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Journal of the Plague Year (#2)

Berkeley, CA. Week of 3/23 – There’s something basically distressing about having to gather almost all of one’s knowledge and experience remotely. Not by “being there.”

Phone calls and web contact, some of it accompanied by herky-jerk video, are all we have. And we’d be foolish to think we’ll have those consistently, or reliably, given the hackocracy that has metastasized in ill-controlled (or opaquely controlled) countries and regions world-wide.

Those of us with a habit of reading and listening to music have refuges. Those of us who think we can exist in those refuges for a long time have a rude shock coming. 

In the past year, as I’ve transitioned from the World of the Well to the World of the Ill (bad accidental fall, multiple surgeries, disastrous, nearly fatal “side effects,” from anesthesia and medication). I’ve already become used to a vastly reduced radius of operation. Now I’m quarantined in it.

As I take in information, I am not encouraged. Not only was there vast, and vastly irresponsible negligence in emergency preparedness. There was and is also the Trumpoids self-righteous lack of focus on and recent commitment to structures and policies that might alleviate bad times. (For an excellent summary of what could/should have been done, check out science journalist Laurie Garret’s recent discussion on the New Republic’s podcast, “The Politics of Everything,” “An Emergency Decades in the Making.”)

The Main Stream Media are dipping their rarely dry hankies into the bottomless well of tears from victims and relatives of victims. But there comes a time when anyone who isn’t a TV news babbler runs out of tears, too. 

Possibly the biggest common phenomenon, beyond uncertainty, that almost everyone shares is sadness. Samantha Hill, who works at the Bard College Hannah Arendt Center, writes most recently:

“If only we could all emulate Tom Hanks’s character in ‘Cast Away,’ who survived four years stranded on a remote island with only a volleyball—nicknamed Wilson, with a face crafted off an imprint of his bloodied hand—as a companion. But science shows us that anxiety and isolation exact a physical toll on the brain’s circuitry. They increase the vulnerability to disease—by triggering higher blood pressure and heart rates, stress hormones and inflammation—among people who might otherwise not get sick. Prolonged loneliness can even increase mortality rates. In 2015, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Brigham Young University, published an analysis of seventy studies, involving 3.4 million people, examining the impact of social isolation, loneliness, and living alone. The results were notable in light of today’s pandemic. The review found that loneliness increased the rate of early death by twenty-six per cent; social isolation led to an increased rate of mortality of twenty-nine per cent, and living alone by thirty-two per cent—no matter the subject’s age, gender, location, or culture.”

Sunday’s mountain of ink-wasted paper brings substantiating accounts and pictures of how bad it is. And hints of how it may well get worse. Since no one (can you say Barack Obama, 2008?) seems to want to take up Bernie Sanders’ challenge to make this a teachable moment about health care and finance, there are plenty of money ghouls trolling for obscene profit from our miseries. 

Insurance premiums, for those fortunate to be able to obtain and pay for coverage, are likely to go up by 40%, with larger co-payments and fewer medication allowances also likely. And the recent stock market “recovery” which may continue or have been reversed by the time you read this, is based largely on the pharmaceutical sector. Testing and treating the pandemic are gold mines. And the miners are out there on their laptops, world-wide.

In all this quick shifting of focus from what is still a Presidential election year has allowed some important factoids to be buried. For example, Michael Bloomberg, we now know, spent a mere $900 million dollars to get the 58 delegates (of a necessary 2,000) he won. The abundant (and abundantly paid) workers he employed are now suing him for breach of contract. Saying he hired staff with false promises and is now not honoring what they believe was an agreement to continue paying them, and their health plan costs, through the end of the year. 

Had Bloomberg used his money (he’s estimated to be worth $46 billion) to purchase sorely needed face masks or working ventilators we might have a less critical situation than we do. (A great analysis, by Farhad Manjoo, of the face mask scandal appears in the 5/25 NYT, “How the World’s Richest Country Ran Out of a 75-cent Face Mask.”)

It might be, although unlikely, given the proclivities of our culture and politics, that some issues unavoidably being looked at as the crisis continues may obtain amelioration. Housing, for example. Not only are homeless encampments obvious breeding groups for viruses (and other germ-born afflictions), capitalism is an obvious breeding ground for homelessness. There are an estimated 46,000 empty homes in the Bay Area. Homeless people number an estimated 28,000. The math is easy to do. The politics much less so. 

The unreal, slimy state of what passes for politics in this country has probably not reached its most surreal state yet. Religious fanatics are either denying that the Coronavirus is real, or that if it is real god had a reason to bring it on now, which we as flock to a The Big G’s pastorhood have no claim to know. Or that Trump opponents invented/imported the virus because Trump’s impeachment didn’t lead to a conviction, and this is another way for those who hate him to get him out of the White House. 

Or that they are somehow immune to one of the few tactics that seems to have some success: shelter in place. Liberty University in Virginia (part of a $2 billion dollar empire) recently encouraged students to return to dorms and social actvities after winter break. Without screening. Unsurprisingly, they are turning out to have high rates of virus, and, after brief stays in Lynchberg VA (whose elected and health officials have denounced how the school has handled the situation), many have gone home. Some, no doubt, bringing some element of the virus back with them. Nut-ball congregations can be seen on You Tube bragging about how they’ll continue to breathe, hug, sing anywhere they please.

If enough of them comply there may be an upside to this horror after all.

Limited social distance. A lone boy appears up the street, wielding a big butterfly net. 

“Caught any yet?”


“They usually like the pink flowers.”

He goes over and peers.

“There’s one!” I feel lucky. But his net is too big, he’s too small, the lovely Monarch is too fast.

His father, holding a babbling tiny baby, smiles approval from his porch across the oddly traffic-free steet.

As self-contained, we are perfect.

We know, as the boy can’t, that it’s highly temporary. At best.

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