Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 5

Last night, I had a dream that gently drifted into being a dream about the xenomorph monsters from the Alien movie franchise. At a certain point in the dream, things turned sort of greyish like the movies, and from that point on, I was being chased by an unseen xenomorph that would destroy me the moment I let my guard down.

The night before that, I dreamed that I was in a crowded convention center of some sort, with people all over the place, glass elevators, ornate gardens, and everything that you might expect from a fancy hotel/resort. A few young, twentyish hooligans started causing trouble, bothering people, being mildly violent, annoying, and bullyish. When they came in contact with me, I did what I usually do with bullies, which is deny them the satisfaction of having their way. And just as in real life, this infuriated the bullies to the point that they decided they wanted to literally kill me. Their numbers increased dramatically, they became cruel and merciless, they started killing everyone in their path. Just when they had me surrounded, I would find a way to escape, usually taking one of them down in the process. As the dream proceeded, it got gorier and more gruesome, and also more harrowing. No matter where I ran, there was a crowd of violent hooligans waiting to pulverize me.

In both of these dreams, I woke up in the middle of the night because they were so intense, then I would calmly nod back off to sleep and find myself back in the midst of the same dream. The dream would continue like that until I woke up again. This process repeated itself several times until I made a conscious effort to put the dream out of my mind and think of something else.

I didn't connect the dots until this morning. A menacing force chasing me everywhere I go, with a feeling of inevitability about it all; people being killed, and me knowing that it is only a matter of time before it's my turn. These are coronavirus dreams.

During the day, I feel calm. It's inevitable that I feel a little stir-crazy. I go running every day, but aside from the neighborhood streets and the inside of my own home, I haven't had a change of scenery in a long time. Other than that, I am happy. I get to spend time with my family, I get to focus on exercising, and eating right, and playing my guitar. All those things are going well, and so it's easy to feel calm when I'm focused on things that make me happy.

Clearly, though, the specter of death and pestilence is working its way through my psyche. It comes into my dreams and gives me nightmares. My wife and I talk mostly about coronavirus -- what it's like to grocery shop now, which people are keeping their distance and which aren't, what are the prospects for a cure or treatment, what the latest numbers from epidemiologists, clinicians, researchers, and so on...? The fear sets in. It's hard to think about much of anything else, even as we stay calm, for the most part.

The people around here are not taking this quite as seriously as I think they ought to. The outdoor parks and paths are packed with crowds who do not keep their six feet apart. Every day, when I run, there are more and more cars on the roads. The sidewalks, which I used to have to myself, are now overrun by people walking and running. It's fine that they walk or run, but they often bring two or three dogs with them, taking up the entire sidewalk, and then refusing to move over for fellow pedestrians. New to outdoor exercise, they have never been versed in basic trail etiquette. That would be bad enough, but refusing to make way during a deadly pandemic seems particularly egregious.

For my part, I give them all a wide berth. Many of them say hello, but a few stare me down. Angrily.

Real information about the virus is impossible to find. The internet is replete with analyses that report a less-than-one-percent fatality rate. Good news, right? One analysis claims that none of the Chinese patients who had "severe" symptoms died; none of them. The deaths are only among those who experienced "critical" symptoms and required ventilators. So more than 99% of people recover from COVID-19.

Side-by-side to these reports are news stories of hospitals being overrun by dead bodies.

It is mathematically true that a virus with a high infection rate and a low fatality rate can still produce millions of deaths. Still, one can't help but feel as though there are competing narratives in the news. One narrative wants to convince us that the virus is not as bad as we think it is; the other wants to convince us that this is the worst thing that has happened to humanity since the Holocaust. Maybe both things are true, but how can a man make sense of that?

I think the senselessness, the lack of good information, the uncertainty of it all, is what amplifies the fear and causes it to penetrate into my dreams. It would be nice for the uncertainty to resolve itself somehow.

But wishful thinking doesn't get anyone anywhere, either.


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 4

When I was about 13 years old, I had an odd and scary dream.

