Bean Dad, Hilaria, Tornadoes and the Art of Self Protection

Tent city in Portland Oregon

in which the daily death toll and infection rate reach new highs, a new virus variant crosses the ocean, and people still find time to cancel would-be social media stars

Just three days into the new year/decade, 2021 has already cancelled two people – Bean Dad and Hilaria Baldwin. I feel sorry for both of them, because they were trying only to be funny and charming, didn’t want to hurt anyone, and yet it all went sideways, and then the hunt was on – people went deeeeeep into their timelines and found all kinds of stuff to stoke their outrage. In this age of instant social media stardom, fame is a tiger by the tail for sure. In this age of pandemic, that tiger might take you for the ride of your life, but may just as likely eat you, leaving the remains for curiosity seekers to photograph and post online. People are scared, bored, anxious and ready to be angry like never before.

I know a lot of people who’ve had the virus. Three whole families on my husband’s side, one on mine. One of them had to be hospitalized, but returned home, on oxygen. Four more friends are recovering. Three have lost their sense of smell and taste. One is a long hauler.

My husband and I have been very, very careful, but in retrospect, we’ve taken some risks and gotten lucky: in August we took an 8,000+ mile roadtrip to drop our daughter at college. In early December my husband had a business trip to Washington DC. I met a few times with a partner, brainstorming marketing strategy – he lives alone, but has a new girlfriend he visits unmasked with. She also lives alone, but to be honest while I say I’m being careful I have no idea who she associates with, so I’ve invited risk into my life by meeting with him after he’s met with her. We wear masks now, but haven’t every time, in the past when we could sit 10 feet apart with a window open. I bet people all over the country are facing situations just like this, thinking it’s *probably* safe. I sat with my neighbor in the garden ten feet apart, which turns out the virus can spread easily that far via airborne droplets. I go to the grocery store every 10-14 days, and walk within a foot or so of a dozen or more people during my shopping, everyone masked and me sternly reminding myself not to touch my face until I get home and thoroughly wash and sterilize my hands. My daughter had a friend over; they had both just been tested, and I stayed on the other side of the house – but technically, they could have been infected after their tests and asymptomatically spread it to me via touching stuff in the kitchen where they made snacks. So far all the risks I’ve/we’ve taken have been successfully mitigated with distancing, wearing a mask and frequently washing my hands – or just dumb luck. But I know people who got infected being just the same level of careful, or so they claim. With different standards for careful in not just every state but seemingly every county, it isn’t easy to automatically do the most careful thing.

I don’t know anyone personally who has died of COVID, but I see their stories constantly on television. Today it was a woman in her thirties named Angelina Proia, sobbing in front of the camera after experiencing the first Christmas without her 66-year-old dad, who died of COVID. Watching her, I feel a pang; my own dad is 84, and I worry constantly that he’ll get it. Angelina is not just sad, but overwhelmed – with fear, hopelessness and heartbreak. “I feel like my country has turned its back on us,” she said. “I’ve lost more than just my dad, I’ve lost a feeling of safety and confidence in my living situation, my government, and my fellow citizens.”

I know this feeling she’s talking about. When I was young I had a recurrent dream, that something was coming, something big, stomping through the land like Godzilla. At the start, I am in my room, and the window is open, the screen in place because it is summer. The air itself is ominous. I am alone in the house – everyone else is already hidden from the oncoming disaster, much like Dorothy who doesn’t make it into the underground storm shelter with the others. In the weird stillness of the air I can hear the far off thunder of footsteps. It’s coming! I run around fruitlessly looking for places to hide, but the normally roomy closets are inexplicably stuffed with things that don’t allow for even a kitten to crouch inside. I scoot under my bed, dismayed at what a bad hiding place it is. The creature takes very large steps, and in just a half dozen thuds it is right outside my bedroom window, which darkens with its shadow just as I notice that my left foot is somehow not under the bed but is sticking out, plain as day for anything looking into the window to see. I’m horrified at my stupidity, pulling my foot in but it is too late, a scream of triumph as an unimaginably large claw-tipped hand reaches through the window, tearing the screen to smash down on the bed and lifting it to reveal me. Then I wake up.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the dream atmosphere was like one of the most feared atmospheres in a midwestern childhood – the impending tornado. The air goes still, your stomach is hollowed out with anxiety because your body has sensed the drop in barometric pressure, and is sending a signal: danger is near. The sky is dark, with heavy clouds, but there is little if any thunder or lightning. A few drops might spatter. Sometimes there is a greenish tint in the air. In real life, my father was always there shepherding us authoritatively into the partially finished basement with flashlights and candles. We sat down there in the dark, too nervous to play ping pong or air hockey. We sat on the scratchy couch and played with the candle flames as much as mom would allow. We’d all seen the Wizard of Oz and knew that a tornado was a funnel cloud that swept up whole houses and cars. In real life, we’d seen the newspaper headlines and the pictures of destruction, heard the stories of tragedies and miracles that always accompanied tornado season: there was the cow lifted along with a barn in one town, found unhurt in someone’s yard three towns over. The trailers in trailer parks jumbled like pick-up sticks, one flung as far as the cross town cemetery. There was the tractor deposited at the top of a tree, and a house with everything ripped away but the garage still standing nice as you please. And most memorable of all, the teen-aged girl and boy who raced home from the local high school to be with their parents as the tornado sirens blasted over the town. They made it, and so the entire family was killed when the tornado struck their farm. These stories scared me, because they showed me death and destruction visited people just like my family, you could do everything right and still lose it all, even your life, or at least life as you’ve known it. Tornadoes made me feel unsafe in my own house and unsafe in the world. They were my reckoning that things like dads and houses and neighbors wouldn’t be able to protect you if nature decided it wanted to mess with you.

