COVID-19: Theater of the Absurd

Today is April 8, 2020. I am writing this as a continuing diary of the events of this COVID-19 season.

It is a beautiful spring day in Chester County, Pennsylvania. I am wearing shorts for the first time in forever (it isn’t that warm, I’m just rebellious about wintertime). Trees are budding, flowers are blooming, birds are chirping. The trees and flowers and birds don’t know about COVID-19.

As of today, 1.5 million people have been diagnosed with the virus, and 83,000 or so have died. In the United States, 400,000 people have been diagnosed, and almost 13,000 have died. Yesterday more than 33,000 more Americans were diagnosed, and 1,970 died.

And yet, there is hope. There are small signs in places like New York City and parts of Italy that the pandemic may be at its worst, and better days are ahead. The rates of new hospital admissions in both places is flattening. While fatalities in both places continue to climb, it is very positive news that new infections are not climbing as fast. That means (hopefully) that deaths will start to plateau in a week or two in those locations.

When I discuss this pandemic, I use the word “unprecedented”. That word works. There is no precedent for what we are experiencing. But yesterday, my daughter used the word “absurd”. I looked up some definitions of absurd, and I found irrational, illogical, and disordered. Those are true right now.

(By the way-please do not take offense at what I am about to share. I know that there is an awful amount of suffering in the world right now. What I am about to share are some of the elements of our lives in Chester County, during these times. Some of these are mundane. But they are not meant to diminish the seriousness of the situation. These are just my memories).

Our younger daughter came home from school on Spring Break a few weeks ago. While she was home on Spring Break, her University cancelled all in-person classes for the rest of the semester. She had to pivot to online classes. But all of her clothes were in her dorm room. They still are, a month later. The campus is locked down, and she cannot access her belongings. She has two or three changes of clothing, plus whatever she can borrow from her older sister.

We all use online tools (WebEx, Skype or Zoom) to interact with other people now at work and at school. Anyone who is of a certain age remembers the beginning of the Brady Bunch (the 9 squares) or Hollywood Squares (also 9 squares). That is what our online lives look like right now. We spend our days (if we are lucky enough to do so) staring into computer screens looking at other people staring into computer screens. We do this while our healthcare providers and first responders put their lives on the line everyday battling this invisible disease.

My family and I are absolutely blessed to be able to do work and school by looking into computer screens all day. Two weeks ago, 3.3 million Americans lost their jobs (an all-time record). Last week, 6.6 million more Americans lost their jobs (which doubled the previous weeks record). Tomorrow morning the Labor Department will announce this weeks numbers, and the suggestion is that there will be another record-breaking loss of jobs.

No one has had a haircut in a month. Barbershops and salons are considered “non-essential”, so there have been no haircuts or hair colorings in a while. People who dye their hair are letting their grey hair show for the first time in a while. When all of this is over, there are going to be a lot of people who need haircuts.

I haven’t driven my car in three weeks, and I haven’t spent any cash in at least four weeks. As recently as January, I was working a job where I was driving 600 miles a week. I was filling my car with gas 2-3 times a week. I figure I was spending about $150 a week on gas, tolls, and wear and tear. Now the only time I move my car is to take our trash cans out to the curb on Monday night.

There is no retail business right now, unless that retail business is considered “essential”. Food stores are open, and so are pharmacies and gas stations. But everything else is closed. Restaurants are only open if they provide take-out or delivery.

Social activities and get togethers have stopped, at least in my world. I never had a really busy schedule, but now there is nothing. Our family used to get together every couple of months to celebrate birthdays. My wife and I would go out to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and any special occasion we could think of. Not now. Theresa’s birthday is on Saturday, and we are staying home. We will try to cook a special dinner, and celebrate the fact that we are together, healthy and safe. This year, that will be enough.

There is almost no travel going on right now. I look up at the sky every time I see an airplane. I remember doing the same thing after 9/11. There is almost no air travel right now. There are almost no cars driving on my street, and I don’t hear the regional train line in the distance anymore when I walk my dog.

We made face masks the other day, out of bandannas and hair ties. I haven’t used one in public yet, because I haven’t gone out in public in a month. We don’t shake hands or hug anymore. We keep “social distancing” (at least six feet apart), and many of us have gone into total isolation. The only people I have been physically close to in the last month are my immediate family.

As a society, we have run out (or are running out) of some basic items, like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, hand soap, tissues, paper towels, and other cleaning supplies. Even worse, we have run out (or are running out) of vitally important gear for healthcare, like personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, ICU beds, and tests and processing capacity for COVID-19. The real heroes of this pandemic are the healthcare workers and first responders who risk their lives every day by doing their jobs.

I used to listen to stories from my grandparents about rationing during the Great Depression and World War II. I listened to their stories of hardship and deprivation. My story is not nearly as bad as theirs, and my story is not nearly as bad as some of those people I know.

But this is a time of hardship and deprivation for many. I honor their sacrifice, and I pray for our speedy recovery, for each and every one of us.


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