I was walking through the halls of my junior high school sometime during the late winter months. The sun was shining outside, but it was still cold, with snow on the ground that had begun to melt, making the ground muddy, but still hard from being frozen. In my mind, I had the sense that the world outside the schoolhouse was radioactive; one could go out there for a few moments, but after that the radioactivity would being to corrode the body and kill a person within minutes. Still, I decided to take a shortcut from one hallway to another by going outside. I walked out one of the doors, crossed the muddy, sludgy ground, found the next door and... discovered that it was locked. Then, reality set in and I realized that I didn’t have time to get back to the other door. I awoke from my dream knowing that I was going to die from the radiation.

This was a vivid dream that always stuck with me, presumably only because the dream itself was so vivid. I remembered this dream yesterday when I went to Costco yesterday to do some grocery shopping.

They had us all lined up outside, and were only letting us in the store a few at a time. I did my best to keep six feet of distance between myself and the person in line in front of me, but the person behind me kept scooting up closer and closer to me — even despite my dirty looks and obvious discomfort. Waiting in lines like those is essentially a ticking time bomb. As in my dream, too much time spent in that kind of crowd may eventually kill me. It’s an awful feeling.

My trip to Costco only got more surreal when I made it inside. I had shown up early to try to “beat the crowds,” but unbeknownst to me, Costco had decided to open early. The only people who walked out of the store with toilet paper were those who had shown up in time for the early opening. Still, I was able to get most of the things I wanted. The clerks in the store ushered us toward a specific path; we all had to shop in the same direction. That, too, felt odd and restrictive.

Seeing all my fellow shoppers inside, it started to become obvious to me which people were going to definitely get this disease, and which perhaps had a shot at avoiding it. I’d say about half of us did a good job of keeping our distance from each other, politely letting people go ahead, and giving folks a wide berth as they shopped. Others had brought the whole family to the store — both parents and multiple children, with everyone crowding around the shopping cart. They’d talk loudly, spend a lot of time standing in one place, sort of “occupying” a location of the store, discussing and debating items on the shopping list. They looked exactly as they might have looked on a “normal” day. The cashiers were all wearing protective gloves, but I noticed that one of them was scratching her nose with her gloved hand.

I’m not faulting or criticizing these people. I’m not suggesting that they’re not taking the situation seriously. Rather, it seems that some people’s habits are too hard to break, even in light of the severity of the circumstances. And these habits may well prove deadly for them.

It’s been a roller-coaster of emotions these past few days. At times, I feel crushing fear for a pandemic that seems utterly inevitable. I expect it to kill some of my dear loved ones. I am terrified that it could kill me, and then what would my poor daughter do without me? I am committed to remaining disease-free for the sake of my family; and yet, at the same time, I am rational and I know what the evidence says. The evidence says that the majority of us will get COVID-19. The evidence says that people with pre-existing conditions like diabetes have a much higher death rate; and that even those who don’t die must often spend weeks in the hospital with tubes stuck down their throats and breathing with the aid of a respirator. Images of the polio patients in iron lungs haunt me before I go to sleep.

But, at other times, I’m impressed by the beauty of Spring. The leaves are coming out on the trees, and Texas is becoming warm and green again. There are birds everywhere. People, ostensibly practicing “social distancing,” have decided to spend more time outside with their families, in local parks, being active. The pace of life is quite a bit slower, which is nice. I am treasuring my time with my daughter. We have been bonding a lot lately. She spends her evenings cuddled up close to me, I with my arm around her, holding her tightly. Then there is the medical news — stories of potential antiviral treatments, and vaccine tests, and technological solutions to various medical shortages. These give me hope.

Of course, all hope borrows against time. It all ultimately comes down to whether the vaccines and treatments will be ready and available if and when this virus strikes me. Can I hold out that long? Can I continue to live like this? Will I lose my job? In the worst-case scenario, what must I tell my family before I succumb?

The emotional toll of life in a pandemic is much higher than I realized. The fear is real. You can see it on people. I hope most of us can pull through this.


