Sunday, March 22, 2020

Well, that escalated quickly

Pictured: Three strains of the novel coronavirus taunting a medical researcher

When I was in high school, we learned about exponential growth. As an artist and visual learner, I still remember what an exponential growth curve looks like to this day, based on its shape, even without readily remembering the formulas I used to input into my graphing calculator to create that shape. The shape of an exponential curve is a beautiful sight if it's charting how much money you'll make, but a terrifying image if it's tracking the spread of a still-mutating virus. It's a curve that starts out kind of flat at first, then escalates quickly.

When I was in high school, we studied pandemics. We learned about bubonic plague, hantavirus, and Ebola. We watched And The Band Played On and Outbreak. I've been thinking about that class a lot lately. Looking back, I now see that it was one of the most important classes I took. Because of that class, when scientists said we were due for another pandemic, I believed them. When the novel coronavirus emerged, I was not surprised.

Surprisingly, I don't feel panic. I feel like the existential dread I've felt for so much of my adult life is finally justified. If you're just starting to feel that way for the first time, welcome to your new uneasy reality.

I think the last time I stayed home this many days in a row was when I had pneumonia. Now I'm staying home to avoid getting pneumonia. At first, I had told myself that I wasn't that concerned about catching it. But now that I know more about what the virus can do, I feel differently. The kind I had before was just in one lung and could be knocked out with a Z-Pak. COVID-19 pneumonia is considered "mild" when you don't need to be hospitalized with a ventilator and a lot of people get it in both lungs. Not exactly a repeat of my peaceful convalescence watching Netflix in bed, free from that weird sensation in my lung, no longer feverish, just really, really tired. And unlike the pneumonia I had before, COVID-19 might cause permanent lung damage. (Though with it being a new disease, doctors still need time to see if the damage is truly permanent.)

Out of an abundance of caution, I urged my parents to drive 18 hours to my late uncle's funeral instead of flying. Out of an abundance of caution, when we returned from the funeral, I decided to drive to work and pay $17 to park (and that's with validation!) just to avoid crowds on public transportation. Out of an abundance of caution, I canceled my March open studio. Out of an abundance of caution, I decided not to do anything for my birthday the next day. Instead, I celebrated with a double feature of Contagion and Outbreak. And that was after spending Saturday afternoon gathering supplies. I stocked up on food, enough to last at least 2 weeks, and brought art and craft supplies home from my studio and my storage unit. I took the call for social distancing very seriously.

I took a break from social distancing to do something very important. (Before anyone accuses me of hoarding medical supplies, the mask is from my stash I kept at the studio for working with powdered pigments.)

*Discarded after this photo: the gloves, the mask, and the "I voted" wristband
*Disinfected after this photo: my phone
*Set aside to be laundered after this photo: my bonnet and denim jumpsuit
*Not shown in this photo: the plastic shoes I wore because they can be disinfected

I'm including this because the current crisis is absolutely political. It became political because of the way our so-called "president" chose to ignore it and tell everybody it was a hoax. And even before that, when he got rid of the agencies and scientists working for them who could have advised him on how to prevent the crisis from getting to this point in the first place. It also reveals the importance of local elections and politicians. I have been very pleasantly surprised by my governor's leadership on this. It's nice to know Illinois governors can do something besides go to prison.

At the same time, this pandemic is revealing the gaping holes in our social safety net. All last week in Chicago there was a battle over keeping our public libraries open because they are de facto homeless shelters, but librarians were understandably worried about getting exposed to the virus. Our health department and many others were telling people to work from home, call in sick, and avoid public transportation when there are so many employers that are hostile to the idea of remote work and paid sick leave, that don't pay employees enough to afford their own cars, or to park them in a garage near their offices. And of course there are many jobs that can't be done remotely. Either those workers must put themselves in harm's way or stay home and not get paid at all. And some have no choice after "non-essential" businesses are shut down by local authorities.

I've been glad to see lawmakers proposing various types of stimulus packages, but I think they should give everyone way more than $1000 or $2000 a month. It's not just lost wages. It's emotional distress and pain and suffering. It's like a class action lawsuit settlement. Any uncertainty people may feel is justifiable because of the utter incompetence of the current administration. Their inaction is the reason why we have to take such extreme measures to protect ourselves in the first place. Their pathetic efforts at informing the public through a series of press conferences in which they share half-baked notions and contradicting information have created the perfect environment for ridiculous conspiracy theories to flourish, not unlike a virus in an incubator. And their inadequate reaction to the inevitable economic crisis so far—throwing money at financial institutions—has been a very expensive non-solution. Meanwhile, millions of citizens are left in the lurch.

The only reason I was able to stock up on food was that my tax refund just arrived. I know there are so many others with little to no safety net, and many like me with most of their money tied up in retirement funds that plummeted. Some are creative entrepreneurs like me with money tied up in their own small businesses. A rent strike is utterly absurd for those of us with commercial leases.

Last month, I spent a lot of money I didn't have to have a special open studio for Valentine's Day. And honestly I was disappointed that the turnout wasn't what I expected because of the weather, and I didn't even break even. But now I'm glad I went all out because who knows when I will be able to have events again? At least I have good memories. And hopefully once this passes, people will be eager to get out of their homes and go see some art for a change! Few people came to my last open studio because it was cold outside. Now that excuse seems laughable. Now that we are being told to avoid going out and being around other people, I bet a lot of people regret not going out more.

