When I was a child, the first time I realized that the comforting routines of daily life were capable of perturbation was during the oil embargo of the 1970s. My father’s avid planning of weekend trips came to an abrupt halt, as did my brothers’ borrowing of the family car. I was occasionally dragged out on an odd or even day to sit in interminable lines at the service station. My parents fretted about my father missing work if there was no gas. I was too young to think of it as anything but tedious.
And over the years “tedious” continued to define my youthful emotional responses to the various emergencies, financial or natural, that arose. During recessions money was tighter, though for our family it was no more than a nuisance. During the 1989 California medfly attack my father and I carefully covered our cars in thick plastic once a week to protect them from the aerial spraying (even typing this I can remember the smell of the chemicals). We winced at the sound of the helicopters, and wondered idly if this was increasing our cancer risk at some future date even though we were huddled indoors, but otherwise were no more than mildly inconvenienced in the moment.
When it came to medical scares – Ebola, Legionnaire’s disease, SARS and their ilk – I was equally disengaged. The occasional hysterical claim that it would be coming to our neighborhood soon was floated, but I never believed it. Far away things stayed far away.
My first intimate encounter with social disruption was L.A.’s Rodney King riots of 1992. I was working in a computer lab at Long Beach State when a security guard swept through. “Everyone go home,” he said in a tight, anxious voice. “Go directly to your car. Lock your doors. Drive until you get home. Go inside and stay there.” My mother’s relief when I walked into the house was palpable. She said that a motorcyclist in Long Beach had been shot and killed. That night my parents argued over whether it was safe for my father to go grocery shopping. He wanted to prove that he wasn’t afraid. She retorted that he was only proving that he was stupid.
For five days the city burned. Stores were looted. We stayed indoors – it was the first time I’d heard the phrase “shelter in place” – and felt a wave of relief when the National Guard arrived to perch on street corners with M16s. There were a few skirmishes in isolated pockets of greater Los Angeles but the worst was over. Life could go back to normal.
Large, Friendly Letters
The 1992 riots were a short, sharp shock. Someone like me on the periphery experienced it as a burst of panic while I was exposed on the streets, a brittle security once I was safe at home, and a careless certainty once the military arrived that the situation was unlikely to recur.
My trajectory of emotions around the current COVID-19 pandemic, on the other hand, has followed a curve not unlike the timeline of its dispersal around the world. An initial idle curiosity in early January when the virus was first suspected to have arisen in a seafood wholesale market in China. A slightly more serious concern as it began to spiral away from China to Thailand and Japan. The nervous attentiveness of a meerkat when, in spite of screening procedures at major airports in the U.S., an infected individual was found in the state of Washington. By the time the Diamond Princess cruise ship was floating under quarantine in Yokohama Bay like a pathogenic ghost ship and seniors at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington were trapped and dying in what had previously been a well-respected skilled nursing facility, I was well along an exponential course toward anxiety.
Don’t panic! was the mantra of the early days. But it didn’t take long to realize that there were at least two strains of meaning percolating under those words. The first was an admonition not to let anxiety drive you into what the dictionary defines as the “wildly unthinking behavior” characteristic of panic, which in turn might lead to counterproductive activities like hoarding in preparation for a long isolation on the one hand or “Let’s all infect each other and get it over with!” on the other.
The second had a more sneering, contemptuous tone to it. It was generally accompanied by charts comparing coronavirus deaths to date to the flu, or car accidents. The words “overblown” and “hoax” appeared in the discourse. “Go about your daily life” and “Don’t let fear rule you” were common phrases. In the darker underbelly still were the murmurs, “This is all a plot to discredit President Trump,” and the anti-vaxxer-style refrain, “Why should I listen to the epidemiologists and other self-styled ‘experts?’ They just have opinions, and so do I!”
But as the world has discovered in the intervening weeks, viruses don’t give a shit about your opinions. And here’s the thing: somewhere in between “abject panic” and “indignant disbelief” live those valuable states known as “rationality” and “preparedness.” And that was where I strove – with varying degrees of success – to hover, in those weeks where it wasn’t clear just how bad this all was going to be.
Goldilocks and the Trader Joe’s
I hoped that the virus wouldn’t be that virulent. I hoped if it were, that the United States would be on top of managing it. But hope isn’t microwavable, and so as COVID-19 starting winding its initially slow way around the globe and I read the increasingly worried warnings of – yes – epidemiologists and public health officials, I took a hard look at my supplies on hand and realized that I’d become a bit lackadaisical about emergency preparation. I’d grown weary of worrying that frozen meat would spoil in the event of yet another PG&E outage. It was a hassle shifting canned goods around so the old ones were always to the front. Our house is small, we don’t have a ton of storage, I’d rather cook with fresh food anyway…the excuses went on and on.
