The Pandemic Semester – Open Letter to History 3644

COVID 19 World Map 5-8-20

What a difference six weeks make. When we switched to remote learning in mid-March, there were fewer than 200,000 confirmed cases of the novel corona virus in the world. Seven thousand people had already died from Covid 19, most of them in China, Italy, Iran and Spain. As national governments lurched into action to contain the virus, the United States recorded a mere 4,138 cases (on March 16) and Russia had yet to report any. Seven weeks later we find the United States at the epicenter of a pandemic carving a vicious swath of physical, emotional and economic suffering around the globe. There are nearly 4 million confirmed cases worldwide, and the global death count is racing toward 300,000. With 1.3 million confirmed cases and over 76,000 deaths, the United States leads the case count by a factor of five (over Spain with a 221,000) and the death count by a factor of two (over the United Kingdom with 31,000). After six weeks of stay at home orders and forced business closures, governors in the US have begun the agonizing and controversial process of “re-opening” their states, even as the number of infections continue to rise and new hot spots appear.

With 187,000 confirmed cases,Russia has just climbed into fifth place in the overall case count (behind the US, Spain, Italy and the UK). But even Russian authorities concede that the official case count is significantly under-represents the actual number of cases, and the Russian Federation’s continued ascent on the ghoulish leader board seems assured. In Moscow, the epicenter of the crisis, the deaths of physicians who mysteriously fall from hospital windows underscore the grim conditions in overrun hospitals as well as the dangers of trying to address them.

Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of Victory Day and Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies in World War II. Lavish, long-planned celebrations of the triumph of the Grand Alliance and the courage of the Red Army have been scaled back due to the pandemic. Fireworks displays are still a go, but not the massive parade of new military hardware through Red Square in front of foreign dignitaries. As we wrap up this most unusual of semesters, it seems important to register how the present crisis inflects our appreciation of the past, especially as the memory of united struggle during World War II becomes a rallying cry against a viral pandemic.

Against this backdrop, I want to recognize the efforts and accomplishments of this class and thank all of you for leaning in, leveling up, and keeping your personal health and safety first and foremost as we made our way through the second half of the semester. I know this was not what you signed up for, that you missed the interaction of the physical classroom and the experience of being on campus. Many of you struggled with new work schedules, spotty internet access and finding a new place to live. Some of you had friends and family members who got sick. And everyone had concerns about how uncertain and perilous the future became after mid-March.

Your blog posts and this final research digest are evidence of your considerable collective talent, unflappability, and innate curiosity — all of which will stand the world in good stead as we make our way through this painful pandemic to whatever new normal lies on the other side. The enormity of the disruption we are living through might make the more modest markers of academic progress seem less significant or even inconsequential. But I want to remind you that efforts like the one we undertook this semester help us understand how we got here. Learning how people in another time and place made their way through a century of revolutionary change gives us perspective on how human societies work at their best, their worst and everywhere in between. It helps us see how hardship, suffering, and sacrifice are intertwined with innovation, resilience and triumph. Learning about Soviet history gives us new insight on our own histories and helps us  develop empathy for those whose lived experiences are not as far removed from ours as we assumed they were. Finally, researching and writing blog posts —  getting through this course — provided an avenue for self discovery, preservation, and perseverance. Think of it as a morsel of self-determination in a sea of uncertainty.

Thanks to all of you who nominated posts for the greatest hits section – now located where we used to celebrate “Red Stars” and “Comrade’s Corners.”  I used my prerogative as Editor in Chief, Scholar Working From Home, and General Secretary of our collective to supplement your selections with some distinguished posts from earlier in the term. This way future visitors to the site can appreciate the range of topics you researched and admire the varied methodologies and interests that animated your inquiry.

As I said the last time we met F2F before spring break: Thanks for being here. Stay safe, and be well.

