If you were sick and you finally found a medicine that kept your illness under control, would you stop taking it as soon as it started to work?
That’s the trap we’re in right now. All this social distancing and hand washing appears to be slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Slowing, but not stopping, of course. Even if 80% of us are locked in our closets 24 hours per day, somebody has to deliver the toilet paper.
All the people who drive the trucks and treat the patients and stock the shelves and fix the plumbing are still on the job. Some are driven by their commitment to the greater good, some cannot afford to miss a paycheck, and others are simply certain it won’t happen to them. It will, though, at least to some of them, and the outbreak will continue.
The virus will spread more slowly if they interact with fewer people, of course. If we go back to our regularly scheduled programming, we’ll just reboot the plague.
Maybe warmer weather will slow the spread, at least until the fall. Maybe it will turn out that drinking a gallon of Diet Rite each day really does work. Maybe a million old people will offer to die in order to save the economy. Maybe.
Right now, the stock market is orgasmic as the adult in the room predicts a peak, but a peak is not a trough and it is not an end date. When is it safe to come out to play, and how will we know?
Even as I write this, I realize that the whole situation looks very different in different parts of the country, even in different neighborhoods. Immigration issues look different in Boise than in El Paso. Gun control has a very different value proposition in Chicago than in Casper. The plague probably looks like no big deal in most rural areas, while it's a clear and present danger in densely populated cities. In fact, the situation looks different in downtown Chicago than in many of our suburbs.
Let’s assume, though, that we were and are taking this seriously. Let’s assume that we’ve seen enough deaths and enough hot spots that we all agree there is a threat. Even if we believe the threat is less significant in our corner of the world, it is real.
Now what? How do we prepare for life with a highly communicable disease that has no proven treatments and no vaccine? When is it safe to open the diner, hug the grandkids and stop washing our damned hands. (Honestly, I feel like Lady Macbeth, but not quite as guilty.)
It’s sunny and almost 70 in Chicago today, the perfect day to invite the neighbors over for a barbecue. Too soon, though. We have to wait until…what?
Now that we’ve decided this is a war, I guess I’m a war correspondent. That makes all of these battlefield updates much more dramatic, including…
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We treat our protectors like dirt.
This is nothing new, of course. We’ve been doing it for decades with our military. Politicians will bleat about their support for our volunteers in uniform, but they reserve their real love, and budget dollars, for defense contractors. When it comes to the people who write us a blank check that’s payable with their lives, not so much. Whether it’s health care or survivor benefits or job training and placement, “we support our troops” in word more than deed every day.
It should be no surprise, then, that we’re unmoved by a similar blank check from millions of front-line workers who are risking everything to protect us from the current pandemic. That includes the people who always put our welfare ahead of their own: nurses, ER teams, hospital staffs, first responders and our military. Added to the list this time are the grocery clerks, delivery drivers, warehouse workers, and others who form the barrier between infection and the rest of us.
Doctors and nurses who cannot obtain face masks continue to treat Covid 19 patients, putting their own lives at risk. Firefighters and paramedics still run toward the danger, ill-equipped for the added threat of infection. The people who are always on the front line are here, still, taking the risks and waiting for us to make good on our promise of support.
Help is coming, finally, largely in the form of American ingenuity. Local volunteers are finding and collecting face masks and making new ones. Businesses are re-purposing equipment and facilities to deliver gear to keep our protectors safe. With only a minimal impact from the federal level, so far, individuals and businesses are coming to the rescue.
This is, truly, our Dunkirk.
And what about our other protectors? Who takes care of the driver who drops off groceries to the woman who is quarantined for a reason? Who looks out for the warehouse worker who cannot practice “social distancing” while scrambling to deliver our manicure kits and yoga mats? How do we support the grocery cashier who faces 100-200 people each day from an unsafe distance?
Like our military, like our nurses, like our firefighters, all of these workers are writing us a blank check. They are taking on the added risk, including the risk of their own illness or death, in order to keep the rest of us safe at home.