Just like that, in a matter of weeks, American culture as we know it has been significantly altered. Instead of our parents worrying about what will happen to us when we leave our homes, we are now trying to make sure that our parents are staying home for their own safety.  When I watch TV now, it's so weird to see movies or even commercials with people just hanging out in public together, not worrying about spreading germs to each other. The things that I am good at seem frivolous and unimportant now. I doubt that anyone will purchase art or interior design services at a time like this. The YA Book Fest where I was going to be a panelist and sell books has been postponed indefinitely. The closure of Navy Pier will delay the workshops I was going to be teaching at the Children's Museum. So much for the extra money I had hoped to make this year.

And all the events I was looking forward to attending were large events. In addition to the Inspired Home Show getting canceled for this year, the Spring One of a Kind Show isn't going to happen, and neither is NeoCon. I was hoping to get a table at this year's American Library Association conference because it's in Chicago this year, but it might get canceled, too. And who knows what will happen with SOFA and EXPO in the fall. I don't know what I will even use my vacation days for now.

But at least for now, thank God, I still have a job. I am very thankful that my day job will allow all of us to work from home. I hope that there will be some sort of assistance for freelancers and gig economy workers. I hate that so many of the financial solutions proposed by our lawmakers do nothing to address their specific needs. Not everyone's job loss will be remedied by traditional unemployment benefits. Plus, I know from bitter experience that those unemployment benefits don't replace 100% of your lost income, and can have ridiculous strings attached. (Like telling laid-off workers who may have been in school at the same time they were working that they aren't allowed to be in school while receiving benefits, and forcing them to lie about it in order to get the money they paid into the system.)

There is a weird anomie about this current era. The rules have changed overnight, if there are still rules anymore. The bland moral platitudes I see people sharing on social media seem even more hollow now than they did after the 2016 election. I feel kind of like I did in its immediate aftermath. I also feel an echo of what I felt after 9/11, knowing in the depths of my soul that nothing will ever be the same again.

If we look to the past, we can see the epidemics and pandemics I studied in high school. And if we look to fiction, whether in books, plays, TV, or movies, we see the impact of contagious illnesses on individuals and society. In "The Masque of the Red Death," Edgar Allan Poe tells a story about an illness much like COVID-19 in that it doesn't care how wealthy or powerful its host may be.

"The Masque of the Red Death" illustration by Harry Clarke

Consider "Carrier," one of my favorite episodes of my favorite police drama, Naked City. It's the story of a young woman in 1962 New York who couldn't take the isolation of quarantine anymore.

This story was probably loosely based on the case of "Typhoid Mary," whose real name was Mary Mallon and who I feel bad about calling by that moniker of infamy now that I've read more about her life in this book. This 2 part episode of Powerhouse, an educational kids' show from the 80s that really scared me when I saw it, also seems to be inspired by her story:

As an adult, knowing what I now know about how the food service industry works, I think about  how the fault lies not with the cook, but with the system that would have a cook go to work despite having the Red Eye Virus because she can't afford to see a doctor or take time off to recuperate. But contagious illnesses lead us to "other" infected people and see them as some kind of biological weapon instead of as fellow human beings.

Now our ill-equipped leaders talk about the struggle to deal with this pandemic like it's a war. I feel like war is the only metaphor the powerful in this country understand. I see this whole situation as a reckoning. We wouldn't be in this mess if we were more prepared. We wouldn't be in this mess if we actually helped people who need help. We wouldn't me in this mess if corporations all over the world weren't so invested in deforestation. We wouldn't be in this mess if we treated healthcare as a fundamental human right instead of a profit center and a luxury. I will pause here to share a song that I am dedicating to everyone in Washington who is profiting from death and misery today:

Knowing how this country is, with an attention span of a gnat and the memory of a goldfish, with too many people lacking in good judgement, including the majority of the current administration, as much as this crisis has revealed how desperately things need to change, I doubt much will change after this. America is too arrogant. What does America know about humility and compassion? People are dying of this virus, and the president is only capable of blaming it all on China. Senators were warned in advance, and all they did was engage in insider trading. The virus can be spread by carriers without symptoms, and the elderly and immunocompromised are at great risk of dying if they get COVID-19, yet some churches were still trying to pack the pews with people last Sunday. I wish more churches would compare this pandemic to a plague sent by God to teach people a lesson instead of engaging in their usual spiritual bypassing. And when people learn nothing from a crisis, or take advantage of it to solidify their power, what comes next is disastrous.

What disaster movie is this? Contagion or Outbreak or 28 Days Later, or The Day After Tomorrow? Which dystopian story is our current situation the prequel to?  Idiocracy or The Handmaid's Tale or 12 Monkeys or The Hunger Games or 1984 or Fahrenheit 451?

Somebody build a time machine so we can go back and fix this. This is the stupidest apocalypse that I've ever seen.

Now, some resources. First, I have an offer. I can't afford to make any financial donations right now but I can offer this:

If anyone needs fabric to make masks, let me know. My fabric stash is available to you.

Next, some really good articles. I have been sharing these on social media not because I am panicking but because so many people I know on Facebook have nothing to contribute but weird conspiracy theories and meaningless inspirational phrases. There are a lot, so I have sorted them by subject area:

Humanities and Social Sciences

Against the coronavirus as metaphor

Coronavirus Shows us America is Broken

The Coronavirus Is Putting The Failings of Ableism and Individualism on Full Display

Lessons from a virus: The Political is Personal and The Empire is Crumbling

The Virus and Capitalism


Copper kills coronavirus. Why aren't our surfaces covered in it?

Health and Science

Donald Trump Menace to Public Health

How You Should Get Food During the Pandemic


Close-up photo exposes the ridiculous edit Trump had in his coronavirus remarks

We Were Warned

Good News 
(look for the helpers, as Mr. Rogers said)

TV Shows Donate Hospital Supplies

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