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 3

At last, for me, the economic reality of this situation is starting to set in. With most everyone stuck at home, bars and restaurants closed, shopping centers empty, the threat to the economy has become clear. Yesterday, for the first time yet, I started to worry about job security.

My family is comfortable, and we will probably be okay... probably. It really depends on how things proceed in the COVID-19 world. The experts tell us that a vaccine is 18 months away. I don’t see how most of the world can continue to operate like this for 18 months. Production of all things is bound to slow down. Paychecks will stop flowing. People will be stretched. Then what?

The comfortable and the wealthy can afford to stay home and simply ride it out. Most people, though, cannot simply stop working. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, nobody can afford to just stay home forever. Eventually, most people will be forced to choose between putting food on the table and avoiding the coronavirus. Starving is a certainty, while contracting COVID-19 is a spin of the wheel. Every rational person will take their chances with getting the disease before they acquiesce to starvation.

In light of that, this is how I imagine things will play out:

People will stay home as long as they can. Some of us will lose our jobs while others will be forced to go back to theirs. Most of us will eventually have to leave home and get to work. Maybe there won’t be any good office jobs for people like me, and we’ll have to take supply chain jobs: deliveries, shipping/receiving, warehousing, manufacturing, and so on. But we will simply have to work; there is no other choice.

Thus, the virus will continue to spread. It is inevitable. It will spread and devastate until we have a vaccine or other treatment. Then, finally, we will go back to normal.

I think some norms will have to change.

Most obviously, working from home will become not only commonplace, but more normal than not. This will be a change for the better, on all kinds of levels. Office complexes are breeding grounds for communicable illness; staying away from them is a matter of prudence. I think telecommuting technologies will blossom. Call centers, for example, are typically staffed in huge buildings, but there’s no reason call center employees couldn’t work from home if their phones are connected to the central call routing system. Most office work could probably be done at home. And it will be, thanks to this pandemic; or at least, that’s my prediction.

Sanitation norms are also going to have to change. Today, I see people wiping down their shopping carts, wearing masks, etc. I think we’ll see a proliferation of touchless technologies: credit card payments with a “tap,” Android Pay, Apple Pay, etc. These technologies involve scanning, rather than inserting or swiping a card. Manually handling paper currency will have to fall out of favor, as it mostly already has. I can only hope that Americans will start to use bidets, wash their hands more thoroughly, be more mindful of coughing, sneezing, playing with their noses, and so on. Those are harder norms to overturn, but I think it will happen.

A few months of social distancing will be enough to convince people to keep their distance on the streets. I expect there to be fewer hellos and more allowance for “personal space.” At the same time, I expect social networks to blossom. Not Twitter or Facebook, obviously, but the networks that actually matter to people. Video game networks like Twitch and Zwift will expand. Strava will do quite well. I imagine virtual socializing will fill the void caused by physical social distance. This will be highly disruptive, though, because it takes a different skill set to excel in social media than it does to excel in face-to-face interaction.

In what other ways might our lives be about to change?


Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 2

Let's talk a little bit about grocery shopping.

In the "early days" of the outbreak (say, two weeks ago), store shelves emptied almost completely of hand sanitizer. I understand the impulse; I tried to buy some, too. I only ended up with a small bottle for each person in my household, but I expect these bottles to last for quite a few weeks. But this was the beginning of what was ultimately a series of highly irrational responses to the pandemic.

I say irrational because there is only so much hand sanitizer is good for. It's not a bad idea to use some after touching some public surfaces. For example, my daughter and I might go to a playground, spend some time there, and then put some hand sanitizer on in the car on the way home. But it's just a precautionary measure. Our main preventative measure is getting home quickly and washing our hands. A rational response would be to make a run on soap, not on hand sanitizer. As of this writing, however, there is plenty of soap on store shelves.

Toilet paper was next to go. Again, I am not sure what the rational reason is for buying up all the toilet paper on store shelves. Nothing about COVID-19 would suggest that we are in for a toilet paper shortage. But that's how the masses responded. They quickly made a run on toilet paper, of all things.