Coronavirus is much like a tornado. The people with personal experience of a tornado are not in denial about the reality of its destructive properties. But some parts of the country don’t have tornado weather, so maybe it’s only natural they don’t recognize the warning signs. They are the ones who sit on the porch to watch the storm, confident they can make it into the house and down to the basement in plenty of time, if the need arises. In normal times, the annual death toll from tornadoes is well under one hundred, so maybe this confidence makes sense. Except in 2011, there was a super outbreak of more than 350 tornadoes killing more than 500 people in 24 hours of massive destruction totaling more than $10 billion. You can find online compilations of citizen tornado videos, and one common refrain is the person holding the camera wanting to stay and watch, while a person in their vicinity is screaming “dude we’ve got to get out of here now“. Even when faced with the evidence of their eyes, i.e. a half mile wide tornado drawing within a hundred yards of them, some people still wouldn’t accept that the tornado might be dangerous for them personally. I suppose if we humans don’t act with uniform good sense when a killer storm is bearing down on us, it is not surprising we cannot do so when a killer virus arrives in our midst.

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

Almost a year into the pandemic and the US holds the utterly unexpected distinction of being among the worst countries in the world when it comes to managing (or refusing to manage) the virus with 20,427,780 cases, and 350,186 deaths. We are logging new infections at a rate of more than two hundred thousand a day, and a daily death toll that reached 3,500 just yesterday. Eight states have test positivity rates in excess of thirty percent; thirty states have test positivity rates of more than ten percent. According to Johns Hopkins, a higher percent positive suggests higher transmission and that there are likely more people with coronavirus in the community who haven’t been tested yet, so this many states with this high of a positivity rate this many months into the pandemic is bad news. Another 115,000 Americans could die from COVID-19 over the next month, according to projections by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. In Los Angeles, they are out of ICU rooms and treating COVID patients in the hospital gift shop and parking garage, as well as in ambulances. The Georgia World Congress Center convention center in downtown Atlanta has been turned into an overflow hospital. The head of the California Funeral Directors Association says mortuaries are being “inundated.” “This is about total collapse of the healthcare system, if we have another spike,”  said the chief medical officer at USC Medical Center of Los Angeles County.

It’s not just the US; there are infection surges all over the world, including Canada, Norway and Japan. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is telling weary Brits that more onerous lockdown restrictions in England are likely as infection rates reach their highest recorded levels. Yet even as the infection rates surge, anti-mask demonstrations are popping up all over with the unmasked gathering to protest in a mall in Arizona, a grocery store in California, a public health meeting in Idaho, and Targets and Wal-Marts across the country. And the US is not the only country with pandemic-rebellious citizens – in Spain they held an anti-mask rally with hundreds of demonstrators at Madrid’s Plaza de Colon chanting “freedom” and holding up signs reading “The virus does not exist,” “Masks kill,” and “We are not afraid”; in France 2,500 people violated curfew and face fines to attend a New Year’s Eve rave; in Brussels, hundreds gathered to protest the closure of pubs. “We are here because we are really desperate and at the end of our tether, physically and mentally,” said the organizer of a protest in Prague.

Getty: August 16, 2020 anti-mask demonstrators in Spain

A couple of days ago, $600 popped up in the bank accounts of citizens who qualify for relief funds and have bank accounts. This is the US Congress’ idea of what the average American needs in the face of job loss and living on savings for more than nine months. More than 6 million households face potential eviction next month, according to Census Bureau data.

