Thoughts From a Distance is a series of daily ruminations written while self-quarantined during the 2019-2020 COVID-19 pandemic. In order to mitigate “corrections” from hindsight, each day’s thoughts are posted on the following weekday with minimal editing.
13 March 2020
History from the Inside
Yesterday, the 12th of March 2020, will remain in my memory as the day Americans realized their lives were about to change. The contingencies of history always seem to beggar belief from distant generations. It seems improbable that two of the largest religions in the modern world arose from the backwaters of Roman Judea and tribal Arabia—but only in retrospect is it clear these particular movements, out of all of their competition through the ages, would emerge ascendant.
If future historians and epidemiologists look with amused confusion on the American chapter of the coronavirus epidemic, they should rest assured that if it did not begin with these peculiar set of circumstances, it would have begun with another set equally arbitrary. As it is, the major morning news on the day the American public began to wake up were the cancellation of the National Basketball Association (NBA) season and the diagnosis of beloved actor Tom Hanks with the virus. The educated perhaps will scoff that this sea change was not ushered in by reasoning or government decree. But those who are blessed (and perhaps cursed) with analytical minds so often forget they belong to a vocal minority; motivation by abstraction is the exception rather than the rule.
I watched, while working as a substitute teacher in a special education classroom, the aides begin the day with jokes and dismissals about the crisis, regurgitated naïve talking points. By lunch, they were worriedly discussing whether they would be paid in the event of school closures.
A fraction of the people in the United States understood the magnitude of what was going to happen. These people coalesced through social media platforms such as Twitter. Those fortunate enough to be connected to the right nodes—my high-value nodes included Nassim Taleb (@nntaleb), Joe Norman (@normonics), Luca Dellanna (@DellAnnaLuca), and Yaneer Bar-Yam (@yaneerbaryam) —gained awareness of information too nuanced and rapidly evolving to make it through any mainstream journo-tainment vector. We saw the first warnings based on the precautionary principle, followed by further warnings based off the developing spread and containment attempts in China, South Korea, and Italy. When the medical system in Italy began to break under the load, we were connected to accounts confirming the risk of secondary and tertiary effects—and how quickly, with inadequate measures, things could fall apart.
Some of us became vocal agents in a spreading counter-virus; I began to argue with friends, coworkers, and relatives who remained unconvinced of the dangers, perhaps convincing a few. If we were lucky, one of those we’d convinced would start spreading word within their social circles. Case in point: I caught my mother on the phone with her brother, working to debunk the “less dangerous than flu” fallacy. I suspect our counter-virus is less contagious than our adversary, but thanks to social media we had less friction across our transmission vectors. Time will tell whether our spread was rapid enough to make a difference.
In these opening days, when there still appears to be time to flit away on such nonsense, there has been talk about the dangers of the “infodemic”. While the suggestion that misinformation about the pandemic will spread through social media is real, the cure is far worse than the disease. The “infodemic” perspective does not acknowledge the potential positive effects that can come out of a distributed communications system, such as the precautionary counter-virus. I cannot imagine how much further behind our country’s response would be if we had to rely solely on mainstream media outlets and official channels.
Vindication Feels Better with a Black Eye
On the 12th of March I arrived for work at a Southern California high school, determined to assess the staff and administration’s preparedness for the coming crisis. There was also a staff stage performance (for charity purposes) scheduled for the following week I intended to get cancelled or postponed (I guaranteed my resolve by refusing to learn my lines).
The consensus was confusion. Teachers had no directives on distance learning—the first template I saw was from a diligent coworker who developed it independently. District workmen were rapidly installing new hand sanitizer stations, yet I was sure the school would be closed by Monday. Most dishearteningly, a friend who worked there had just returned from a two-week conference in Switzerland (with a sightseeing stopover in France), just making it past the European travel ban. She claimed to have not been screened upon her arrival and walked over to the school’s front office—seemingly as an afterthought—to see if they had any concerns about her returning to the classroom. She seemed a little hurt when I suggested she should be self-quarantining; evidently the virus “panic” had been the butt of frequent ridicule from the conference attendees.
I called out of work today, Friday the 13th, and told my employer I would not be returning next week either. By the end of the day, every district in the county had shuttered its schools.
While the risk of community exposure for an additional day was non-trivial—especially given I live with a high-risk individual—the tangible payoff from my decision was aligning my beliefs and actions. I knew intellectually schools needed to close as quickly as possible, the upside of a few extra days of class was dwarfed by the potential downside of community spread. But my grim confidence gained whatever savor it could from the day’s wages I forfeited. Hunger may be the best sauce, but action is the only sauce for one’s ideas and values.
I have felt a tension and sharpness within me these past days. I can feel it clearly in my chest as I have laid in bed each night. It isn’t panic, or fright. It is the nervousness of the actor waiting for the thunder of hands, great gouts of stage light, the trigger of dialogue.