Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Life in Lockdown

“As well-armed as the Parliamentary forces were, their deadliest weapon may have been the one they brought inadvertently. People in the town were now dying of a plague that had traveled with the English. Memories were all too fresh of the 1649 plague that had killed well over 3,000.”
   —Excerpt from the 2019 novel The Curse of Septimus Bridge
The above quote is a handy reminder that 1) plagues, endemics and pandemics have always been with us and 2) I actually wrote a novel called The Curse of Septimus Bridge. (For more information on that, as well as an update on my upcoming novel, see my book blog.)

History tells us that armies, explorers, conquistadores, holidaymakers and business travelers have, at various points in time, have helped spread virulent diseases from one territory to another. What is amazing is that, in this age of globalism and cheap-and-easy international travel, such outbreaks do not happen more often. Instead we appear to be going through a once-in-a-century phenomenon with the current crisis evoking mostly recollections of the 1918-1920 so-called Spanish flu pandemic.

That flu is estimated to have infected a third of the world’s population and killed, in the most liberal guesses, as many as 100 million. Then the world was much more defenseless than now. The ventilator would not be invented until several years later, and flu vaccines were decades away.

As the experts remind us, Covid-18 is not an influenza strain and so does not behave like one. That is what makes it scary. We are only learning as time goes on exactly how it behaves and just how dangerous it truly is.

There are signs of optimism if you want to look for them. For those of us in the majority who (as far as we know anyway) have not experienced it, the danger is more theoretical than real. For those who have had a mild or even asymptomatic case, the main concern is for others rather than for oneself. Perhaps the most optimistic sign is that many people’s nerves have relaxed enough that they have already moved past the old-wartime-style-let’s-all-pull-together mentality right to using the crisis as one more political football. I don’t spend much time listening to the White House daily briefings, but based on what I have heard they seem to contain a lot of useful and/or interesting information from government and health officials. When it comes to cable news, the president and his twitter account, though, he and the press corps seem more than content to just carry on the same noisy and distracting game in which they have engaged since the 2016 election.

Here in Ireland the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit still mostly prevails. A lot of that has to do with the fact that news coverage here is led by a dominant state broadcaster that has little space for unsanctioned views or contrarian attitudes at a time like this. There is much collective self-back-patting at the Irish response, frequently drawing meaningless, self-flattering comparisons to other (much larger) countries, particular the UK and the US.

Having said that, there is a growing criticism, or at least collective regret, that the authorities were blindsided by the number of fatalities in nursing homes. With the benefit of hindsight it now seems clear that, while citizens in general were told to hunker down in their homes, not enough attention was given to the vulnerable elder population residing in clusters. This is probably because the planners were watching what was going on hotspots like China and Italy where living and family arrangements are more traditional than here. Ireland has become more like America in that the old folks are more likely to be sent off to a home.

For the average news consumer it is difficult to gauge exactly how bad things are in general. On one hand we see disturbing images of pine coffins stacked on top of each other in a trench on New York’s Hart Island as well as similar photos from Spain and Italy. On the other hand, there is the article in today’s Wall Street Journal about results of hundreds of blood tests taken in Los Angeles. Echoing similar stories from Europe, the emerging picture is that a lot more people than expected have antibodies for Covid-19, suggesting the rate of serious illness and fatalities among those exposed is actually quite a bit lower than previously thought.

I guess that’s a perverse kind of optimism. Another example is the fact that some people are emboldened to go out—against health expert advice—and protest restrictions imposed by authorities. People have marched or found other ways of protesting in such far-flung places as Michigan, Washington, Texas, France, Germany, India and Chile. Others have more cautiously done their protesting online. These are clearly signs of pent-up frustration at the personal and economic restrictions as well as local-issue-fueled discontent. The protestors are willing to test the assertion they risk spreading the disease more widely. In the process, they have become a political litmus test in the debate between those who want everyone to heed government/expert advice/diktats and those who subscribe to the spirit, which was big in the 1960s, of “question authority.”

The other night, protesting fishermen in Dingle, County Kerry, prevented the docking of Spanish-owned trawler for fear of introducing more virus cases. Were they perhaps thinking back a whole century to the Spanish flu?