The US stimulus is roughly 18% of the GDP, well behind other economically advanced economies like Japan (42% of GDP), Slovenia (25%) and Germany (20%), all of whom also have much more robust social safety nets, e.g. universal health care, etc. Will Joe Biden be the FDR-like figure the country needs as we face Great Depression-like levels of unemployment and homelessness? Or will people nickname their campers and vans Bidenmobiles as they migrate from Amazon warehouse to Amazon warehouse across the country, keeping expenses low and re-accumulating savings one minimum wage paycheck at a time?

In Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler tells Scarlett that there is almost as much money to be made rebuilding a nation as there is in destroying it – an approving reflection on Scarlett making tons of money selling lumber to the Union troops directing the Reconstruction of Georgia, while her impoverished Southern neighbors called her a traitor. I didn’t quite understand what Rhett meant, until I read that the 100 richest people in the US added about $600 billion to their wealth in 2020 – enough, reports Shawn Donnan, to send a $2800 check to every adult in the country, even as a host of Senators have written speeches about why the government can’t afford to do this same thing. There was a lot of money made, certainly, in the slow destruction of the middle class of America, and I wonder how it will play out, the rebuilding of the scaffolding of the American dream? Will we continue to insist the wealthiest country in the world can’t offer universal healthcare? Will we rebuild our business sector with a lighter carbon footprint, with less travel, commuting and plastic?

I’m an optimist by nature but conditions being what they are, it seems unlikely much is going to change in the near future. The problems of 2020 crossed the border to 2021 as easily as you can wade across the Mississippi River in Minnesota. The vaccine is here, but the distribution is so slow in America that experts project it won’t be until June that the average citizen can expect to be vaccinated, and more likely fall. There is a mistrust in the vaccine evident across the country; in some counties, as many as 50% of frontline healthcare workers, firefighters and nursing home workers refusing to take it.

Meanwhile, the more infectious COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 has arrived on US shores, with the first cases reported in Colorado and California, so I am guessing after the huge surge of travel over Christmas and New Year’s, we are in for bigger, faster surges of illness and death in January and February of this year, just as a surge of death and infection followed six to eight weeks after Thanksgiving travel. Donald Trump continues to claim the election was stolen from him and a cadre of Senators are backing his grievance, saying they will not certify the election of Joe Biden because of claimed-but-never-proven-in-court corruption, furthering dividing the public against itself and weakening American democracy. I have no doubt things will get better – by the end of this year it’s almost a certainty the pandemic will burn itself out as a majority of people eventually get vaccinated – but for now, the problems of January 2021 are very much the problems of December 2020, with a bullet.

First look at Stephen King's “The Stand” TV adaptation revealed – The  Cultured Nerd
The Stand

Like many people, I’ve been watching more television than usual this past year. They did another made-for-television mini-series of Stephen King’s The Stand, a book I read in college, then re-read when they released the complete, uncut version in the 90s. In the book, Fran Goldsmith keeps a journal to record what the pre-pandemic world was like, remembering for her then-unborn son Peter. My coronavirus journal started out as a way to remember how the pandemic unfolded. It’s become a shocking record of the failures of our federal and state government officials in managing an effective response to the virus, and a reminder of the threadbare patches on the US quilt before the pandemic started. In The Stand, the evil Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, is ultimately destroyed not by any good guy necromancy but by the bad things that pre-existed the pandemic: a nuke and unaddressed mental illness, courtesy of a character known as the Trashcan Man. Similar to the America before King’s imaginary Captain Trips, America came into the all-too-real coronavirus pandemic with historic inequality already in place, systemically reinforced by banks, corporations, and landlords. We incarcerate more people than any country in the world, for nonviolent offenses (and far too often, on fabricated evidence) at enormous cost. Our school aged kids already ranked low, globally, in math and sciences achievement. A large portion of Americans are drowning in oceans of debt – student debt, medical debt, even school lunch debt; more than 40% could not pay an unexpected $400 expense before the pandemic. Our planet is burning up. And mental illness continues to be overlooked and under-addressed. We shouldn’t be hoping to get back to normal – clearly that would be a disaster for most of us. We are going to need a new normal, and the timing may never be better. I hope we can find the collective courage and vision to make the political, social and financial changes needed to restore – even redefine – the lustre of the once-golden American dream, else I’m afraid the main thing COVID-19 will be remembered for was the way it marked the beginning of the end of the American era.

Good News: The vaccine is very, very good news.


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