Friday, August 14, 2020

Thoughts on Living in the Age of Coronavirus

It seems like a lifetime ago when COVID-19 was not a part of our lives.  I don't recall the specific date when I first read about it, but it was roughly in late December or early January when it was first mentioned in the news as an epidemic that had broken out in the city of Wuhan in the People's Republic of China.

For most of January, coronavirus was just another story in the news.  Here in the United States, most of us didn't think very much about it except that it was a problem that was "over there" on the other side of the world.  Maybe it would come here, but if it did, would it be serious?

My Facebook feed serves as a sort of timeline for my own thoughts and observations about coronavirus.  My first post mentioning it is dated February 9.  I was channel surfing and paused to watch a figure skating competition in Seoul and couldn't help but notice that everyone sitting in the bleachers of the rink watching the competition was wearing surgical masks.  The next day I posted a link to an article about China harassing Taiwan and expressing my disgust with the PRC for bullying Taiwan when China was dealing with and was the source of the coronavirus epidemic.

Fast forward to March 1st, and suddenly coronavirus had become like a tropical storm that hadn't arrived yet but you knew it was coming.  It was starting to become commonplace to see people in public wearing masks.  As someone who was rather militant about trying to avoid using single use plastics, I was irked that the Starbucks near my office would no longer allow its customers to have the option of having their drinks served in reusable containers that they brought to the store.  On the plus side, I noticed that there were more parking spaces available at my train station from where I would commute into work in Manhattan.  The higher ups in the firm started to circulate e-mails that they were keeping tabs on the situation and were drawing up plans on what would be done in the event that the firm's various offices nationwide would need to close.

It was in early March that the baffling phenomenon of the panic buying and hoarding of toilet paper began to affect the country that to date had seen few deaths from the virus.  My daughter's high school closed, at first for seemingly just one or two days, but the days then turned to weeks and then until further notice.  It never reopened for the remainder of the school year, and all school work was conducted online.  Still, even in early March, many of my coronavirus posts on Facebook were humorous in nature.  It was still common at the time to see some friends post memes on Facebook with the message that we were overreacting to the virus, which had only killed maybe a couple of dozen or so people in the country at the time, compared to the tens of thousands who die annually from the flu.  Those memes certainly did not age well.  My own feelings at the time, from what I recall, was that I didn't take it seriously, but I wasn't sure what to expect.

The real turning point, from my perspective, was Friday, March 13.  I commuted to work in Manhattan as I normally did.  When I arrived at the office, I was surprised to see how many of my coworkers decided to work remotely from home.  I had been provided with a laptop with which to work from home in the event that the office needed to close.  I was still adamant about working in the office as long as I was able to.  The following Monday I showed up again to work and there was virtually nobody there, except one of the mail room staff.  Going through my e-mails, I saw that the office was actually closed.  Since I was there, I decided I would work there for the day, but around 11:30 the office manager, having somehow learned that I was there, called me and told me I had to leave immediately.  I have been working remotely from home ever since.

It was around this same time that New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area began to experience a pronounced and sustained surge in coronavirus cases.  The storm that had been lingering off in the distance had now arrived.  Each day would bring with it the grim tally of the number of new cases and deaths from the previous day.  While I was working from home, my wife had to continue to commute to work in Manhattan to her job as a nurse in a nursing home.  She told me of one nurse who died from the virus a week after having retired from her job there.  

As March progressed, another disturbing phenomenon emerged.  People who insisted on wearing rubber gloves when going shopping were discarding them on the pavement in parking lots.  There were a number of articles about it in the local news and I shared a video I took from one lot by me that was affected by the problem.  Being someone who is rather militant about not littering, it greatly angered me to see so many people behave so irresponsibly by casually discarding gloves on the ground.  At times I would observe other shoppers in the parking lot to see if they would toss their gloves on the ground so that I could confront them, but to my surprise I never personally witnessed anyone doing it.

