Friday, Week 2: We’re Number 1

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:

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.


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