But now we had solar and more importantly a pair of Powerwalls. And if the experts were beginning to talk of two weeks of supplies…well, I wanted slightly more than that. Slightly more, I reminded myself sternly as I began to make lists in late February, clamping down on the urge to succumb to “wildly unthinking behavior.” A few extra packages of frozen shrimp. A six-pack of chicken breasts. A couple of pounds of salmon. An assortment of canned and dried beans, canned tomatoes and tuna, sturdy cheeses and long shelf life condiments. Weird rumblings were starting about runs on toilet paper, so although because it’s bulky I usually let my supply get down to not much I picked up an extra eight-pack.
By early March hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes were gone from the store shelves, and Trader Joe’s was conspicuously missing items like red lentils, black beans, jarred roasted red peppers. Still I tried to tack between rationality and preparedness into the winds of…whatever was coming. Buying bottled water seemed silly, since I found it hard to believe that a virus would disrupt the water supply, so I left that to the people who were worried about such things and kept only my half dozen gallon earthquake supply (that I slowly cycle through the “anti-static” cycle of the dryer). Laying in some extra rice and pasta seemed less silly. I gave some thought to easy pantry meals, and picked up the base ingredients for things like chili and chicken divan. We had recently bought a tortilla press for fun, and since unlike fresh pasta or bread masa harina requires only water for tacos I picked up a couple of pounds. I could mostly find what I wanted, and was cautiously optimistic that maybe other people would live by the Goldilocks principle too: not too little, not too much, striking a balance that was just right.
By the thirteenth of March I realized that “too much” had become the order of the day. At eight o’clock in the morning the usually empty market was already jammed. Items were flying off the shelves faster than harried employees – even though it seemed like every employee they had was on site – could stock them. Time, I decided, for a change in strategy.
Fresh vegetables were available in abundance, so I picked up some produce that could keep for a reasonably long time. The refrigerated vegetarian section was fully stocked and wide open, so I tossed some tofu (for the obvious stir fries and the less obvious vegetarian meatballs), tempeh (makes great chili), vegan hot dogs (surprisingly indistinguishable from meat if you’re putting them in a casserole) and vegan sausages (as yet untried) into the cart.
I waited in a long line to pay for my purchases, and then I beat it the hell out of there. All the complimentary disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer in the world (accompanied by exhortations to use it for others if not for yourself) won’t help in a pandemic if you’re standing cheek by jowl with a roomful of potential carriers.
Your Money or Your Life
By now the phrase “flattening the curve” is probably seared into your brain. It refers to slowing the rate of infection among the population so hospitals aren’t overwhelmed with too many critically ill individuals all at the same time. There’s another curve I’d like to see flattened, and that’s the sinusoidal response the U.S. federal government has been having to the crisis, whiplashing between “Nothing to see here, sheeple, keep on about your economically productive business” and “Okay, maybe there is something to see.”
On March 10th, Medium published an article by Tomas Pueyo entitled “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now.” (It now has over 40 million views, and if I were going to recommend one link to follow from this essay it would be that one.) On the day this essay was laying out in stark detail what politicians and business leaders should be doing to blunt the worst effects of COVID-19 – containment, mitigation, social distancing – President Trump was saying this, as if all our worries were in the past:
“As you know, it’s about 600 cases, it’s about 26 deaths, within our country. And had we not acted quickly, that number would have been substantially more.”
“And it hit the world. And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”
But it didn’t go away. And for a time, the federal government seemed to be putting public health over the economy. On March 13th Trump declared a national emergency. On the16th he released federal guidelines for preventing the virus’ spread that included avoiding gatherings of more than ten people and staying away from restaurants and bars for at least three weeks. On the 18th he signed a relief package that authorized free testing for COVID-19 and paid emergency leave.
By then states were beginning to take action on their own. On March 16th, six counties in California’s Bay Area announced shelter at home orders, requiring its nearly seven million residents to avoid going out except to transact essential business. On March 19th, governor Gavin Newsom made the order statewide. And although there was grumbling about the effect of such closures on the economy (including House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy’s displeasure that he, a California representative, wasn’t consulted in advance of Newsom’s decision), other states began to follow suit. A widespread feeling of “we’re all in this together, we can get through this together” was in the air.