Following our longstanding tradition, we are treating them like dirt. Many of these clerks and delivery people are gig workers or part-time employees. They have no health care, no sick days, and no resources to fall back on if their blank check gets cashed. Yes, the federal bailout package will provide some support for many of these people if they lose their jobs or contract Covid 19, but they are still working without a net until help arrives. They continue to be more at-risk and less compensated than many of us, especially delivery drivers who work mostly for tips.
I suspect that most of us would bypass the opportunity to come in contact with hundreds of possibly infected people each day, five or six days per week, even if we had some protective gear available. Even more of us would take a pass if we were asked to take that risk without protective gear, and still more would reject the deal if we were asked to do the work for tips. Incredibly, millions of our fellow citizens are accepting that deal, writing the blank check, and creating a protective shield between us and the pandemic.
At the least, we can tip them heavily. Beyond that, we can put pressure on their employers, and on our institutions, to be more aggressive in providing supplies. Most of all, we can recognize and truly reward the underpaid individuals who have volunteered to take our place on the front lines.
Who knows? If we learn how to treat our protectors like the heroes they are, maybe we can finally figure out how to do right by our veterans.
Most weeks, we reserve this space for a suggestion that you subscribe to Dad Writes. This week, we're asking that you find a local fundraising site and make a donation to help our fellow citizens who are taking the risks and paying the price on our behalf. Federal support isn't coming for a while and they need our help yesterday. Thanks much.
So, how do you want to be changed by this whole thing?
Whether we’re working overtime at one of those absolutely-essential jobs that got no respect three weeks ago or we’re sheltering in place at a vacation home, all of us will be different people when it’s over. How different? That’s a choice we get to make for ourselves.
Whether we’re deeply engaged in triage or watching securely from the sidelines, each of us is adapting to new limits on travel, entertainment, social connections, medical services, finances and, most troubling of all, access to toilet paper. The onslaught of yet another “new normal” will influence how we see the economy, politics, and our fellow citizens, along with our own mortality…and morality.
We’re wearing the ruby slippers, though. We get to decide whether we’ll be stronger or weaker, at peace or troubled, smarter or more vulnerable. For those of us who aren’t working three jobs, this crisis offers an unusual luxury of time to rethink, to reconsider, to reorder our lives.
One of my favorite clients had a great response to painful setbacks that applies to our situation today. “We’ve paid the tuition,” he’d say. “Now let’s make sure we get the benefits of our education.” So far, we’ve all been paying a hefty tuition. What comes next is up to us.
What was it we intended to do if we ever had the time? Were we determined to get back in touch with now-distant friends? Were we going to make amends for a long-ago hurt? Did we plan to review all those questionable memes we shared and reconsider our choices? Millions of us have that time today, with nothing but inertia to stop us.
Could we rethink our habits and come up with a better pattern for the people we want to be and the lives we want to live? Might we look back at financial decisions and reconsider the priorities that our spending reveals? Will we remember who we wanted to be when we grew up and commit ourselves anew to pursuing that goal?
Perversely, time is running out as we complete the first fortnight of our social isolation extravaganza. We’ve surfed the web and played solitaire for days, passing up the quiet opportunity to reshape our decisions and ourselves. We’ve been missing out on our chance to decide, explicitly, how we will evolve.
None of us knows when our world will return to normal, but that date is absolutely two weeks closer than when we started this gig. As one of my friends likes to say, time only moves in one direction.
So, how do you want to be changed by this whole thing?
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A friend of mine insisted several few days ago that she would not be getting the coronavirus. She was careful and she didn’t know any people who had been to China, plus a few other vague reasons, but the gist of it was that this doesn’t happen to people like her.
She’s wrong, of course. Viruses, like money, don’t care who holds them or what they believe. Even if we wash our hands 20 times per day, we could still end up among the statistics three weeks hence.
More relevant, this whole thing isn’t about my friend, or about me. Neither of us is likely to die from coronavirus, but we aren’t taking precautions for ourselves.
The point of slowing a disease is to protect the most vulnerable, including people we know and millions we will never meet. We demonstrate our own humanity, or decency, by accepting some inconvenience on behalf of others.