Saturday, Week 4: A New Number One

US COVID19 Cases 4-11-20

How is this only week four? It feels like four years since all of the moorings of normal came loose and we slipped into stay-at-home COVID19 pan-awareness.  A text exchange with a friend yesterday brought back memories of the last moments of pre-pandemic celebratory socializing — a small gathering in an idyllic farmhouse with fabulous food and lots of wine to mark a big birthday in late February. Then there was the scramble to get mom moved here as the virus extended its reach down the East Coast. Tom and I took a night off that week to see the Banff Film Festival. Looking around at our local outdoor community — the hikers, conservationists, climbers, kayakers, trail runners….I remember thinking this might be the last public gathering I would attend for a while, and feeling like this was good way to go out. Now the memories of the conversation in February and the mountain adventure films of mid-March are both reassuring and remote. My human relationships are intact and everyone is healthy so far. But the world in which we gathered to celebrate decades of friendship or nature’s majesty feels very much like a thing of the past.

I am also having a hard time keeping my priorities from re-arranging themselves. Two weeks ago, a couple days before the Appalachian Trail was closed, we hiked to Kelly’s Knob with Nairo.  The handful of people we encountered over several hours all maintained a healthy distance. The dog was hot, even with the breeze along the ridge line. As I topped off his water dish for the umpteenth time (thank you Tom for always carrying LOTS of water)  I realized I was more worried about maintaining social distance in the middle of nowhere than I was about the fact that it shouldn’t be 80 degrees in the mountains in mid-March.  And then I longed for the time when climate change took up a large chunk of my headspace. Was it really just a few weeks ago?

COVID19 in Virginia 4-11-20
COVID 19 in Virginia as of April 11, 2020. From: http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/

The warming Earth and the pandemic are connected, of course.  Both are stark reminders of how central human activity and consumption are to the ecosystem which sustains us. While the disruption of the global travel shut down has brought so much suffering, it has also had at least two positive impacts: cleaner air in normally polluted cities, and a global decline in carbon emissions. Wouldn’t it be awesome if humanity could use the COVID19 crisis to get itself on better footing to deal with the climate crisis? What if we took this as a sign to quit shoring up fossil fuel infrastructure and extraction and instead invested in the clean technologies and power sources that could keep us from having a leading role in the climate-crisis sequel to this year’s global tragedy? I know it seems unlikely. So far, we’re seeing more characters from the nightmare of Naomi Klein’s Disaster Capitalism come to the fore than Meehan Crist’s proposals for a  sustainable, equitable future. And it is hard to stay focused on the monster coming over the hill when there’s another one at the door.

Its knocking becomes ever more insistent. Today the US became the world leader both in confirmed cases of the coronavirus and deaths attributable to it. Virginia’s case count has topped 5,000, with 130 deaths.  We have community transmission and very limited testing here, so we’re all being as careful as we can.  I suspect the US will consolidate and extend its lead in this frightful race for the next several weeks at least. Stay at home. Just stay at home. Be grateful that you can stay at home. Do what you can to help people who are more vulnerable than you are or who don’t have the luxury of staying at home.

Grey kitten on red and tan rug
Richie’s first day with us

Our happy news is that Claire has adopted a new kitty.  “Richie” — named for pro cyclist, Richie Porte — because I’ve got dibs on Rigo (Uran) Egan (Bernal) and Esteban (Chavez), comes from the same shelter where we found Betty 17 years ago. Adopting a cat in the midst of a pandemic involves a lot of planning to keep everyone safe, but the shelter staff had a good procedure in place. Richie is an extroverted, sweet little guy, who purrs like a monster truck. Nairo is eager to meet him, and we’ll make those introductions in a few days. But he will probably do the kitty version of self-isolation from Griffin, who has never met a cat she likes. When Claire heads back to the big city, Richie will go with her. Until then, it’s great to have both of them around.

