Wednesday, March 18, 2020

In a Time of Virus: Not Seen In Generations

Sometimes you read about World War I or II and you wonder what you'd have been like in those circumstances.  What would it be like to be sitting in Austin, Texas one day and boarding a boat to cross the English Channel a year later, pretty sure you were being used for cannon fodder?  Or being ordered over the wall and into No Man's Land?  Over and over?  Day after day?  Could I get back in a B-17 and fly back over Germany and drop bombs *again*, uncertain if *this* was the time I was shot down?

It doesn't need to be the threat of war and violence.  We've had plenty of other creeping horrors around mankind in recent and living memory.

But my generation, maybe the one before, maybe those that have come after... we sat in classrooms and heard how the Commies wanted to drop nuclear bombs on us because they hated our Capitalist ways.  But mostly that's an existential threat - if it was going to happen, it was going to happen.  And I wasn't old enough to be part of the AIDS crisis, but am old enough to get cross-eyed hearing about "dating" apps as someone who came of age just after Magic Johnson taught us suburban kids about how we *all* needed to be careful.

In the meantime, we've had basically a roaring economy for decades with minor slow downs and corrections  - which we've viewed as national tragedies.  These things have been solvable by moving money around and hanging in there for a hot minute.  I'm not saying we don't have a student loan crisis, but we also don't have breadlines.  Two planes flew into buildings and we responded by taking shoes off at the airport and allowing us to walk into scanning tubes.  We haven't had a quarter of the population without a job - the soup lines of the 1930's are fictional people doing a fictional thing in our mind's eye - not us.  Nor the issues and traumas of the people we see in movies or television occurring on the other side of the globe.  We've had our issues and unending wars, but for the most part, those wars don't even make the evening news anymore and you can't find a newspapers to talk about them, while folks go about their business (which, while profitable for someone, is kind of insane).

It's been a good enough few decades since we had a World War I or II.  We heard about polio and smallpox as "something that used to happen", like something from a storybook.  We were born into the fallout and victories, and weren't the ones who earned them.  We wondered why there were watchmen and took away their jobs, swore at the people who insisted upon vigilance.

The supposedly skeptical, hard-bitten kids of the latch-key generation freaked out and decided that vaccines were put on this Earth to give kids autism, and 15 years after that story got debunked, we're starting to get diseases with old-timey names back in clusters.  Mostly because we decided science was more boring than a good conspiracy theory.

We've been safe.  Things have gone well.  This is not a criticism.  But it's also made us forget.  We decided history was dull and taught incorrectly unless it was Civil War battles and specific dates.

You know, try explaining the Spanish Flu to anyone a month ago.  They'd rush at you with why *that can never happen here now*.  Kids, I don't know if you've been paying attention to how things have been going since Bowie and Prince peace'd out, but a whole lotta things we said couldn't happen here are the new normal.

Monday at 12:00 noon, the Mayor of Austin closed all bars and restaurants for the foreseeable future.  No groups more than 10 people.  At 5:00ish, my employer, the University of Texas, went from "Spring Break is two weeks" to "all classes are online starting yesterday til end of the term."

They need to do it.  I can tell you I was hearing some really crazy stuff coming down the pike at work that wasn't going to help anyone and was definitely going to put everyone on campus at risk.  They didn't do it.  I hate to say you can't trust college kids, but I can also tell you when you find kids washing their feet in a sink or sitting mostly naked in a library study stall, or even wearing shorts on a day below freezing...  you really want to consider wrapping them in bubble-wrap and raising the voting and drinking age.

We learn the hard way, and the early warning systems are treated as Cassandra.  The people who react treated as silly panic-button-pushers.

A lot of people are shrugging at what it means to lose 1-2% of the population in less than a year.  But that's hardly new... there's always someone who blames others for getting sick and/ or old.  Who can't do that math that we're talking about their parents or loved ones?  Or that this same thinking will point the finger at them one day?

I try to imagine 100 people lined up and just shrugging as an anonymous hand pulls someone out of line for a treatment ending in death.  And then taps another 79 and guarantees them they'll at least get a beating, and to know those beatings shall be delivered with varying levels of severity, many won't count as deaths but will leave the recipients bent and broken.

Anyway, we're at a turning point and folks seem to be basically getting onboard.  There are an infinite number of systemic issues every decision makes - from closing restaurants (where do people get food now?) to how we work at home (and the proud office luddites are suddenly realizing they've brought this upon themselves).   For every good decision, there's someone out there making not-great decisions, and then the government has to step in and shut them down as someone shouts "overreach".  But maybe that's a topic for another day.

In the meantime I watch facebook posts and twitter threads scroll by from those who bought into the gig economy or found a niche in a field where the ground was less solid than, say, IT for a major university.  And it's hard.  We just started all this.  I'm trying to be careful in what I commit to as we react and respond to events with no end in sight.

And, of course, the few people I know who are suffering at home with the thing even as we speak.  And the reminder that this is real, and impacts people you care about even now.

But - again - topic for another day.

No comments: