Stop Wondering When It All Ends

Non-social distancing in Rio de Janeiro. (Flickr/Dylan Passmore)

“What if we have the Stephensens over for drinks in back? They’re pretty careful. It should be safe.”

“Look, we’re not going to close that account in Tulsa unless you get on a plane and visit them at the factory. We need that business, so either you go and earn a commission, or I go and you stop doing sales work.”

“Come on, man. It’s a pool. There’s going to be cute girls there. Do you really want to just stay at home?”

“This letter is to inform you that all children will be graded on both assignments and classwork. Failure to attend classes under any circumstances will result in a poor grade.”

“What’s the harm? It’s a bar. It’ll be fine.”

These are the scenarios that worry me the most. Most of America (I’m looking at you Florida, Iowa, and South Dakota), has undergone a great national quarantine, and it seems like we’re beginning to have an impact on Covid-19’s spread. While there are Trump-inspired crazies demanding we “open the economy”, like it’s some kind of switch you flip, over 80% of America still believes we need to keep social distancing.

Thank goodness for that.

I’m noticing things: What we say, is not exactly what we do.

Neighbors who quietly have guests over “at a distance.” Groups of people gathering together in the park. Sometimes for tennis, or catch. Or a sneaky basketball game in the alley. 

My favorite new thing is sideways suggestions from parents that they might allow their kids to play with kids of other families they trust, in the same manner younger couples might suggest wife swapping.

I’m not judging. I want to get together with friends too! Yesterday, I was texting a friend that I desperately want to go somewhere where there’s other people around. Just going inside a busy hot dog stand would be glorious. Imagine! The steam, the mustard smell, the grilled onions, the encased meats!

But I’m so damn afraid of all of you. I’m terrified that three days ago you contracted Coronavirus and haven’t had enough time to present symptoms, but you’re already infectious. Can you assure me that’s not the case?

For weeks my wife and I had been laboring under the assumption that maybe she was infected. She’s been coughing steadily with nightly aches. And then Thursday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Prizker announced anyone can get a test. So on Friday she went to an urgent care and got it done.

The results came back negative, so they prescribed her antibiotics. And now we’re not afraid of infecting anyone.

But have you or your partner been tested ever since you had that cough, or regular headache, or nightly body ache? Sure, you’re fine most of the day, but maybe you are just one of those asymptomatic people. Why would you be so different?

We’re getting comfortable now. And while we might think the person at the grocery store might get us sick, the Stephensons won’t. Or that cute girl and her friends at the pool. Or your friends at the bar. Worse yet, some local government officials might think that Covid is just a disease for big cities, so schools can open and business can go on like they used to, and everything will be fine, because, “We know people around here,” as they like to say in small-ish towns.

The solution is testing. Lots of it. But, nationally, we’re barely at the ability to do a million tests a week, and according to just about every plan for “reopening America”, we need at least two million a week, likely much more. Because everyone needs to get tested, and retested if they’re ever in contact with another infected person. 

Until we have a vaccine, or at least a very effective treatment, we need to be constantly finding every infected person immediately, and then tracking every person who had contact with those infected people.

It seems that getting the platforms to conduct millions of tests a week will take time, months even. We have to build lots more testing machines. We have to build factories that will make many, many more plastic pipettes, more swabs. (It turns out the global supply line is limited for those cheap, but important things.)

It’s going to take much longer than anyone anticipated before we’re able to stop social distancing. Maybe as long as September.

I believe we’re going to get through this, but the scarring is going to be permanent. My son, and millions of other kids, will have a summer of childhood where he didn’t play outside with dozens of kids. Everyone in school of some kind will lose half a year of education. Communal gatherings of all kinds will be stunted. No sports, concerts, ComiCon, awards banquets. So much less togetherness. 

When considering all that, it is so easy to be sad. To become depressed. I know I am. Others I know have a constant rage, or just disconnect with the world and blank out. We are all struggling, barely exhibiting our best sides, as the reality of the pandemic constantly envelopes us.

And here, I am struggling to be more like Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking American to be taken prisoner in the Vietnam War, tortured dozens of times. Author Jim Collins interviewed him about his experience:

I asked him who didn’t make it out of those systemic circumstances as well as he had.

He said, “Oh, it’s easy. I can tell you who didn’t make it out. It was the optimists.”

And I said, “I’m really confused, Admiral Stockdale.”  

He said, “The optimists. Yes. They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart.” Then he grabbed me by the shoulders and he said, “This is what I learned from those years in the prison camp, where all those constraints just were oppressive. You must never ever ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are. We’re not getting out of here by Christmas.”