Friday, Week 2: We’re Number 1

Global COVID19 cases 3-27-20 from JHU

In the last twenty-four hours, confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide surpassed the half million mark, and the United States moved into the lead for having the most confirmed cases with 94, 238 (according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 map at 2:30 pm EDST). That’s more than China, where lock down restrictions in Hubei were lifted earlier this week, and more than Italy, where more than 900 people died yesterday — a demoralizing record increase after a couple of days when the curve seemed to be flattening.

Virginia COVID-19 3-17-20
Virginia COVID-19 cases as of March 27, 2020 from the VA Department of Health. Note that expanded demographic data is now included in the daily report from: http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/

The US becomes the center of the global pandemic as the first big upward curve of infections accelerates with ferocious speed. Last weekend there were 44 thousand confirmed cases nationwide. Now there are that many in New York alone.  More ominously, after accounting for the majority of cases in the US for several days, New York now has less than half of the active cases. New hot spots are appearing (New Orleans), and rates of infection across the country are rising. Even if self-isolation policies remain in effect for most of the country for the next several weeks, a  new analysis from the University of Washington suggests the pandemic could kill more than 80,000 people in the US by the end of June.

It’s all a bit surreal, awful, and disconcerting.

The House just passed a $2 trillion (with a “t”) emergency spending bill. Two hundred of the country’s mayors have warned that they face acute shortages of test kits, PPE, and ventilators, all of which will be needed as the pandemic intensifies. More than 3 million people filed unemployment claims last week. The Olympics have been postponed and in many states public schools are now closed for the remainder of the year. Meanwhile epidemiologists  — the experts who use math and science to develop models that help policy makers make decisions that can soften the virus’s devastation have a new variable to include in their modelling: the suspicion that their work is a hoax and part of an ongoing effort to discredit the president.

It’s all so incredible, you’d be forgiven for thinking that if you pinched yourself hard enough you might wake up from an absurd, tragic dreamscape….which is why my household is joining the millions who are seeking comfort in the escapism of Tiger King, a Netflix documentary series about an eccentric, polygamist wild cat dealer and his nemesis, a wealthy, hippie, animal rights activist.

An article that appeared in my feed this morning about what to call this experience — or rather how to name its emotional resonance — has been percolating on the back burner of my awareness all day.  At first glance, the title: “That discomfort you’re feeling is grief,” seemed hyperbolic – at least for someone like me who remains on the relatively safe sidelines. No one I know personally has died yet. There are relatively few cases reported in Virginia (although that’s more likely a reflection of the shortage of test kits than the actual state of affairs.) But uncertainty, and the anxiety that ensues — especially when there is so MUCH uncertainty on such an epic scale, does indeed map onto a real and legitimate grief for what we lost in the blink of a week or two. Whatever normal was in mid-March is now but a memory. Regardless of our economic or social condition a couple of weeks ago, those realities are significantly changed, mostly for the worse (sometimes devastatingly so) now. And many of the things we used to do to blow off steam, or process the stresses and joys of life are just not possible in this life of partial lock down. So, yes, I am grieving in the face of all of this uncertainty.

But, as David Kessler (who was interviewed for the article) notes, acknowledging and naming the feeling is key to putting it in perspective and giving a meaning to the here and now without giving this massive uncertain moment too much power. Identifying the grief provoked by the uncertainty and peril of the present can be balanced against the certainty that this is a temporary state. It might feel unbounded and endlessly expansive now, but the pandemic will end. We can already sense that there is no going back to the world we knew before COVID-19. Post-pandemic life will be different, but this particular experience will, at some point be in the past. The day will come when we don’t have to stay six feet apart from each other and when we can worry about something besides the shortage of ventilators and PPE and whether or not we’ve washed our hands enough. Until then, I’m taking refuge in my garden and TIger King.

 

Week 2: The New Abnormal

Global Cases of COVID19 3-24-20

I have lots to be grateful for today, including the fact that all three of us managed to telework in Zoom intensive ways and not break the internet.