Meanwhile, the draconian measures to slow the viral spread had an unsurprising effect on the stock market: huge crashes, modest gains as some arm of the federal government or another made efforts to stabilize the situation, then another crash, another recovery, and on and on. (As an aside, every time I read about panic in the markets I think that I never want to hear another word about women being overemotional. Get a grip, boys’ club.)
But as suspicion among public health officials grew that the U.S. government wasn’t prepared, and it wasn’t doing a great job, and the shutdown might last considerably longer than three weeks, certain industry titans, politicians, and Fox News started to push back. This took a particularly ugly form when the 69-year-old governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, spoke with Tucker Carlson about the need to keep the economy going. “No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’…And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”
And he wasn’t alone. Next Glenn Beck piled on, saying on his show, “I would rather have my children stay home and have all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working…Even if we all get sick, I’d rather die than kill the country. Because it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.”
An ex-CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, was slightly more tactful, suggesting that individuals at low risk of infection should be allowed to return to work at the end of the fifteen day period (presumably regardless of the state of COVID-19’s containment) because “crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue – and beyond.”
All of this was received by the wider public with about the enthusiasm you might expect. The Sacramento Bee ran an opinion piece headlined “Will Californians let coronavirus kill their grandparents to please Wall Street? Hell No.” Other news outlets have begun pointing out that young people are being affected, making the notion of “low risk” difficult to quantify. (Statistics in the county where I live bear this out. Currently there are twenty-one cases among individuals 65 and over, eighteen in the 50-64 age range, three under age 18, and the largest number – twenty-nine – in the formerly considered low risk 18-49 year range.) Ars Technica discussed the clear and present economic risks of returning to normality too soon, ranging from mass disruptions of public transit to the virus sweeping through a nuclear power facility.
With respect to Blankfein, the most common response to his tweet seemed to be some variant of “fuck you.” And therein lies at least one of the problems. I’m no economist. For all I know “the cure is worse than the disease” rhetoric currently making the rounds is correct, although the right-leaning National Review doesn’t think there’s an easy answer to that. (If you’re into economics, that article is also worth a look.) But no one I’ve read is even trying to explain it, and “it’s the economy, stupid,” isn’t an adequate response when people are sickening and dying in droves and the health care providers we’ve been taught to admire are begging for help to keep from drowning in a sea of COVID-19 victims as they also sicken and die.
(By the time I finished writing this, Trump had stopped saying that he wanted to see the churches full for Easter and extended the federal social distancing guidelines until April 30th. The sine wave crests again.)
It’s a Small World
In the absence of consistent messaging from the federal government, the hour of the governors and mayors, of the state and county health officials has come. Before COVID-19 I didn’t even know that Penny Borenstein was our county public health director, and I imagine she would have preferred to keep it that way. Instead now she’s livestreaming on Facebook and the local news every afternoon, telling some grim truths while trying to keep the public calm. And behind the scenes she, in consultation with other officials, has tried to balance persuasion and force with regard to getting people to do the right thing – stay the hell away from each other – and stave off the worst-case scenarios.
Nowhere was that more obvious than the lead up to St. Patrick’s Day. San Luis Obispo is a college town, full of carefree young people who keep the local bars in rowdy business. In a normal year the green beer starts flowing early. This was, obviously, not a normal year. So the following sequence of events transpired:
- The county put out feelers asking people to not crowd into the pubs.
- The local media ran articles with student after student (and a fair number of older folks) defiantly proclaiming that nothing would interrupt their good time.
- The county announced that restaurants and bars could remain open, but starting at 5 p.m. on March 16th and ending at noon on March 18th they were forbidden from serving alcohol.
But the taps were barely turned on again before the county, not liking the trajectory of local infections, imposed more draconian rules, and a shelter in place order was issued on the eighteenth of March. I was already uncomfortable with crowded public spaces, and had spent the morning of the 18th researching whether it was safer to buy vegetables from the supermarket or a local farmers’ market. The order made my decision for me.
My husband was already working from home so he took a break and we ventured out, thinking to top off the Tesla at the supercharger and walk the few blocks to the market. But we were barely on the freeway before the office VPN started calling him incessantly on his phone, so he dropped me off and went back to the house to make sure nothing was wrong.
The Atascadero market was a ghost town. There were half a dozen booths, widely spaced, and not many more customers. Most of the latter were elderly, and I kept having to dance away from them as they carelessly closed our six foot gap. But I found a number of things that I wanted – carrots, celery, scallions, bread. And stocked up on unplanned items that seemed sensible to have, like beets and fennel. And bought a rather rapaciously priced little ramen kit for two from a mother and her young son of Marley Family Seaweeds in Big Sur just because the pair looked a little forlorn and I guessed that times were about to get hard for them (coastal seaweed foraging tours do sound like fun, but maybe not during a pandemic).