It's useful to keep these facts in mind when observing the stock market's response to the pandemic. The stock market has predictably plummeted. I keep reading articles, comments on social media, etc., about what the market seems to be indicating about the economy in the future. But I don't believe what's happening to the stock market is any more credulous than the irrational run on toilet paper. That's not to say that betting on a quick recovery is easy money, but I don't think the market has, in aggregate, accurately predicted the future of the global economy any better than my neighbors have, in aggregate, accurately predicted the future of their bowel movements.

There are other grocery store oddities occurring:

  • Frozen vegetables are gone, but fresh vegetables are still plentiful. That, despite the fact that one can turn a fresh vegetable into a frozen one simply by putting it in a freezer bag and placing the bag in the freezer.
  • Walmart and Amazon have little of any kind of grocery left; Kroger is still very well stocked. What does this mean about shopping patterns? What does it mean about the comparative business models of these companies?
  • Sparkling water, apparently a substitute for bottled water, has become almost as scarce as regular bottled water. Strangely enough, there are pallets of Topo Chico available at Kroger, absolute tons of the stuff. Do people think "Mexican" sparkling water is dirty? Do they just not know what Topo Chico is?
An odd fact has arisen from this grocery shortage, too. I'm accustomed to buying things online. When they're in-stock, I add them to my cart, finalize my purchase, and then receive my shipment. But now, when I attempt the same process at Amazon or Walmart (online), it doesn't matter if the item is in stock when I complete my purchase; it only matters if the item is in stock when the store decides to send it to me. Yesterday, for example, I ordered eggs from Walmart, to be picked up at 4 PM. (Actually, I placed my order two days ago.) At the time I finalized my purchase, eggs were in-stock; but Walmart wouldn't schedule a pick-up time until 4 PM the following day. In the meantime, they sold all the eggs out from under me, so that when I arrived to pick up the groceries I ordered, the eggs (and many other items) could no longer be sold to me.

A similar phenomenon occurred at Amazon: I placed a number of in-stock items into my virtual shopping cart, but when I went to finalize my purchase, Amazon wouldn't sell the items to me because they didn't have delivery available until three days hence. So, it didn't matter that the items were "in stock."

Think of this as though it were concert tickets. You buy tickets and have them mailed to you; then, you show up at the venue only to discover that the venue won't honor your tickets because the seats you purchased had been sold to someone else, out from under you.

This is a very bad business practice. I understand the realities of shortages, but the whole point of shopping online is to enter a different queue. Or, if all of us customers are in the same queue, then my place in line should be honored as it is. I ought not get bumped down the queue just because someone else entered the queue from a different doorway.

Anyway, these are some of the shopping issues we're dealing with these days. I honestly expect this kind of thing to pass quickly. I bet shopping, at least will be back to normal within a week or two. But we shall see.


Living Amid A Global Pandemic, Part 1

By all accounts, we are living through a once-a-century global viral pandemic. The last time anything like this happened was the Spanish Flu of 1918, which happened 102 years ago. I'm not a history buff, but I've also never read any firsthand accounts of what it was like to live through that pandemic. At best, I've read a couple of articles, and perhaps I've seen a few video shorts about the 1918 flu pandemic within the context of documentary films about the time period.

Much of what we know about the turn of the century is from firsthand accounts: letters written to relatives and lovers, newspaper clippings, and journal entries. I'm not vain enough to believe that anything about my blog will survive the next hundred years, much less that anyone will care about my experience. But, what if?

In that spirit, I thought I'd try to document some of my thoughts and experiences from the pandemic virus that, at the present writing, is called "SARS-CoV2."

First of all, let's talk about the name. A few years back, there was another scary virus called "SARS." I don't remember what SARS stands for, but the RS at the end means "respiratory syndrome." (Possibly "Sudden Acquired Respiratory Syndrome?" Check Wikipedia.) Actually, SARS is the disease caused by a virus that was called "SARS-CoV." So, this virus is like the revenge of SARS: It's also a coronavirus that causes pneumonia, but this is the second one they've found, hence "SARS-CoV2." This virus causes a condition called COVID-19, which again is an acronym for something like "coronavirus immune disease, from the year 2019."