My first remote session with my class went well. We are all adjusting to the changed circumstances and ready to make the most of them. Because we were shifting into the more web-intensive part of the semester anyway, our transition from a hybrid course to a mostly asynchronous experience should go pretty smoothly. But I was (pleasantly) surprised at how many people want to keep meeting on Zoom, at least once a week, at least for now. This is a really strong and engaged class. Lots of them are graduating, and of course they couldn’t imagine that this is how their last semester would go. There’s some adjusting going on all around, for sure. I’m hoping to recapture the sense of community that made the first half of the semester so lovely, and have deployed Slack and some good team building activities to help with that. Also, whoever thought that real life in the USA might be as tumultuous as Soviet History? I saw several wry smiles when I said I had an awesome unit on Chernobyl  planned. Maybe we’ll do something on environmental disasters in comparative perspective.

But yikes, the situation in New York is grim. The Johns Hopkins map lists over 25k confirmed cases there alone, nearly half of the national tally of 53k  and rising. 210 people have died from the virus, just in New York.  Virginia, by comparison, seems calm. But only by comparison. There are now 290 confirmed cases here, an increase of 35% in 48 hours. The map shows swatches of blue (cases) spreading toward the Southwest part of the state. I wonder how long it will be before the whole map will be filled in?

COVID19 in VA 3-24-20
COVID-19 Cases in Virginia as of 3-24-20 from the VA Department of Health: http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/

I’m developing a routine for the new abnormal, which involves tuning out the pandemic for several hours in the middle of the day and a couple of hours before bedtime. This is a luxury that people more directly affected by it don’t have, but it’s helping me keep calm and carry on.

To end on another positive note. One my favorite grad students of all time — the first person I asked to join the teaching team for GEDI way back in 2016 defended her dissertation in Industrial and Systems Engineering. Via Zoom, of course. Congratulations, Dr. Noble!

Day 7: Testing, testing….

Global Cases of COVID19 from JHU

Virginia saw a 44% increase in confirmed COVID19 cases overnight, and nationwide the tally climbed over 329,000.  My university begins remote instruction tomorrow, and there’s a surreal quality to the quiet in our normally bustling college town. Nearly everyone I know is self-isolating, working from home, minimizing their time outside the house, and avoiding F2F socializing. There are exceptions — some college students who are still seen roaming around in packs, a very full parking lot at the grocery store, but mostly people here seem to realize that we need to avoid each other in order to keep ourselves  and others healthy.

COVID19 Cases in Virginia 3-22-20
219 Confirmed Cases of COVID19 in Virginia as of March 22, 2020. From The VA Dept. of Health: http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/

It’s the “others” piece, I think some are struggling with. I have heard people grumble that the response to the virus is overblown, that it’s threatening our freedom and ruining the economy, that it isn’t that bad, and that some conspiratorial force is behind the hype. There are about 327 million people in the United States, so why are we so worked up about a few (400 and climbing) deaths? Won’t it just die out on its own when the weather warms up?

I encourage people with those questions to watch this video of Dr. Emily Landon, the chief infectious disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine.  Dr. Landon has some terrific insight about why self-isolating is so necessary and effective, and why self-isolating is something we do for others — especially the older and more vulnerable among us — as much as for ourselves. The relevant statistic isn’t what percentage of the population has the virus, it’s the percentage of those people who need ventilators at the same time.

It’s possible that so many people wouldn’t need to be locked down, nationally, if the administration had mounted a vigorous and extensive testing program several weeks ago. But they didn’t. Indeed tests are still in such short supply that all we know for certain is that there are many thousands of undocumented cases out there.  I  personally know several people who have been sick and could not be tested.  Did they recover, yes. Was the illness “just the flu”  — no. It was worse. It lasted longer and was more intense.

For an example of what will happen when the contagion affects too many people at once, just look at Italy, where 5,476 people have died from COVID19, 793 of them yesterday.

