by valerie morales

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I received two invites for parties last weekend. Both celebrated birthdays. The party on Saturday was a family event, about 18 people were to attend, ages 10–81. The day before the party, the hostess cancelled because a couple of guests had vulnerable health histories. The second party was for the next day, Sunday. It was a two year old’s birthday party and the guests ranged from 6 months to 70 years in age. The hostess, the toddler’s mother, didn’t cancel and about 45 people showed up. The mom, Thalia, was fully versed in social distancing and the devastating effects of Covid-19. She works as a biochemist. But she couldn’t bring herself to cancel the party for her two year old despite the effects it may have had on her guests, and even her young son. Was it selfish?

I took an informal poll of friends and most said it was selfish and arrogant, with a couple of people empathizing with her situation. 2 is a special year for a parent. Those baby years have now morphed into toddler behavior. It’s a milestone for parents- because gone for good are those wretched middle of the night feedings.

I didn’t attend the two year old’s party for social distancing reasons. I’m cautious of carrying something infectious to my 81 year old father . But I was curious about Thalia, the two year old’s mother, a scientist emotionally attached to the traditions and rituals of her mothering life.

Thalia was feeling stress from her colleagues and from the daily leader board of deaths and infections. She just wanted two hours of what used to be her life. She wanted her control and independence back, if only for a few hours.

This is the social distancing problem once you move it beyond its theoretical benefits. It meets us at the lonely place many of us are afraid to be, or have been and never want to return. Aloneness.

Intellectually, it makes all kinds of since. Stay away from people to flatten out the curve so the virus doesn’t overwhelm the health care system which is not designed for the volume that Covid-19 presents.

In Italy, over the weekend nearly 900 patients died. Yesterday a record 475 died in a single day. With 3,405 Covid-19 deaths, Italy has more deaths from the infection than China.

What Italians didn’t do when Coronavirus spread around the country is stay out the bars and restaurants and stadiums. The virus spread to the healthy and unhealthy. The healthy passed it on to the healthy and unhealthy. The unhealthy became sick and Italian physicians had to choose who they could treat and save, and who they had to deny respirators to. It’s a grueling new world. A cruel one.

To avoid what happened in Italy, the CDC recommended social distancing. It was an extreme position, a reshaping of American life. Sports teams shut down. Concerts postponed. Las Vegas casinos dark. Airports known for cacophony and anxiety, like LAX or Washington National, morgues. The final blow was restaurants in urban cities could no longer receive diners, only takeout and delivery. Bars were closed.

My brother runs marathons. His goal is to run a marathon in every American city. He is halfway to his goal. The marathon season began last weekend. The first four marathons he was supposed to enter have been cancelled.

The Kentucky Derby was postponed as was the French Open.

Corporate salespeople have to pivot. No more handshakes, a staple of the greet. Instead elbow bumps and hand sanitizer. No more lunches and dinner meetings to close the deal.

On the surface, it seems a simple thing. Stay home. Work there or just hang out for the next 8 weeks to slow out the virus.

The numbers are steadily moving like a perfect storm. 13,000 U.S. cases have been reported. 170 deaths. 50 States. D.C. Guam. Puerto Rico. The Virgin Islands. New York has an astounding 2,400 cases, followed by Washington (1,014) and then California (751). 32 states haven’t recorded a Covid-19 death.

Italy is the measuring stick. They have 41,305 cases which is .07% of the population, and 3,405 deaths. 8.3% of the infected dead is a staggering rate of death. Italy is a particular breeding ground for the virus because they are one of the world’s oldest populations. The average age of the Italian virus death is 81. The studies that show a high correlation between mortality rates from viral infections and pollution puts Italy in a death trap.

In Italy, fines are levied for traveling without a permit. Like the United States, public events are banned and schools are closed, as are movie theaters, gyms and theaters. If you defy the lock down you could go to jail. Speaking of jail, inmates in Italy can no longer have visitors.

Italy has free healthcare but healthcare only takes up 6.8% of the budget. It is underfunded. There are not enough doctors and the ones who are on the Coronavirus front line have decisions to make about who they can save, who gets a respirator, who can recover.

It’s enough to make the United States panic and impose extreme social distancing. If we were like Italy and 8.3% of the already infected died that would mean 1,079 deaths, instead of 170 at the current rate of death (1.3%).

Furthermore, Italy has a social culture similar to the United States. Bars, restaurants, theaters, plays, sports, social gathering, hanging out, just being with friends and family; it defines regular life. But it is regular life that is helping spread the virus.

