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Updated: Dec 18, 2020

March 25, 2020

Today I watched the news while I drank my morning coffee. Watching news is now usually a most-of-the-day thing and “morning coffee” no longer a very meaningful phrase since I don’t notice anymore when I cross the line between morning and afternoon. But we don’t realize it because the days stretch like chewed gum and, hello, so do the weeks.

Yes, it’s been weeks now. Who knows what day it is today? At the very least, admit it, we’ve started to squint and ask each other, “Thursday? No … Friday?”

It doesn’t matter anyway.

It’s officially day 14 of the COVID-19 pandemic and we’re starting to see how little almost everything matters. I’m talking about things that mattered hugely up till now, or even just in February. I don’t need to make a list because anyone reading this already knows every item on it (bus schedules, tax deductions, if your sports bra has 3-way stretch, who won “The Voice” — let’s just say everything that isn’t how much food you have in the house and whether that tickle in your throat means anything). 

An interesting thought: how many of the small things, which we were so consumed by until so recently, have stopped mattering because we now have truly big things to worry about … and how many never did matter? 

Already we’re embarrassed by how we used to fret over them; we can’t believe it, though it’s only been weeks, if not days. Or maybe we’re longing to go back to caring about them (tax deductions, at least, will be important again whenever we file those 2019 taxes). But however we feel, we can’t deny that we are already changed.

That’s the thought that dawned for me today, and why I finally started this blog people have been urging me to write. I don’t necessarily have anything groundbreaking to say about the virus and what’s happening. Plenty of good journalists are chronicling it daily, even hourly. But I want to do this because I see myself and everyone I know changing. I see my country changing, and I want to set it down while it’s happening instead of afterward when so many of the details will be lost.

So let’s start with my second revelation, which is that not only are we changing, and no matter how much we may resist, this pandemic will change us deeply and permanently. Even if some of us will avoid getting the virus, none of us can avoid being changed by it. 

I know dark times lie ahead but I hope some of the changes will be positive. Inevitably we’ll look back on the arrival of the coronavirus with sorrow, probably anger, and maybe even rage, because every one of us is going to lose someone or something. And there will always be questions about how many of those losses were avoidable. But will we also look back and say, overall we’re the better now for it? Will we say, we wouldn’t have wished it on ourselves but it improved us —- as Americans? As humans, even?

It’s possible. But, of course, we can’t know yet.

As with all catastrophes, some individuals and groups are rising fast to the challenge, already growing from it, becoming heroes: we can see this in our health care workers, in some of our leaders (New York Governor Cuomo is starting to shine like a star), the people who deliver groceries to us, collect our garbage and recycling, the neighbors who call to ask if we need anything. I remember how caring and kind everybody was after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, some of the sacrifices made during the most devastating part of the AIDS crisis, and the unbelievable heroism of the 9/11 first responders. We know we have great people among us, many of whom look perfectly ordinary before disaster hits. 

Who among us will grow through this particular disaster? Does the kind of crisis it is matter? Because this one is different from every other till now, it seems to me. Those were limited to a specific group, which kept the panic contained and left the rest of the state, country or world available to help. This one is everywhere. Being rich or straight or a Midwesterner doesn’t protect you. There are probabilities (age, overall health, etc.) and you can take precautions, but there is no cure, and we’re all humans, so no one is safe. 

This crisis is occurring everywhere, so although it isn’t everywhere at once, in a real sense there’s also no running away. Because it too is on the move. 

People are so terrified right now that some appear to be under the influence of a drug. Have you noticed? Many are dazed and slow. Some are manic, stuffing their trunks with paper products and making frantic preparations. After an accident or trauma, people often go into shock and I think that’s what we’re seeing. They either under-react (“It’s ok if I go out and get exposed, I quit smoking years ago”) or over-react (“Let’s try this non-FDA-approved medication, intended for another condition, that the President mentioned during a press conference”). Either way, we’re thinking and doing things we wouldn’t have considered rational even last week. 

The picture is changing so fast and there is some really dangerous misinformation going around, either emanating directly from the President or mutating as it travels. But it’s surprising how clear the reality actually is. It’s a highly communicable virus, anyone can get it, anyone can transmit it; isolation, quarantine and social distancing can prevent spreading it; and we are not ready for it. 