I'm obviously not an expert in viruses, but as a layman, it seems really dumb to me that we're calling this virus and its disease by separate names, and that both of those names are acronyms, rather than "the Wuhan flu" or something. (Yes, I know it's not a flu.) Every other major disease has a name, not a code. Call me crazy, but I think people would have a better time dealing with the realities of this disease psychologically if they could give it a name rather than an acronym. But that's just my opinion.

Now let me say a few words about what it was like when this virus started. News of the virus started making major headlines I'd say in January 2020. At first, it was yet another strange illness to come out of Asia. We've experienced those before: swine flu, H1N1, SARS, and so on. I even remember when I was a young boy, there was something called "the Taiwanese flu" that made headlines. So Asian flus are not an unusual thing to read about in the headlines.

It only became unusual when the Chinese government locked down the whole of Wuhan and stories started coming out about how quickly and viciously this virus spread. Within a couple of weeks, it had spread to Japan, South Korea, and to a now-infamous cruise ship. At that point, I became aware of an online map of the spread provided by Johns Hopkins University. I started tracking the cases in real-time via that website. For some days, tracking the virus was quite a scary thing to do. I'd watch the red dots pop up on the map like pox. Eventually, I had to remind myself that every infectious virus spreads like this; this was just the first one I'd seen a map of. That thought helped me calm down a bit.

By March, the virus had reached Texas. At first, everyone was telling jokes about it, but over time the jokes became more sardonic, and eventually people just stopped joking. Schools and offices announced their temporary closures. I myself am currently working from home now, in fact. When these closures happened, that's when people in general started panicking a bit. There was a big, 2-or-3-day run on groceries. People bought up all the hand sanitizer and toilet paper. Eventually, they also bought up all the eggs, milk, frozen vegetables, canned goods, and so on. My current belief is that this panic was irrational. There was no good reason to empty the grocery store shelves. I guess people can't help themselves. I ordered groceries online, and I'll pick them up later today. I don't expect food shortages to be the persistent norm. I have no fear of that. In a few days, I expect grocery shopping to normalize again.

Now word is coming in of the US government's forced closure of bars and restaurants. This is new territory for a country that prides itself on its libertarian values. There is a little bit of debate out there about whether these forced closures are the right thing to do, but most people agree that they are. I, personally, feel otherwise. I think we should voluntarily minimize contact with other people, of course, but I do not think the government should forcibly close our businesses and our social institutions. That's a debate to be had for the future world's historians, I suppose.

For the next couple of weeks, at the least, we'll all be stuck at home, telecommuting to work, looking after our children, and trying to keep busy with things other than nights out and alcohol. Having recently reduced my consumption of both restaurant food and alcohol, I expect I'll have an easier time than most. I also like to exercise at home and go running in my neighborhood, and play music, so once again my introverted and somewhat boring nature has proven to be a major advantage for me in extenuating circumstances.

Young, single people are probably in the worst position right now. Without social interaction, their lives are bound to get lonely. For my part, I have my daughter and my wife to keep me happy. It's a great time to be in a committed, monogamous marriage, isn't it? And indeed, some of my friends have already wondered aloud if there will be an increase in pregnancies in the coming months.

Most of what we Americans know about live among SARS-CoV2 comes from the accounts of people who have already gone through the first wave of the disease, people in China, Italy, and South Korea. So I am waiting for my life to resemble theirs circa-10 days ago. We shall see.

I'll continue to write more about this on my blog.


Stationary Waves And Coronavirus

The concept of temperance has been a feature of this blog for many years. When I talk about temperance, I'm not talking about eschewing alcohol, but the two ideas do have commonalities. Temperance, broadly construed, means having enough restraint to not just do, you know, whatever the hell you want to do, whenever the hell you want to do it. Temperance means keeping your hedonic urges in check long enough to make sensible decisions in accordance with your longer cognitive time-horizon. See this old post on the issue for a brief primer.

