2020 Should Stay With Us

January 5, 2021 at 9:20 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

One of my friends ritualistically burned pages of a 2020 calendar this New Year’s Eve.  I’ve read about other people reciting everything that had gone wrong before the stroke of midnight or cursing 2020 on its way out the door.  The overall vibe was that 2020 was over—and with it all the sadness of the past months.  Out with old, and in the new!

I’m trying a different strategy.  I’m remembering 2020.

There’s no doubt that 2020 was a terrible year.  Over 350,000 Americans died of Covid-19.  1.85 million worldwide lost their lives to it.  The economic fallout has been disastrous too.  13 percent of Americans recently reported that they couldn’t put enough food on the table for their families, and 1 in 5 renters are behind on housing payments.  The pandemic acted like an x-ray machine, scanning our society and illuminating the fractures that were there all the time—the inequities of our healthcare system, the decades of undermining public health infrastructure, the precariousness of American workers, our political polarization.

2020 was a hard year for me personally.  I’m into my sixth long month of living separately from Jay and Andrew because of my Covid risks.  Even though my sarcoidosis was mercifully less vicious this past year, the Covid X-ray machine illuminated fault lines in my own life.  As much as I don’t like being perceived as such, the reality is that I am still fragile.  I try and remain grateful that my family has the resources to pay for extra housing for me.  While millions of others are in danger of losing their homes, I’ve been able to isolate myself.  I’ve been as physically safe as I can keep myself.  But I can’t put my thoughts and feelings into the equivalent of an N-95.  I’ve been lonely.  I’ve been scared.  I’ve spiraled into anxious dark places many nights, and haven’t been able to roll over and poke Jay awake as I once did to have him reassure me that the worst won’t come true.  I’ve been changed. 

I’m old enough to have lived through a thing or two.  I’ve learned that aggressively forgetting something never works as a long-term solution.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  I’ve spat at years as the calendar changed over, telling myself this would be the year that I would stop being sick, start losing weight, stay out of hospitals, etc., etc.  Sometimes, just weeks later, I’d be back in the hospital, gaining more weight, still sick.  Diseases don’t need paperwork to keep infecting in the New Year. 

As hard as 2020 was on me, I don’t want to forget it, even if I could.  I am a different woman than the one who moved into this apartment with two suitcases and eyes backed up with unshed tears in July.  I’ve learned that I believe my life is worth saving, even if it’s inconvenient and painful—and I’ve acted on it.  I’ve learned that I can pull myself out of what I once thought was infinite darkness.  It turns out that even darkness is finite.  I can’t wait to be back home, someday, hopefully soon.  But I won’t pretend that I never left.

I also won’t forget the mortal fear that I’ve lived with—fear made worse by selfish idiots from the President on down, who refused to wear masks or to abide by even the most basic public health precautions.  I will remember the businesses that flouted the laws and endangered their customers.  I’ve taken note of people on social media who have spread misinformation and dangerous lies. 

More importantly, I won’t forget the 350,000 who perished needlessly in 2020.  There were no national or statewide mourning rituals for them.  They died alone, and it feels like not many people beyond their family care to remember them.  We had no moments of silence or ringing of church bells, just a daily growing count of the dead that many didn’t bother even to look at.  I also want to remember the vision of our society that the Covid the X-ray machine showed us all.  People with less than $500 in savings suddenly without jobs.  Children without access to technology trying to “learn from home.”  Families going hungry.  Millions more Americans losing their healthcare because they lost their jobs.  Prisoners helpless as Covid ripped through their confinement.  The elderly left without hope or visitors for months, while contagion stalked their nursing homes.  Doctors and nurses working endless shifts while pleading for their neighbors to wear masks and stay home for the holidays.  And meanwhile, the billionaires got richer, Wall Street is doing great and it’s a new year.

We’ll be dealing with the fallout from 2020 for a generation.  I’m going to try and remember it all, even when it hurts and takes me back to a time I’d rather forget.  We owe it to those who died.  We owe it to those who are hungry.  We owe it to each other.   It’s not just memory for memory’s sake, though as a historian I think that’s important.  If we accept the transformative powers of this year, we can work—together—on repairing all those fractures. 

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It’s the Economy, Stupid

December 17, 2020 at 7:27 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

One of my favorite writers about all things Covid-related, Zeynep Tufekci, has an article on Substack that stopped me in my tracks.

It’s about the order in which Americans will likely be vaccinated.  Once again, it looks like we will as a nation do things very differently than the rest of the world.  Because we’re likely to have limited vaccines for many more months, we must make difficult choices.  It’s too bad we’re in this situation caused by yet another unforced error—this one by making our vaccine scarcity worse than it had to be. But that’s another post in itself.