2

I went to the grocery store at 7:45 am and there was a line. The store didn’t open until 8. There were flyers posted that said because of social distancing there were only letting in 50 people at 8 am and then 25 people every ten minutes. Social distancing as an excuse is a bunch of b.s. The reason this grocery store chain was letting small amounts of people in was to avoid chaos when shoppers found out no toilet paper and scants amount of water. Standing in line is fatiguing. By the time I made it in, I was exhausted and particularly compliant.

Social distancing is supposed to save our lives. In the grocery line there were plenty of people with masks on and standing far enough apart. Some had gloves. These were strangers around me and so I wasn’t the bearer of bad news: a mask doesn’t prevent the virus from seeping into your pores. It makes you feel better but some of those mask wearing folks may already have the virus.

And so what is social distancing’s point? It flattens the curve but notice how doctors don’t dare say it eliminates the virus. It just slows it down. From 70 mph to 40 mph. But 40 mph still gets you where you want to go, just a little bit longer.

There was a Muslim festival in Singapore that lasted 4 days. 14,500 missionaries arrived in Kuala Lumpur for prayer, arriving from more than two dozen countries. The search is on for the attendees because, according to health officials, 400 were infected and one died because of that prayer weekend at Seri Petaling mosque from February 27-March 1. Of Singapore’s 700 Covid-19 cases, half came from that prayer weekend. Many missionaries returned home and infected their countrymen who may not even be aware that lurking inside their bones is a death sentence virus.

The Seri Petaling prayer festival is why social distancing has taken hold of the United States, why concerts were canceled, and March Madness, and the NBA. Ticketholders would take the virus home and infect their neighbors. The virus would be untraceable and beyond the country’s ability to manage it.

But social distancing has another reality. It is a polite way of breeding loneliness. Isolation feeds anxiety and depression, and enough of it triggers latent rage. Life is suddenly out of your control.

The moment I heard that the NBA suspended their schedule I told a friend be on the lookout for an uptick in domestic violence calls. Sports is an emotional equalizer for men having a hard day or living a difficult life. It is a distraction, a hobby, and an addiction. What is the replacement?

Toilet tissue hoarders are mocked but they have reminded us how fragile a feeling it is when no one knows what tomorrow is going to bring. One social media post about Donald Trump cancelling the Nov. election stirred up a lot of folks. Every day it is something else to be wary of. With around the clock coverage on how it is going to get worse- which is antithetical to American mythology of the next day being better than the last- we the living are walking on egg shells.

When I was standing in line in the cold and waiting for the grocery store to open, I was annoyed. My life had been hijacked. I began to unpack all the things I should be doing but I couldn’t because I had to stand in that friggin’ line and they didn’t even have bread when I got in there. It’s selfish but we are selfish people. One woman in line talked about having two rolls of toilet paper left. The store was out so she had to go elsewhere. That kind of stress is life changing.

The CDC said “the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 may be stressful for people.” No shit Sherlock. Is that the best you can do? They then went on to say that “coping with stress will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.” What a bunch of bullsh**. Is that their remedy? What won’t kill you makes you stronger? A searing problem in this country and the world is that when we can’t cope with stress we look for mechanisms to relieve it. Food. Sex. Alcohol. Opioids. Racism.

Americans are not supposed to socialize anymore and many of us have been forced to work from home, where on the one hand there is isolation and on the other hand the 3 year old wants to watch Frozen for the 10th time.

This is one of the rare times in American life that we are being asked to recognize how important socialization is. Taken away, we are bereft. In almost every crises in American life we could depend on each other in groups.

The Civil War created bitter enemies but the Confederates and the Union had their respective sympathizers huddled up as one. The Presidential election of 1864, smack dab in the worst of the Civil War, continued.

During Jim Crow, black people were threatened and beaten and lynched. Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But black folk had the church, SCLC and SNCC meetings in which to fellowship with one another. 9–11 was numbing but we pulled each other up.

Covoid-19 is asking us to heal ourselves by ourselves. Be alone. Like that is something we have experience doing in a crises.

Harvard psych professor John R. Weisz said, “Highly anxious people often fear things they don’t fully understand and strictly avoid situations they believe are dangerous- in part because they are not certain how to evaluate the danger or what behaviors might expose them to risk.”

The anxious will fret. Emotionally healthy people will feel sad at this sudden turn of events. Angry and violent people will be triggered to be more impulsive. And all of us are told to stay away from each other.

A 60 year old doctor who has the virus said “don’t underestimate the virus. It won’t be doctors and ventilators that stop it, it will be our ability to reduce contact.” That is the problem and the nature of the beast. Nothing in our human experience has taught us to stay away from people. And so it is death by paper cuts. The virus may be flattened, the infections may slow, but the mind loses its anchor.

Writing: Race and Gender, Politics, Healthcare, Environmental Abuse, Domestic Violence

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