There are many articles and blog posts out there discussing the matter of what is the correct policy response to the coronavirus epi/pan-demic. There is plenty of criticism to go around. Who did what, and did they do it how soon? What aspect of testing or messaging did the CDC botch, what can be learned from the mass quarantines in other countries?

In one sense, I think it's natural that people want to look at it from those angles. I can sympathize with that inclination. It's much easier to have a debate about public policy and to get worked up about all the wrong things someone else did than it is to simply acknowledge that pandemics occur approximately once every one hundred years, and that using political machinery to stop the spread of viruses is ultimately a futile endeavor. We'd have better luck stopping an incoming asteroid.

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing that the government can do to protect you from communicable viruses. They will spread, because that's what viruses do. It's the circle of life.

On a personal note, most readers will probably have nothing to worry about with respect to COVID-19, anyway; the death rate for most people appears to be somewhere between 0.1% and 1.0%. Those are very good odds for a virus like this. But for me, it's different. I'm "immuno-compromised." I'm a type 1 diabetic. For me, the death rate might be something more like 9%, and the rate of hospitalization independent of death is much higher for me than it is for the population at large.

This thing can kill me.

On the one hand, we could say that coronavirus is a public health emergency. On the other hand, we should probably say that the public health emergency already exists. I see just how much other human beings spread their germs around on a daily basis. You people are absolutely filthy. I see multiple people per day walk out of public restrooms without washing their hands. I see people playing with their noses, mouths, eyes, and then putting their hands all over public surfaces. I see people cough without covering their mouths, I see people spit out of their car windows, I see people blow their noses by plugging one nostril, leaning to the side, and blasting debris onto the sidewalk. It's disgusting. And these aren't low-brow "others" in some "other" part of town. These are the middle and upper class people in "nice" neighborhoods. These are the normies. And they're filthy, filthy people.

Earlier this morning, I saw a Facebook advertisement for a bidet. The comments under the ad were everything I've come to expect from filthy Americans. They expressed incredulity and skepticism, they laughed, they mocked, they teased... This is happening during a global pandemic. Here we have a centuries-old device that can vastly improve American hygiene and reduce the spread of communicable illness, and even during a global pandemic Americans' response is one of mockery and skepticism.

That mockery and skepticism, combined with Americans' refusal to wash their hands, cover their mouths, and avoid blowing their noses on the sidewalk, is what will ultimately be to blame for the spread of coronavirus and diseases like it. It's easy to point fingers at the CDC for botching "testing," but the demand for "testing" would be decidedly low if Americans knew how to wash their hands, backsides, and faces, and knew how to keep public surfaces clean and disease-free.

Naturally, there's nothing I can do from my perch above my keyboard, writing on an unread blog about how Americans are a travesty of public filth. But maybe things could get a little bit better on the margins if we all thought a little bit more about temperance.

If you find it tempting to blow your nose on the sidewalk, exercise a little temperance. Find your way to the nearest tissue, and use that instead. If you find it somewhat of a hassle to wash your hands every time you use the bathroom, exercise a little temperance. The expedient thing is to skip the hand-washing step, but the right thing to do is to wash your hands. You might not see the point of covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze in the privacy of your own work cubicle, but I urge you to exercise a little temperance on the margins. Cover your mouth, then go wash your hands. And, for god's sake, get a bidet. They are $15 and install in seconds. Jesus.

Practically speaking, it's unlikely that you'll be able to prevent every cough, sneeze, and itch that needs scratching. You won't always be able to find your way to a bathroom in time to wash your hands or do whatever else you need to do. But if you can exercise a little temperance on the margins, then there's a slightly better chance that people like me won't die.

Please, I beg you, exercise a little temperance. Be a little bit more hygienic. This disease does not really need to spread widely in an environment in which people practice good hygiene.