We are first vaccinating health care workers and nursing home residents and workers.  This is completely logical and I think every country is doing the same.  What happens next is where things get tricky. As Tufekci argues quite convincingly in her latest piece, age and underlying health conditions account for an overwhelmingly percentage of Covid deaths.  90 percent of Covid deaths in the US are from people aged 55 and over.  If the US were interested in saving the most lives, it would be a no-brainer to next vaccinate the elderly living outside of nursing homes and those like me with risk factors.  But it looks like this is not going to be the CDC’s recommendation.  Instead, the vaccine will likely be offered next to essential workers (an ill-defined and potentially huge portion of the country.)  There is some logic to this, if our country’s goal is to limit the spread of Covid and thus get life back to normal more quickly.  Vaccinating workers could help our stuttering economy.  The CDC has also noted that prioritizing essential workers would address inequalities since many are people of color.  

Obviously, I’ve got (white) skin in this game.  I’ve been told by every healthcare professional I’ve talked to since March not to get Covid because I probably wouldn’t fare too well if I did.  This is why I am living apart from my family.  I’d like to return to my home.  I also don’t want to die. I feel very alone and anxious. Last night I slept for just a couple of hours.

I am angry at how the US has handled nearly every aspect of this pandemic since the beginning.  I feel strongly that this country has chosen economic well-being and the stock market over the lives of its citizens.  I’ve read and heard elected officials and policy makers at all levels argue that economic health trumps physical health.  Some have said outright that the elderly should sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy. Twitter trolls have told me to stop complaining because “I’m just going to die anyway.”  This expected new decision on how to vaccinate Americans feels to me like yet another prioritization of the economy over human life and health.  Certainly vaccinated essential workers can keep stores open, poultry processed, and packages delivered. But even the CDC panel making this recommendation is explicit that more lives will be lost with this choice.  I understand that this is terribly complicated. I know that economic hardship is awful, that the ranks of those in poverty grow every day, and that too many small businesses have shut down.  I know that people are hungry and food banks are struggling to meet the demand.  I know that kids who are out of school aren’t learning.  I know that mental health issues are on the rise.  From my perspective, though, you can re-open a business; you can’t bring back a dead person.  We could choose to pump more money into our economy.  Billionaires have gotten even wealthier during the pandemic.  We make choices not to tax those billionaires and instead let families go hungry.  There is one choice we can’t ever undo, though.  And that is to raise the multitude of the dead.  Many have died without family or friends with them.  If they were lucky, a masked and goggled nurse held their hand at the end.  The current prediction is that 500,000 Americans will die of Covid by March, 2021.

Prioritizing essential workers over the elderly and the at-risk will kill even more.  It’s hard for me to imagine that we would make this choice.  As Tufekci wrote today, “[I]n Utah, a 30-year-old teacher may be vaccinated long before someone over 70 or even 80—even though the latter are at so much greater risk if infected. In fact, it looks like teachers, police and food and agriculture workers will all precede adults over 65 and people with high-risk medical conditions.”

Once again, the US is charting its own course with Covid.  You can add this vaccination protocol to our rabid anti-masking sentiments and lackluster public policy for what separates the US from countries that have managed Covid much more successfully (Vietnam, Taiwan, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Canada, etc.) Tufekci points out that prioritizing essential workers is  “not what other countries rolling out the same vaccine are doing. For comparison…the UK-wide vaccination prioritization…sensibly ranks by risk, which corresponds to age.”

In theory every state is free to establish its own vaccination priorities.  But states have always used CDC guidelines in the past. 

I know this probably isn’t what any of you want to read.  It’s noteworthy that hardly anyone besides Tufekci is writing about this.  (She has been eerily prescient about almost everything Covid-related, from the CDC’s early nonsense policy against masking to restaurants and bars being the most significant vectors for transmission.) The pandemic was so 2020, and 2020 is almost over, right?  We have hopeful headlines about nurses getting vaccinated, with photos showing their relief.  Having the vaccine promised to us—“soon”— is supposed to soothe our Covid-fatigued souls.  It’s time to get our holly jolly on and go shopping!  Play some Christmas music, and do your civic duty by buying stuff (preferably with a mask on, but don’t get too strident about that or you’ll be accused of hating freedom.) If we crank the holiday music loudly enough, we can drown out snarks like me who are pointing out that we are woefully short of vaccines for the near and mid-term.  We can focus on 2021 like it’s some magical line fairies have drawn in the sands of time.  Coronavirus cannot cross that line.  Right? 

But here’s the thing.  I’m hurting.  I’m lonely.  I’m scared.  I’m confused why my country seems to value retail more than my life, my parents’ lives, and so many other lives.  And I don’t understand why this doesn’t feel important enough for people to talk about and worry over as a national community.  Don’t we all have someone like me—a grandparent, a friend with cancer, a cousin with diabetes?  Someone who has been following the rules and hunkering down because she believes her life has meaning.  I can’t live under a rock forever because my country doesn’t want to see me.  But I’m here, marking time until the rest of the country cares enough to put on a mask, stay out of restaurants, not have a Christmas party…and give me a vaccine. 

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