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I Don't Know What to Tell You

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My days haven’t changed much under COVID-19. I still work from home. I watch the life on the street (fewer kids, more delivery trucks). Fewer phone calls, more Zoom. The same DEFCON 5-level concern for when and how some freelance gig will implode, and what the escape plan is. Maybe DEFCON 3 these days.

Time grows fuzzy. Has it been eight weeks? Feels like three. Or five. Or always. I drop mail in a green folder by the door to let it decontaminate for a few days. I wash my hands. I put on the mask when I’m at the store, which isn’t very often. If I see you coming on the street, I move out of the way. 

Hug gestures with my mom or dad, at opposite ends of the driveway, aren’t as good as the real thing. Neither is teaching a college class online. I checked the map of cases and fatalities devoutly through most of April. Now I just check once a day, along with my pulse ox. 

As a gig economy worker, I have no real illusions of being an essential worker, but now I’m more certain that very few of us are. 

The coronavirus brings with it an uncertainty that is hard to adapt to. It is a neverending state of asymptomaticism. You don’t think you have the disease, but you could. Or you might have had it and are now recovered. But you’re wondering if you can catch it again. Spinning round and round. Fast enough and it means, at any time, all the time, you both have COVID-19 and do not. COVID-19 is all of us.

Every sneeze, welt, rash, runny nose, or midday fatigue is the disease. Or it isn’t. If you come down with COVID-19 you’ll have mild symptoms, or no symptoms, or your toes will swell, or your taste will vanish, or your blood will clot, or you’ll find yourself on a ventilator, or you’ll die, or you won’t but your body will be permanently damaged. 

COVID-19 is the most intimate example yet of the indeterminacy of our age, the gnawing, growing unease about a world seemingly in permanent crisis. Every day we’re faced with news of tragedy and hardship, and then new ideas that will change everything. Catastrophe. The Brave New World. Just another day. The dream of absolute independence and autonomy, mastery over space-time, freedom from all constraint. The reality of being embedded in networks upon networks of people, ideas, money, habit, tradition, culture, genetics, vectors of droplet transmission, the whims of our immune system, everything that we are intimately bound to.

The same questions loom at larger scales. What will happen here in Las Vegas? Will we tumble, as many fear, into Great Depression 2.0, or will jobs and spending come roaring back this summer? Will we be hit with a bigger wave of outbreaks this fall, or will we dodge that bullet, adapt to this inconvenient new normal, and carry on?       

A few weeks ago I picked up groceries at Smith’s. I had my mask on. In the parking lot a man whose car was parked next to mine considered my masked face. “Do you know anyone who has this virus?” he asked, skeptically. 

A few, I responded: My wife’s cousin on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. A close friend’s cousin, who died. 

He didn’t sound too impressed. “I think we need to reopen the economy. This isn’t any worse than the flu.” 

“I want to reopen it, too,” I said. “But keep in mind that everybody who’s died died in just five weeks or so. This is a lot more serious than the flu.”

He considered it for a second. What can one say? Loading groceries isn’t the venue for a persuasive argument. We wished each other well and drove off. I was happy to have the exchange, nevertheless.

Many of us naively yearn for a monoculture moment, an experience all Americans are sharing. We hope that such moments will “bring us together” or “unify the nation” or some such. I have the same naïveté. COVID-19 has brought us together in countless acts of compassion and love, focusing our energy on the concerns of others. Family. Friends. Our neighbors. Fellow citizens.

At the same time, COVID-19 is further splitting us into haves and have-nots, warehouse workers and wi-fi “workers.” It is intensifying a fundamental debate in our society between people who are desperate to get back to normal, and people desperate to refashion a better world. 

The mask has become politicized, a magnifier of difference. It’s a symbol of faith in science and the mainstream media, altruism, pragmatism — or a mark of cowardice, unmanliness, conformity. COVID-19 reminds us that we’ve been social distancing for years in this country anyway. Staying away from people and views we're disinclined to entertain.      

Answers? Not really. I’m anxious to hug my parents. I hope people start buying shit to put other people back to work. I hope my friend, whose cousin died, and who was planning to come to Vegas in July with her family, still makes it out. I’m hoping the economy doesn’t crater completely. But I don’t want to see a bigger outbreak in the fall. So I don’t know what to tell you.

These are uncertain times. Get comfortable with that. And keep your mask on.

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