Vons, on the other hand, was not a ghost town. There were cars circling the lot looking for spaces, and my husband and I shook our heads simultaneously and drove on by. Smart and Final seemed more promising, but we were halfway to the entrance when an empty-handed man passed us going the other way. “It’s a zoo in there,” he muttered as he went by. We returned to our car.
I confess I was panicking a little. Not for any good reason. We had all of the staples nailed down. But I had wanted – no doubt foolishly, no doubt selfishly – for life to be normal for a little while longer. For that I needed milk and butter, eggs and cheese. I wanted a jar of alfredo for a pantry lasagna recipe. I had my heart set on a raspberry sauce for this month’s cheese club order. I had intended to buy some oat milk, just to have it on hand. And on, and on.
I knew I was being frivolous. I knew I sounded a little manic while the words spilled out to my husband, but he listened patiently. “Let’s try the local organic market,” he suggested when I finally took a breath.
We had been there a couple of times since it opened, mostly on larks, if we were in the mood for exotic beans or “ancient grains.” It was a tiny place, and while we wished it success we didn’t see how it was going to survive in the long term.
There were a handful of cars in the small dirt lot. With trepidation we opened the door. It was cool. It was dark. It was empty of people. And it was packed to the gills with products. There were empty spaces, sure, where the beans and ancient grains usually perched. And there were no eggs or dairy in sight. But I found butter and ricotta, lemons and strawberries and a little container of raspberries. There was oat milk, and crackers, and baked beans, and alfredo sauce.
And since then it has been our culinary rock in a difficult time. Every day they take photos of the entire store and post them on Facebook. You can – for now – come in to shop if you like, or email them an order and pick it up curbside when it’s ready. I can’t get everything I’d like all of the time, but I can certainly get enough to allow us to eat healthily and with considerable variety.
We’ve tried to return the favor. We called and set up a prepaid account when they said they wanted to buy a few freezers and a generator. (We’ve also set up a prepay for our mechanic, and will try to do the same for our tree service.) We contributed when they were matching donations to help feed struggling families in the area, and will likely make that a regular endeavor. We’ve been fortunate, and we know it, and now is the time to pay some of it back.
CORVID-19 has made the world small. In the realization that it can travel where it likes, that few if any places are isolated enough to escape its influence. In the contraction of our social lives, as increasing numbers of us are restricted to our homes. But it has also made me look at an important smaller world around me, my neighborhood and my community. I’ve run a few errands or ordered online to obtain supplies for an elderly neighbor. When I expressed a little concern over our toilet paper supply now that my husband is working at home another neighbor smiled (from six feet away) and said he had plenty, to let him know if we ran low. And a market that I usually snubbed in favor of larger, cheaper chains has now become a lifeline.
Flirting with Disaster
After the initial shock of the shelter at home order – the feeling of “oh shit, this is all really happening” – I think I’ve grown a little more clearheaded again. I’ve laid in a supply of dog food (prescription kidney diet, so I can’t just get it anywhere) and medication for both the dog and me. And, yes, wine. I engaged in a flurry of online shopping, ordering everything from spices and mason jars to butane lighters and razor blades (though toilet paper still can’t be had at any price). A local media outlet ran an article on CSAs that deliver and are taking new customers, so I signed up for one of those.
Closer to home we’ve made sure our detached studio is set up for daily living, in case one of us gets sick or someone we know needs a place to stay, including setting up a power over ethernet adapter so Internet is available. I’ve researched how to store every fresh edible that enters the house for maximum longevity.
In the process I confronted the hard truth that I formerly wasted a shameful amount of food. Scallions that I would have thrown away before are now carefully saved and frozen. Same with onions and fennel and cauliflower that look like they might be on the edge of usability. Beet greens that I would have tossed out without a second thought –are those things even edible? – are blanched, dropped in an ice bath and vacuum sealed before joining their cousins in the freezer for later use in a meal like bibimbap. These are lessons I hope I carry forward when everything gets easier again.
The last big looming question is, when do we give up on our last vestiges of normality? Is there a point where even going to a small local market starts to seem like too great a risk? For now we end our afternoons by poring over a chart of COVID-19’s spread across the United States, and reading the latest statistics for our own county. We examine the local growth curves, review the modeling and try to guess when too many undiagnosed infections are circulating to make going out worth the risk. Every day it feels a little bit closer.