Unfortunately, we’ve been here before. When AIDS began its relentless journey across the globe in the 1980s, it was easy for people to say it was no big deal, because they weren’t gay and they didn’t need a transfusion, and, and, and...
Of course, it turned out that everyone had a gay friend or a gay relative or a gay coworker, whether they lived in a large city or a rural town. More than 650,000 Americans have died from that scourge, which means more than 60 million people in the United States knew an AIDS victim personally.
At first, though, it was simple and comforting to say, “It’s not about me.” When our humanity and compassion were put to the test, we flunked.
A few months into the newest pandemic, we’re not doing much better. Online and IRL, the conversation is heavily political, the purveyors of conspiracy theories are making a ton of money from click bait, and the missing guest, again, is compassion for the victims.
Every day, I get another email or text or shared post about the number of people who die from seasonal flu or guns or obesity or smoking. The numbers from the other causes are larger, at least so far, which somehow suggests the current virus is no big deal.
It is a big deal, though, to the people who succumb and to their survivors. If nothing else, the rest of us could consider them for a moment as something more than a talking point. Maybe I am overly sensitive because I have many friends in the at-risk segment of the population, or maybe I’m recognizing that mankind is my business.
Perhaps all the event cancellations will work to limit the virus’s impact in the United States. Perhaps the federal government will catch up from its slow response to the pandemic. Perhaps the virus will be conquered when another 50 million Americans finally agree to wash their damned hands.
Whatever the case, we might want to consider our own vulnerability in newly traveled territory. It’s much easier to be compassionate if we acknowledge that we, too, might be among the victims. Even if we aren’t the victims, though, a bit of human decency goes a long way.
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We demanded this response, held Congressional hearings to legislate it, replaced the leaders who ignored the warning signs, and vowed to pay any price to ensure that it never happens again. If it saves just one life, we insisted, it will be worth it.
Not this crisis, of course. CV19 is still too fresh. But we have made the same urgent demand after every other crisis in our lifetimes.
"Why didn’t they see 9/11 coming and block the hijackers?"
"Why didn’t they recognize the financial bubble and avert the 2008 collapse?"
"Why didn’t they foresee a hurricane that floods New Orleans?"
"Why didn’t they identify the dangers of vaping before so many people died?"
After the fact, we always insist on the same answers. Who was asleep at the switch, whose job was it to recognize the gathering storm, what systems failed to respond effectively, and whom should we blame for the destruction that ensued?
It’s different this time, isn’t it? This time, we’re recognizing the threat and responding quickly. This time, we’re assessing the potential damage and racing to stop it, or at least slow it down. This time, state and local governments, international agencies and the private sector saw the tsunami headed our way and sounded the alarms. Eventually, even the federal government joined in the response.
This is what it looks like when we recognize the threat and take aggressive steps to avert a crisis. If all the social distancing and self-quarantines have their intended effect, the virus will move slowly and we will lose fewer souls than if we proceed without change.
It will be hard to see the difference, though. If 200,000 or 500,000 or 1,000,000 people die from an unchecked pandemic, we’ll absolutely see the impact. If those people live because we act to protect them, the benefit will be invisible. What will be absolutely clear is the price we pay, financially and socially, to save our fellow Americans.
It’s a price we insisted we would pay, or at least claimed we would pay after the last failure of response.
“We must guarantee this never happens again,” we said.
“If it saves just one life, it’s worth it,” we said.
“We have to be better at responding to these crises before they get out of control,” we said.
We know how damaging a contagion can be, both in terms of lost lives and economic disruption, and it's important to recognize that we'll be absorbing the economic damage either way. If we act to contain the spread, businesses shut down and people lose their livelihoods. If we don’t, untold numbers of people die and the economy trembles from their departure. There is, quite simply, no realistic projection that doesn’t include economic disruption.
Right now, we’re focused on the path that reduces loss of life. We’re biting the bullet to take the hit now so that we can reduce the total damage over the longer term. This is the response we have demanded after every other crisis. Painfully, but rightly, it’s the response we’ve demanded today.
Who writes this stuff?
Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.