act accordingly

Yesterday I heard from people in four very different locations, from four very different walks of life, who’d either been 1) diagnosed with COVID-19; 2) directly exposed to someone diagnosed, and now in self-quarantine; or 3) were exhibiting symptoms but unable to get tested. I woke up this morning and heard about two more in my extended friend group.

Vivid evidence of the attempts (and failure) to contain the outbreak in Italy were right there, trying to make us understand what the future would hold. But still, people say that Wednesday — when Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson told the world that they’d tested positive for COVID-19, and the NBA very abruptly cancelled their season — was the turning point for awareness in the United States.

I think that’s when people who had convinced themselves it’s “just the flu” or “just a political plot to make Trump look bad” may have shifted their thinking. But I think this weekend is when it’s going to start becoming personal: as one of my partner’s colleagues put it to me on Twitter, “It's basically a circle closing around you. You'll hear about infected people in other countries, then your country, then your state, city, region. Then a friend's friend gets sick. then your friend gets sick. Then repeat all this, but with deaths.”

Here in Montana, like so many other places, a general lack of testing allowed so many to believe that “it hadn’t come here yet.” The high school basketball tournament (a huge deal here) went on as planned, same for planned St. Patrick’s Day runs, and a Charlie Kirk speech in Kalispell with hundreds in attendance.

On Friday, the first four cases were detected, in four very different areas of the state. On Saturday, two more cases were announced in Missoula. One of those cases is the Montana Commissioner of Higher Ed, who contracted the virus at a massive meeting of the Board of Regents. On March 5th. More than a week ago.

I tell this story because everyone either already has or will have one like this in their lives. At some point, we’re going to stop tracing backwards because we’re going to simply be overwhelmed. Yes, the number of people who fall seriously ill is statistically low. But looking at this pandemic through the lens of statistics is a coping mechanism, intended to make you feel better and safe. The percentage of people who die is “low,” but “low” still means hundreds of thousands of people, many of them our most vulnerable.

I don’t care if you don’t like old people, or you don’t have older people in your life (and “older” here = over 60) that are valuable to you. You almost certainly have someone in your life who is vulnerable to this disease in some way, or who could suffer from lack of care if the hospitals are overwhelmed with patients. Everyone, everyone, should be attempting to act as if they share a bed or a home with someone who’s at high risk.

It’s difficult to strike the right tone here, between inspiring the appropriate amount of concern to actually act and scaring or lecturing in a way that makes people shut down or become obstinate. Last week my approach was encouraging us all to be proactive, and think of what we could do for our communities. This week, I keep thinking of a line from this harrowing piece from an Italian in the Boston Globe:

“We thought a few local lockdowns, canceling public gatherings, and warmly encouraging working from home would be enough stop the spread of the virus. We now know that wasn’t nearly enough.”

People are hoarding toilet paper because they are scared of the abject worst: what will happen if society unravels, if we lose our ability to sustain the practices, routines, postures that make us feel human today. This, I think, is such a huge part of why people are still going to bars, why older people are insisting on keeping up their routines, why people are furtively going to the gym and telling themselves it’s okay because they’re wiping down the equipment. If you behave like nothing’s happening then maybe nothing will. This delusion will be responsible for so much continued spread, so much unnecessary unsuffering.

But people tell themselves all sorts of stories in order to do what they want to do. And I get it: a lot of the things people want to do aren’t just routine, but things like weddings and vacations they’ve saved for and planned for years. Just because the disappointment is personal, and ostensibly so small in comparison to the devastation of continued spread, doesn’t mean that it’s not deeply felt. It’s okay to feel deeply sad, to mourn those personal losses, to sit with those feelings. Just don’t let those feelings eclipse your better judgment.

I think of Nicole Chung, who’s currently forced to decide whether to bring her children to see her mom one last time, who’s in the last stages of cancer. Or the person who told me their family is desperate to honor their Grandmother’s life in a huge, familial celebration, or the aging mother who had been looking forward to a visit from her grandchildren for the last year, and is terrified of the depression that arrives with isolation.

All of this is so fucking hard. There are no easy, or universal answers. The best piece of advice I’ve seen is — if you’re able — isolate as if you’ve been exposed, but spend in your community as if you haven’t. I’m supposed to get my hair cut on Tuesday. I cancelled, but I’m paying her anyway. I would’ve gone and seen three movies, at least, over the next month at my local indie movie theater. They just made the pro-active step to close, and I’m donating the cost of those tickets to them. I’m stocked up on books, so I called my local bookstore and had them send books to the children of my friends who are going stircrazy in Seattle. My marathon in Vancouver was cancelled. I’ll spend the money I would’ve spent on a new pair of shoes from my local running store, which has started doing home deliveries. I’m taking other money I’ll save from my cancelled social life and giving it to the local food bank and buying gift cards at my local coffee shop and breakfast burrito place.

Everyone’s life and financial situation is different. I can do this because I’m salaried. What you can do might be different — and might simply be the enormous and selfless action of staying home. If you can’t stay home, wash your hands like crazy, but also remember that it’s not your fault. Some people who are still working out in the world are keeping the roads fixed and hospitals running and the world in order — we should be so grateful to them, and the way we can show our gratitude is staying home. Some people are still going to work, even if they’re not feeling great, because they have no other choice. They have no paid sick leave, no flexibility. They have no way to make ends meet if they don’t show up. Their dilemma is just one of so many broken components of American society that have been illuminated by this crisis. If this is not your situation, you should acknowledge how fucked up it is by staying home.

We are literally all in this together. If you are sick, it shouldn’t be a stigma. Try to forgive the people who keep acting in infuriating ways (including your parents, or your roommates, or your best friend) and try, the best you can, to appeal to them to change their behaviors.

You will never know the direct ramifications of your actions over the last week, over the weeks to come. It’s so hard, especially for Americans, to change our behavior without clear, tangible, direct rewards. But this isn’t about you. It doesn’t matter if you feel fine. Our society is ailing. We must all behave accordingly.

Some Stuff I’ve Found Particularly Helpful

I’m also working on a COVID-19 story about parents navigating, well, everything. What’s going uncovered, what do you wish people would know, and what are the sort of questions you’d like answered (or at least discussed)?

Just reply to this email — or email me directly at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com (I won’t quote you without permission, and we can come up with a pseudonym if you’re worried about privacy)

And for a bit of non-COVID reading: This week’s just trust me. Stay to the end.

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and link to it) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please excuse typos or weird sentences; inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to get this thing out in the world for free.