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Sparkling Isolation

I can’t watch pandemic movies even in the best of times. There’s something deeply frightening about germs you can’t see, can’t control, that ramps up all of my anxieties, even in fiction. Now we have a real pandemic at our doorstep, and life as we know it is changing rapidly. I’ll admit it, I’m scared.

I’m in a high risk category for contracting COVID-19. Self-isolation isn’t a big deal for me because I have always been something of a hermit. I’ve been at home, largely alone, since getting laid off and then being besieged with health problems. Even before that I was working at home a lot. Being stuck at home doesn’t bother me, though it feels a little paradoxical to be trying to outrun something while staying in one place.

About a month ago I finished watching HBO’s Chernobyl. I started it when it was first released, but I had to stop because I found the constant lying by the characters to be deeply disturbing. The impulse to lie and deny reached from the operators in the plant to the highest party officials trying to keep the severity of the accident secret from the rest of the world. This is where we are now.

Our so-called leaders lied to us and refused to prepare for the severity of what was coming at us. They had intelligence that told them what to expect. They chose to profit from that information over saving lives. Because of their inaction, testing is still being rationed as of this writing. The nation is short of ventilators needed to treat patients. GM CEO Mary Barra and others have offered to convert idle plants to the production of ventilators to cover the shortage in the same way that automakers retooled during WWII. Trump has not taken them up on their offer, but GM appears to be going forward anyway.

I am not listening to Trump’s daily briefings. He continues to lie, makes things up as he goes along, contradicts experts, and conceals much of the reality of the situation. He is not a leader. Listening to him during this crisis is bad for people’s mental health. His misinformation is dangerous. At home all day, I can’t help but be barraged with information on social media. Fact checks of Trump, complaints about shortages, stories of people being denied testing, concerns about people’s jobs and businesses, and so on. I try to limit myself.

From HBO’s Chernobyl

As a nation, we haven’t gone through anything like this in 100 years. The closest things might be a presidential assassination, the Challenger accident, or 9/11; moments when, however briefly, we paused, mourned, and stood together in solidarity. It doesn’t feel like that’s happening this time, and not just because we are all supposed to be sequestered in our homes. The hoarding behavior, the refusal in some quarters to take social distancing seriously, the emphasis on the economy over public health, the suggestion that elders sacrifice themselves for the Dow; all exacerbate the “us vs. them” mentality that has dominated our society for the last several years. Divided, we fall.

There’s no question that the economy is going to be affected by self-isolation. I live in a small town that is dependent on travel and tourism dollars. Restaurants are closing, people are being laid off, the performing arts center has shut down, and inns don’t know whether they will have a summer season this year.

Where people can work from home, they are doing that, but there have also been millions of layoffs across the country already; many of them already living paycheck to paycheck. Not only are they now without a job, but many have also lost their health insurance.

At the same time, we are seeing families not able to visit with each other because of social isolation. Grandmothers are missing visits and hugs from their grandchildren. Work and school are being conducted remotely and people are learning more about their coworkers’ home lives when children and barking dogs can be heard in the background of conference calls.

People are talking about this “lockdown” as if it might last a month or so. I think it will be longer. I have no faith in the Trump regime to do the right thing on any front. The suffering of others seems to delight rather than concern him, and his or Pence’s ability to manage any coordinated national response is highly suspect. They have already wasted a significant amount of time. I can’t see them getting their act together in any way that moves us forward with confidence.

In the meantime, we wait. We declutter, or do puzzles; we bake and think about gardening when the weather gets warm. We make masks or we knit. We watch the news or avoid the news. We attempt to work, we attempt to homeschool. We dream about the first thing we’ll do when the lockdown is lifted. We try to stay positive, but there’s an existential dread hanging over us that we mostly don’t talk about, but that is more real now than when we talked about climate change. The disease moves fast, the numbers grow, and it won’t be long before we all know someone who has been affected.

Somewhere between the puzzles, and the Netflix binges, we will have plenty of time to take stock of the lives we’re living and what might come after. I wonder if this time away from our work, our routines, our expectations, and in some cases, our families will prompt an examination of why we do things the way we do. I wonder if the state of the economy when this is over will lead to major changes in the way we live and work. Or, will we be so eager to get back to “normal” that we will scramble blindly to reassert ourselves in a system that doesn’t work for most people in our country.

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