I’m feeling a little weird these days.
No, don’t worry! I’m not coming down with suspicious flu-like symptoms. So far fortunately, I’m managing to stay healthy despite my 71 years and a lung condition that makes me particularly at risk of any respiratory illness that comes along — much the worse if it’s a deadly COVID-19 virus.
It’s just that around me I see everyone finally getting seriously worried about the risks of this rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic, and now about a deepening recession that looks like by summer it could be worse than the Great Depression in terms of joblessness and of business and bank failures. And yet I and my family are largely untouched. We paid off our mortgage years ago, our two kids are grown, we don’t have any car payments, my wife is a tenured professor at a public college, and I’m continuing to work as freelance journalist.
Even if my freelance work were to dry up in a deepening economic downturn, I’d still have my social security checks, and unless everything totally collapses, my wife’s job, which she likes, is secure, along with the health insurance benefits that come with it.
The weather is getting nice finally, in fact too nice, with all the trees blooming two weeks earlier than ever before — a clear sign that climate change is galloping ahead unchecked. The two little palm trees I planted on the south side of the house — one two springs ago, and the other last summer — both survived this past rather mild winter, and give every intention of planning to grow from two feet tall to big palms. Eventually they’ll be suitable, perhaps a decade from now should I last that long, for sitting under with a nice green coconut shell in hand, filled with a piña colada made from the natural coconut milk, the way they do in the Caribbean islands.
Yesterday on a park walk, I caught a garter snake crossing my path. That’s the earliest I ever saw or caught a snake in the northeastern US. Not a good sign of things to come! But these days, reveling in Spring in the Time of Coronavirus (to bastardize the title of the wonderful novel by Gabriel García Márquez set during a Cholera plague in Columbia), has to be permitted.
Living a bit outside of urbanized Philadelphia, I have to admit that there are some almost guilt-inducing plusses to this pandemic, at least at this point while we still don’t have bodies piling up in the streets and hordes of desperate, penniless people breaking into homes and stores to steal food for themselves their families. Those days will likely come soon enough in a country wholly unprepared for this kind of a shock crisis. The US, after all, provides no health care funding for tens of millions of people and offers only a shredded income safety net for what will be perhaps a third to a half of the population that will soon have no income. It also has a completely inept central government and president that are both more concerned with retaining power and gaining financial advantage than in responding for the public good.
But for now, like a calm in the eye of a hurricane, the roads are so quiet at night that we could at night make musical recordings in our living-room, which is just 25 feet in from what used to be a busy street 24 hours a day. And they’re not very busy by day either. Errands to the hardware store or to a supermarket that offers curbside pickup of orders these days, trips that used to require a half hour at least of driving in traffic each direction, can now both be accomplished in half that time. The air, even in late afternoon on weekdays, is always clear and smells fresh, instead of like car and truck exhaust and ozone. For the moment, people are in a darkly humorous communal-minded mood. I find them mostly to be not in a hurry, with time to joke about the dystopic world we find ourselves suddenly living in, but willing to help others and offer tips on sanitizing purchases.
I say “for now” because I know this won’t last. Many of those who are seeming relaxed today may have jobs that are at risk, or even may have lost jobs and are waiting, if they’re lucky, for unemployment checks that supposedly will be boosted to $600 a week, which could be more than they were getting when they were working. There are also those Trump-signed checks from the US Treasury of $1200 per person plus $500 each for any child dependent, which will be arriving soon. But these token bits of good fortune will be soon gone, while the bills will keep coming. Soon grown children will be coming back home, perhaps with small children of their own in tow, as they run out of money and have to leave their apartments and lose their leased cars or have the cars they bought on payments repossessed.
Things, I know, will get ugly when a third the country’s workforce is unemployed as economists at the Federal Reserve are predicting will happen as soon as this summer. The summer, I should add, if this spring is any indication, will not be so pleasant weather-wise. Climate scientists warn most of the US will have a very hot June-September season, and who’s going to have the money to crank up the air-conditioning? That means the deaths from coronavirus, particularly among my age cohort, will be compounded by the deaths we have been seeing occur in previous hot summers among the elderly in homes and apartment buildings where they have no air-conditioning units, or where the electricity has been shut off for non-payment.
What really has me worried is that, while my wife and I have great employer health insurance, all those tens of millions of workers losing their jobs will also be losing what (it grosses me out to say it but) likely Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden refers to as their “beloved employer-sponsored health insurance plan.” That will be precisely when the pandemic will be at its peak, according to CDC projections, with tens of millions infected and hundreds of thousands dying in overcrowded hospitals, tent facilities, government-requisitioned hotel rooms and bed-filled gyms and sports arenas.
This quiet, warm and even beautifully colored Spring will be a bitter memory then.
If I’m lucky enough to remain uninfected, and not facing triage and rejection for a scarce ventilator at that point, I’ll be worrying about younger relatives who will be working long hours in dangerous situations as physician assistant, psychiatric nurse, emergency room doctor, dentist, family practice doctor and VA hospital social worker. If I’m successful in avoiding the virus, I’ll still be safe at home writing about the catastrophe of a nation falling apart because its blind religious-like faith in capitalism allowed it and its people, living in the wealthiest nation in the world, to remain completely unprepared for this totally predictable and inevitable disaster.
Mind you, I won’t be gloating. I will doing what I can to help those in need, within the bounds of avoiding catching the virus myself, at which point instead of a help I’d just be adding to the burden of the heroic caregivers. But I will be trying to rally people to join together and try to use this national catastrophe to pull the country away from its warped consumerist nightmare fantasy of Madison Avenue and Hollywood-manufactured desires and more and more things and to think more communally. This pandemic, which respects wealth or station not at all, will eventually end, after wreaking whatever damage it can. The economy will recover, probably a hell of a lot slower than the politicians will tell us it will. But when we come out of it, we have to come out vowing never to return to the madness that was American society before COVID-19.
We have now seen what happens when a people allow themselves to be ruled by a government composed almost entirely of millionaires and even billionaires (both parties!) who themselves act almost exclusively in the interests of even richer billionaires and unimaginably powerful and wealthy global corporations. We get massive spending on arms and war, and a highly stratified and unequally accessible healthcare system, an impossibly expensive and exclusionary higher education system, laws that favor owners over renters, bosses over workers, rich over poor, white over black and brown and men over women, roads and bridges that are falling apart, an environment being raped for profit, police who act as occupiers and enforcers, not “peace officers,” and a planet that is being destroyed by corporations that just want to make a fast buck.
What we need to do and need to become as a society is for another day and another diary entry, or probably multiple entries. But clearly we cannot allow ourselves to just go back to what we have been as a society and a nation. Even those who may want to do go back to that atomized, tribal, selfish, consumerist world won’t be able to do it and hopefully most of us won’t even want to.