Day Six: On The Map

COVID19 GLobal cases 3-21-20

I have to tune the map and the numbers out during the day, as both have become painful reminders of how grim things are and how quickly they are changing. Confirmed cases in Virginia are up to 152 today. That’s a 33 percent increase over yesterday. The Department of Health does now recognize the case from Botetourt county, as well as the cases reported by the Roanoke Times in Lexington and Franklin County. Southwest Virginia is on the COVID-19 map.

Map and table of COVID 19 in Virginia
COVID-19 in Virginia on March 21, 2020. From: http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/

Nationally, the trend is even worse. Last night after I posted, the total number of cases in the US climbed above 19,000. This evening there are more than 24,000.  Nearly half of those are in New York, and more than 75 million Americans are now under lock down orders.

Yet there are people who are not taking this seriously — not self-isolating, and generally not concerned…at the same time we’re getting reports about health care workers sanitizing and re-using disposable masks and other PPE because the national response is so uncoordinated and so late getting going.  I’ve been thinking about a post that would compare our government’s response to this crisis to the way Stalin handled WWII. I don’t really want to write it. But if this keeps up, I may have to.

US / Global Covid-19 cases 3-21-20
US Cases exceed 24,000. From https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

On a happier note, my daughter decided to ride out this round at home after teleworking and self-isolating for a week in DC. Her dad drove to the big city to retrieve her this morning, and Nairo and I were both beyond joyful when they pulled into the driveway.  Time for more distracting TV and some gratitude. Lots of gratitude.

Day Five: It’s here (even if Richmond doesn’t think so)

Global cases of COVID19 3-20-20

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Things definitely got worse overnight. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States have doubled since Wednesday (when there were 7,660 cases). This afternoon there are 16,638. At least 216 people have died, a number that has also doubled since Thursday.

We know the numbers are suggestive and far from precise. For example, the Virginia Department of Health) lists 114 confirmed cases in the commonwealth today. But the state’s website doesn’t include the first confirmed case in Southwest Virginia – which local news outlets informed us about yesterday.

screenshot from Roanoke.com (link above)
Southwest Virginia’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 from: https://www.roanoke.com/news/local/southwest-virginia-sees-first-covid–case/article_1507de32-a6ec-5dc9-bcbc-6ce9b726f247.html

We rural people are used to being ignored by the more populous regions of the state. (Don’t come over here on election night when the newscasters are impatiently waiting for returns from the DC suburbs, because “that’s where the people are!”) But this seems like a dangerous error. The testing is limited enough…because the test kits are in short supply, because the administration decided that the WHO’s test, which had served millions of people elsewhere wasn’t good enough for us, and maybe this thing really isn’t going to take off here, and maybe it will just die out on its own accord, and……..

Whatever.

There’s still no need to overlook and not count isolated cases that are geographically distant from population centers where the outbreak is more severe. It’s just going to make those of us who know better more anxious and lull everyone else into thinking that they don’t have to worry, at least not yet.

Map of COVID 19 cases in VA 3-20-20
VA Health Department reports 114 confirmed cases of COVID-19 today. That number doesn’t include patient from SW VA as reported in the Roanoke times yesterday. from: http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/
COVID19 cases in VA - indicating 0 cases in SW VA
VA Health Department misses confirmed case of COVID-19 in Roanoke (patient is from Botetourt County
from: http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/
Map of COVID-19 Cases in VA 3-20-20
VA Health Department misses confirmed case of COVID-19 in Roanoke (patient is from Botetourt County from: http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/

Meanwhile, I got to FaceTime with my mom today. She seemed happy and not at all concerned about the virus or anything else for that matter. I’ve also entered the endless Zoom loop that other teleworkers have been experiencing for the last couple of weeks. After nearly four hours of meetings, I’m struck by how hard it is to pretend like things are normal and how determined some people are to carry on as though they are. Or maybe we need to spend some time accomplishing something besides pandemic prep and resistance? I am proud of my ability to slay a ton of email while attending the meeting and participating in the chat. I wish I’d bought stock in Zoom a few weeks ago.

In any case, things will get worse before they get better. But they will get better. One day at a time.