You put off cleaning the house. You put it off because of how overwhelming it all feels. And then at some point you get started.
And then, once you’ve started, you clean for hours and hours without stopping, unable to stop. Sometimes when this happens, you clean in places that you haven’t cleaned for years.
— § —
I am not normally an alarmist about things, but COVID-19 is different.
Already we see what is effectively community transmission in a variety of places. Meanwhile, the entire economy of China, manufacturer of virtually everything physical—everything real that exists in the world now, has been shut down for weeks.
And it’s all going to stay shut down. At least for weeks more. Possibly for months more. It’s not beyond imagining to come up with scenarios in which it does not return to what it’s been.
Meanwhile, that community transmission hums along. More and more clusters pop up. The climb begins. People say things like, “Oh, the mortality rate is only two to three percent, it’s not that bad.”
But the R0 is well above three, at the very least—it’s going to keep spreading absent some incredibly drastic measure taken by everyone in the world. And climate change has long told us that we cannot, as a world, take drastic measures.
And if we presume that the mortality rate hovers around the low bound of two, and that only half of the world comes down with it in the end (which may be optimistic under some realistic scenarios), then we are talking about 50 million excess deaths. Few things like this will have been seen before. Not Hitler, not Stalin, not Mao.
World War II as a whole is the only thing that really matches it.
And keep in mind, that mortality rate has thus far been in advanced industrial societies with clean hospitals and respirators—and is likely underreported due to the nature of the regime where the outbreak is currently largest.
— § —
Some people are calling this a “black swan” event. But a black swan event is something that is both incredibly unlikely and that could never have been predicted.
That makes COVID-19 anything but a black swan event.
People have been warning about and expecting it for years. Decades, even, in a variety of ways.
Worries about the offshoring of critical manufacturing, including things like medication and basic technology, have been a staple in politics since the first elections that I can remember, and I’m nearly half a century old. Now we face a situation in which critical resources will be needed, but they’re only made in the epicenter of the pandemic—which is currently entirely shuttered, and keeping what little production it can muster all to itself.
Worries about bioweapon and biodefense research at BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs are nothing new. How many times have we been warned that if a pathogen escapes, or an insane person working in one of these labs wanted to destroy the world, it could mark the end of civilization as we know it? There is, in fact, an entire cottage industry in Hollywood dedicated to playing out and portraying these scenarios for the public.
Worries about the US healthcare system, it’s inability to sustain basic health and basic immunity due to a broad lack of practical access to healthcare and healthcare guidance across half the population, are also a staple of national politics for at least the last three decades. Now we face a global pandemic in an environment in which medical bankruptcy is a way of life and people routinely avoid doctors yet go to work to ensure that they can continue to make ends meet.
Worries about largely uncontrolled crossing of most of the world’s borders have been treated as prejudice and an attitude that runs counter to the ethos of basic human rights, without regard for the obvious public health and public safety issues that porous borders all over the globe represent. I can remember discussing this when I used to teach sociology—most of my students had never considered questions of public health, only economics and crime, when it came to this issue. Now we have a tremendous exodus of potentially exposed Chinese citizens through a variety of countries with lax controls where they can then disperse around the globe.
We have a complacent, comfortable public. The kind of public that wails and gnashes its teeth about how free speech of various kinds is “literally killing us.”
I can only hope they are not in for a rude awakening in which they gain more experience with what the phrase “literally killing us” means—one in which, if it comes to pass, their protests in the streets will and can do nothing to stem the tide.
Nature may be about to have its revenge.
— § —
Beyond all of this, yet somehow also weirdly apropos of coronavirus and dogs and student debt and a million other things, I realized today as I was wiping down the front of the microwave oven that I haven’t had a plan in over a decade now.
I got married. At the time, I planned to finish my PhD, become a professor, start a family, write a slew of books, make a life for myself in New York, and grow old in the cocktails-and-books set.
Then, the marriage started to go south. There were fights. Ultimatums. A demand for pregnancy. More ultimatums. An realized pregnancy. Then fear. Desperation. Tactics. More tactics and more tactics, all just to try to hold things together and do right by self and offspring.
I was in myopic survival mode by 2009, and it has been a perpetual race against the metaphorical blitzkrieg and the clock since then.
I have been in tactical survival mode for over a decade, and I’m tired. And there is no end in sight. No moment to plan. No room for meaning or legacies or thoughts about the bigger picture.
I don’t quite know of any path to escaping survival mode, short of that particular kind of insanity that some people opt to adopt in which they suddenly chuck everything and disappear, sometimes in to jail, sometimes into a new identity, qua escaping their situation and leaving everything behind.
I do know that I’m tired. That I feel like a soldier that’s been on the front for far too long, jaded, loud, growing ever more careless even as I grow ever more skilled at the tactics, day by day.
Survival mode has a strange and toxic effect on the soul. It is generally incompatible with the maintenance of a strong moral center. I need to be vigilant.
But that doesn’t quite work either, because vigilance is what got me here. It’s all I do. It’s the crux of survival mode.
— § —
For some reason, I’ve been asked several times over the last few days how old I am.
I grow tired of answering: “Nearly forty-four.”
I grow tired of it because it’s causing a kind of panic to set in. For reasons that may or may not be obvious. And because it exacerbates the fatigue in some strange, subtle way. The more I say it, the more I have to confront it. And to confront my circumstances, my little Vietnam that will never, ever end.
— § —
All of it.
Just all of it.
Hence hours and hours of cleaning, including all of those places that I never, ever clean.