Whiplash


You know that feeling of whiplash as the breaking news about Covid-19 evolves so fast we can barely keep up? We’re like empty tin cans tied to the tail of an imaginary dragon (or giant housecat – choose your own beast). The tail is flailing and whacking against everything and we’re going clang, clang, clang as we spin and dance and bash into one another. Figuratively, I mean. In reality, we’re six or more feet apart most of the time.

Your ride is surely different from mine, and at a certain point, it’s hard even to remember. Eight weeks ago, most of us were probably happily going about our business (unless we were epidemiologists or medical folks starting to feel high anxiety about the future). Six weeks ago, others among us were getting nervous. Then the big changes began. My memory is perhaps faulty and is definitely subjective, but here’s some of what I recall….

Travel: disrupted. Don’t travel to China or certain other parts of East Asia. Wait, add Italy and Spain to that. Add the rest of Europe. Understand that the risk flows both ways – they can infect us, we can infect them. Dash the dream of your travel plans, even if your destination isn’t that far away.

First they call it just the coronavirus. Then it’s Covid-19 -- for the disease. The virus is officially SARS-CoV-2. We’re going to learn a bunch more polysyllabic words before this is over. The prevention lore is all about heavy droplets and hand and face hygiene. We are told NOT to buy or use good masks. Crazed shopping ensues. Can’t get hand sanitizer? There’s a vodka + aloe gel recipe that won’t quite work: vodka is usually only 40% alcohol). Use it to make martinis instead.

We are actually told masks won’t protect us.

Oops, wait for it, wait for it. Someone publishes an essay about how that doesn’t make sense. If the masks are so useful for health care workers, how can they be of no use to the common folk?

Okay, revision! Masks okay for everyone. Nay, desirable! Lots of videos about how to make them in five minutes from old t-shirts. Coffee filters and other things for extra filtration (but don’t any of that next to your mouth and inhale particles). Bonanza time for people who know how to sew. Brigades form. Mask ads are a new fashion thing.

Lots of literature on aerosolized particles and how far they might travel in certain contexts. Disinfect doorknobs and wonder if groceries are truly safe. Grocery shopping looks like a trip to the alien landing place in Roswell, New Mexico. The invisible scares us. Because people may be most contagious before they know they are sick, we’re all potential vectors all the time. Our imaginations are like Medusa heads sprouting snakes as we try to fathom all this.

Schools have closed, states have locked down. We start saying PPE as if we hadn’t just learned the acronym yesterday. Whatever it is, we want some. We dream of the perfect vaccine quickly manufactured and massively distributed. We talk herd immunity (wait, did someone mention lowing cattle and bugling elk?) Should we let a zillion people die so we can get there faster? Cue politically partisan yelling on Twitter.

The main symptoms of Covid are X, Y, and Z. In fact, you have to have at least a couple of those, especially Z, shortness of breath, to get tested. Oh, never mind, that list is out of date. You might or might not have X, Y, and Z, but if you have some subset of A, B, C, D, E, or F, that might do. Can’t smell, can’t taste, blue Covid toes – you are the new winner (errr, loser). It’s like the teacher yanked the test away and you weren’t even done writing your answers.

And then, make some Zoom calls, watch a lot of Netflix, do rather too much baking…. Oh, that’s one half of a split-screen, the privileged side. The other side: the exhausted faces of frontline health care workers, the grocery store clerks and slaughterhouse workers, African-Americans dying in horribly disproportionate numbers, the refrigerated truck morgues, hunger rising all over the place. The inject disinfectants guy in the big house defunds and tries to demolish the World Health Organization. The federal government does battle with state governors. War of words and jurisprudential theories. eBay-bidding cat fight for life-saving gear. The world gaping at our literally death-inducing lack of preparation opens its mouth that much wider in wonder. We have taken on a new role: global leader in what not to do.

Still not enough testing in most states, even as they stagger toward a thing called re-opening, as if we were boxes of Cheerios that open and close. Clanging and banging and singing and thanking at 7 pm in New York, wolf howling in the Rockies.

Antibody envy. Immunity passports… or not. We know way too little, but 40% of us know (not just media-celebrity-know, but actually know) someone who has had the virus. A smaller percentage know someone who has died. Bottomless economic suffering that hasn’t hit bottom. Endless analysis. Medical research papers churned out so fast they haven’t yet been peer-reviewed. We gobble it up; it’s what we’ve got.

Protests begin. Automatic weapons and right-wing garb. Others wave simple signs, begging to be allowed back to work so they can feed their kids. Banks charged with distributing relief loans ignore the needy and cherry-pick for rich clients. Our old and ugly habit of racism – now against Chinese and Chinese-Americans – is in full spring flower. When we look in the mirror, the strangest faces stare back at us. Sometimes we have to recognize our neighbors by their noses and hair.

We’re all learning how to surf – will it be second waves or endless waves? The whiplash continues: We cry. We worry. We laugh. We recoil. We rage. We sing. We are lonely. We are longing. We are grabby. We are giving. We are weary. We are grieving. We are scared. We are changed. We don’t know what lies ahead or who we will be.


(Photo credit: Martin Woortman, Unsplash)

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