My son had been taking a welding class at Suffolk Community College that started in late January, which he really enjoyed.  He had quit his job at a nearby retail store because the manager wanted him to work full time hours.  Looking for an alternative, I directed him to apply for a part time job as a package handler at Federal Express.  The hours were kind of crazy, starting at 4 am and ending about 7 am, but it would be a way for him to earn some spending money and work a shift that would not interfere with his welding class, which was on Monday and Wednesday evenings from 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm.  But as with my daughter's high school, Suffolk Community College closed down in mid-March.  It was not long afterwards that my son's job at Federal Express morphed into a full time job.  With stores closed, more and more people were ordering goods online, and the volume of packages that passed through the Federal Express distribution center where my son worked increased enormously.  Concomitant with that, my son and the other employees received a temporary raise to $18.00 per hour.  It struck me as rather odd that the coronavirus epidemic threw so many people out of work, and yet my son, who was less than a year out of high school, had serendipitously found himself in a situation where he was making money hand over fist. 

Sadly, the wearing of masks in public has become the subject of a culture war here in America.  I have to admit that throughout March I still refused to wear a mask when I went into stores.  But as the epidemic grew worse, Governor Cuomo mandated the wearing of masks in indoor public places in April.  I accepted, grudgingly at first, but as time passed I got used to it.  Since late May, the number of new cases in New York has plummeted, and while we had a rough two or three months, we can honestly say that we have flattened the curve here.  As I noted in a recent post, there has been a sharp divergence with other states such as Florida, which initially appeared to have the spread of the virus under control, but have since gone on to experience daily new cases and deaths to rival some of New York's worst days.  

While many of the restrictions imposed by Governor Cuomo have since been lifted due to the decline in new cases and many stores have reopened, the impact on the economy has been devastating and it is hard to see when we will see a return to the way things were before the pandemic turned up on our shores.  My son was saddened to learn that the gym where he worked out at would not be reopening.  A friend of mine who does Thai massage essentially saw her business wiped out.  Without the means to make a living, she was unable to pay the rent for the office space she used to conduct her business.  Even after she resumed business, many of her customers, like me, were people who were no longer commuting to work in Manhattan, and therefore were in no position to make an appointment with her.  So, she found herself in a situation where she was not getting enough customers to afford the rent for the office space she rented, causing her to move. But without the office space, she no longer has the means to carry out her business.  I honestly do not know what she is going to be able to do to support herself, as she is a single immigrant from Thailand with limited job skills and experience outside of her field of Thai massage.

The coronavirus epidemic, in tandem with the protests that flared up in the wake of the death of George Floyd, have torn at the fabric of our nation.  While I am not going to lay the blame for the severity of the epidemic solely at the feet of President Trump, I believe he has failed as a leader in this time of crisis, though of course his ardent supporters still back him 100%.  It is quite apparent though that if Hillary Clinton was currently president of the United States and the coronavirus situation in the country was identical to what we have been experiencing under Trump that the Republican base that maintains that none of this is his fault would be taking exactly the opposite position with Hillary Clinton.

This epidemic, sadly, is far from having run its course, and who can say what the future holds.  The best case scenario is that we collectively as a nation can contain the virus long enough for a vaccine to be developed and deployed.  Until quite recently, the world was becoming closely linked by international travel.  Thanks to the virus, travelling abroad is not possible for the foreseeable future.  My dive group had to cancel its trip to the Cayman Islands this past July, though we hope that we can go in July of 2021.  Countries that were just a few hours away by plane now might as well be on the other side of the moon.  

On the other hand, I am an optimist at my core, and the coronavirus epidemic still pales in severity and lethality to the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which killed more people than World War I.  The Spanish Flu also took place close in time to the Red Scare that followed the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia and racial tensions in the United States that were far greater than what we are experiencing today.  We eventually bounced back and moved on from these things a hundred years ago.  It should not be impossible that we can overcome the challenges we are facing now.

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