masked doctor coming at you with an endotracheal tube and a laryngoscope. Hint: it’s awful.

“For some patients, that’s all they see at the end of their life,” Dr. Remy said, visibly emotional. “They see that, they get some medicines and they never awaken again.”  

A vaccine is on the way – that’s the good news. It may be that by May of next year, most of the US can be vaccinated. As a result of this news, this past week the stock market hit an all-time high, crashing through 30,000. It’s worth noting that Bitcoin is also on the move, approaching it’s record high value of $20,000 per bitcoin (pre-pandemic this year it was about $9,000).

Down here on the ground, the news is much less sanguine; Disney just announced a ~10% layoff of more than 32,000 employees. According to Pew Research, half the Americans who lost their job at the beginning of the pandemic remain unemployed; according to the New York Times less than half of the 22 million jobs lost during the early stages of the pandemic have been recovered.

If you don’t quite know how to make sense of all these numbers, don’t feel bad – I’m a marketing scientist, my whole career has been about interpreting data and forming a coherent narrative thread, and I can tell you that there is no one statistic that represents how America is faring, because there is not one America, there are two. One America is doing just fine, and even prospering; the other America is facing eviction, hunger, and destitution. For them, winter is coming; for the rest, it looks to be a good ski season. President-elect Joe Biden hopes to unite the country, but I’m not sure what epoxy is strong enough to bring together the blithely well-to-do with the needlessly suffering and dying.

Former princess Meghan Markle wrote an op-ed for the New York Times this week, revealing her miscarriage this past summer. I have always known I’m far from the only woman who counts the silent birthdays of an invisible child – my own miscarriage was a lonely and painful affair, as most, I suppose, are. For some reason I’ve always felt that missing child was a boy – he’d be in high school now. I did not feel less lonely when I read Meghan’s story, but I did feel better. I hope that is true for all the women who have suffered the same loss.

It’s a day for thanks…but things feel pretty bleak. It feels wrong, somehow, to be thankful for my health and my family when so many people are losing theirs. Like many people, I have financial worries, a fact that makes me feel by turns embarrassed and desperate, and has a tendency to drown out the grace notes. I think of the hard times my grandparents and parents have faced and resolve to focus on my blessings: there are people in my life that love me, and for that I am grateful and determined to make myself worthy of it. I fear I mostly fall short, but that will not stop me from trying. Tomorrow, good friends will stop by with their tiny daughter, who I’ve nicknamed Cricket. She loves our big chocolate labrador, squinting hilariously when his tail whaps her in the face. Sunday, my daughter returns from her first semester at an east coast college; I will make her a favorite dessert (canele de Bordeaux) to celebrate. I have a precious few days off work to spend advancing my novel, which I’m ~19,000 words into. I will run, make love to my husband, and sleep at night in a bed, without worry where our next meal is coming from. For now that is enough – more than enough.

Earlier this month, Alex Trebek, the longtime host of Jeopardy, died after a two year illness. Today the show aired a video message Alex made before he passed – a message he made knowing it could only be delivered posthumously. His voice is noticeably weaker than normal, but his words ring strong.

“Keep the faith,” Alex tells us. “We’re going to get through all of this, and we will be a better society because of it.”

I hope your Thanksgiving is a blessed one.

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