I don’t think anyone in the world would have been ready for it emotionally, but practically and logistically, financially and medically, the whole world is behind the curve and the United States painfully so. Starting in December of last year, continuing in January and February, we stood watching while the Chinese died of it by the thousands. It started to head toward us like a Category 5 hurricane, stopping in Italy where it did horrifying damage, stopping in Iran and elsewhere. We stood watching. I guess we thought it wouldn’t come here, maybe, hopefully. I think that’s what I thought. I don’t remember now, because I too am pretty dazed. If it does come, we thought, it might not be as bad as China and Italy. Why did we think that? Oh, well, because we’re a rich nation. Because we have state-of-the-art-facilities. Or … well, maybe it just wouldn’t, we thought. Maybe, like a hurricane, it will dissipate over the ocean.

Whatever our political leanings, many of us can relate to the kind of wishful thinking that made Trump say on March 13,“One day, it’s like a miracle, it will just disappear.” We are the people who elected him. Even those who didn’t vote for him consent to live here under the authority of his administration. We tune into his now-daily press conferences. Many of us mocked or raged when he made that “miracle” comment, what was it, just 12 days ago. But most of us also continued to stand there.

When I think now about what I could have done to prepare. Me personally. I could’ve stocked my house better, gotten a separate freezer. I could have made sure all my outside business was taken care of, my work caught up. We all could’ve done those things. We could have asked our leaders, “what is our level of preparedness if this virus comes and is as bad as it is elsewhere, or worse? What can we do now to prepare, just in case?”

Some people did do that. But most of us didn’t, and many of us (as many who possibly can) are still standing there, watching the wind whip the trees and the waves rear up in the ocean. How attached to our denial we are. How we keep our heads down and stay within our routines, hit our productivity and timetable marks, comfort and satisfy ourselves in big and small ways, all day every day. It almost seems like we as a nation, maybe even as a species, lack the thinking apparatus to confront the awfulness of the storm that has now come across the ocean. That is now right in front of us. 

Today is March 25. I live in New Jersey where there are 4,402 confirmed cases of corona virus. The US now has 54,453 cases but no one takes that number as fact because there’s been so little testing, and it started so late, that we can only know approximately how many people have the virus. Whatever the real number is has to be higher. It’s easier to count how many people have died of it: 737 nationwide, 62 of them in New Jersey.

The storm has hit and we are getting wet and we can’t escape. So we huddle in our houses and a lot of us try to look at the upside. We’re warm and fed, today anyway. Spring is here, and it’s great not to have to go to work. Except the street outside is empty and no planes fly overhead and streams of people keep walking by with dogs and strollers like they’re headed to a fair. Something is off.

Me, I keep forgetting we’re in a crisis. When I wake up I don’t remember it for at least a full minute. Throughout the day I toggle between hyper-alertness, my new all-day news habit, and making what I hope are smart preparations for a crisis we now expect to last

months, not weeks. Then I check out. I bury myself in a book or movie and it blows away again, 'it' being the unthinkable. Probably it’s my poor stressed mind trying to protect itself. Maybe it’s even healthy — as a wise therapist I know once said, “What would we all do without our denial?” But I do find it a little nausea-inducing, the flipping back and forth.

This week, and it’s only Wednesday, I’ve gotten so many things done: read three books, written two short fiction pieces, today this blog; I’ve been on social media, calling or Face Timing friends and family, walking my dogs, cooking up a storm, watching movies and TV (The Crown was excellent last night!). I’ve been cleaning the whole house, sorting and reorganizing closets, painting my bathroom vanity … all things I don’t do enough of normally, or never get to at all. 

But underneath, we know this is no vacation and we can’t seem to really set that aside, no matter how we distract ourselves. We’re all sad and scared and full of dread. We dread the "peak of the curve” the experts keep telling us to expect, when the hospitals will be overwhelmed and the death toll will reach unimaginable heights. We keep watching TV, feel we have to keep watching because the situation keeps changing, but it only changes in one direction which is down, the maps of the world and nation getting more red to show the spread of the invader. There are the stronger and weaker among us but no one to turn to for comfort since we are all equally vulnerable — no one is a bystander this time, no one the designated driver. 

Alone in our houses, we have never been so connected.

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