Supermarket shelves in Sandy, Utah, mid-March 2020.

A letter to my future grandchildren: Life soon after the pandemic began

To my future grandchildren:

Right now, I wish I could be you looking back on the great pandemic of 2019-20, because then I would know how this all turns out. I don’t know how this ends, and for the moment it’s the uncertainty that bothers me the most. I am writing this entry in my journal so you have a picture of what life was like for me, an ordinary person living in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, a few days after the outbreak had been officially designated a pandemic.

As I write this, the illness is so new it doesn’t even have a proper name. Officially it’s called covid-19, but that’s a name I see in writing more than I hear it. Most people simply call it the coronavirus, masking the fact that relatively benign coronaviruses have been infecting nearly all of us for a long time. But as you know, this one isn’t benign for some people, and the best we know now is that it’s deadly enough to overwhelm our health system if enough people get it.

It’s mid-March of 2020, and the animal disease became a human one only three months ago in China. I don’t recall when it first hit the American consciousness. But I do remember that in January “coronavirus” entered my vocabulary as experts were warning that the illness had the potential of crossing the oceans, and as the Chinese city of Wuhan launched severe isolation measures.

I do remember telling my daughter (your mother or aunt) in February that the virus could interfere with her plans to buy a house. The U.S. economy at the time was booming but fragile, thanks to an irresponsible federal deficit, and I had some concern that a reduction in international travel and possibly some anti-disease measures domestically could be enough to dip the economy into a recession.

In other words, less than a month ago I was thinking about the effects of the virus only in economic terms. I wasn’t thinking in terms of it disrupting my life.

But obviously it did. I am writing this to you because I wanted to give you a picture about ordinary life was like for me in a way that you can’t learn well from history books.

As of February and even into the beginning of March, just two weeks ago, few people beyond the medical experts seemed to have much idea of what the covid-19 virus could do to everyday life. The disease had jumped the ocean, and there were a few pockets, such as at a nursing home a short ways from where my mother lives, where a few people had died. Fortunately, some state and local government officials took it upon themselves to start dealing with the threat, even though they had little direction from the federal government. Schools were closed in some areas to prevent the disease from spreading, while the main action taken at the federal level was to restrict some travel from China.

The potential of the crisis slowly came into view. As recently as two weeks ago, I was questioning some of the decisions made to contain the virus. My reasoning — and I was far alone in this — is that the number of people affected by the illness was minuscule compared to influenza, a disease everyone was familiar with.

How wrong I was! I finally became convinced of the need to start taking drastic measures when I learned about “flattening the curve,” meaning to reduce the number of people sick at one time in order to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. It was around this time that the National Basketball Association suspended its season, losing millions of dollars in the process, in order to protect the safety of fans and players. That was about the time the dominoes began to fall: School districts across the countries closed, events drawing large crowds were canceled or postponed, and airlines started reducing their schedules.

Last week, I started wearing vinyl gloves to work as a way of reminding myself not to touch my face. But other than that, pandemic developments didn’t affect me directly until two days ago when the two places where I work announced do-not-touch rules (no handshakes, no high-hives, no hugging) for employees. It was part of what we called social distancing: Basically the idea was to keep people away from each other to keep them from spreading the disease. We were also told in absolute terms not to come to work while ill in any way.

Here is where things stand for me now, on March 15, 2020:

  • Emotionally I’m not a wreck, but I could get there. I’m not sleeping well. I have three weeks where I can get paid while sick at home, and I worry that I could be away for longer than that. I am more worried about that than I am the sickness myself, even though I’m better off than most Americans in the amount of paid time off I have.
  • I’ve started becoming paranoid about germs. Of course I don’t shake hands any more, but I also worry about touching doorknobs, desks, tables, handles and anything else that has been touched by a potentially sick person.
  • People who can work at home via computer are being ordered to do so by many employers. Unfortunately, that’s not an option due to the nature of two jobs I hold. Fortunately, it is an option for the others I live with, so starting tomorrow I will be the only person among five adults in this house leaving regularly to go to work.
  • Fearful that they could be stuck at home if exposed to the disease, people have been stocking up on food and supplies. For some reason, many have been hoarding toilet paper, of all things, and it can’t be found anywhere. (Diarrhea isn’t even a common symptom of the disease.) We have about seven or eight rolls in this home for five adults. The shelves of in the local supermarkets remind me of what I’ve seen in the news of markets in developing countries facing financial collapse. Even if you have the money, you can’t necessarily find what you want.
  • Utah has banned gatherings of more than 100 people, and today the Centers for Disease Control recommended reducing that to 50 nationwide. Soon I expect that most restaurants will be required to quit providing indoor dining.
  • Basically, ordinary life is coming to a standstill. The rules still aren’t as strict as they are in parts of Europe, where nonessential businesses have been ordered to close, but we could see that soon.

It’s all unnerving. As I said, the difficult part for me is the uncertainty. I don’t know what even this week will bring. Could my main place of work be shut down? It’s possible. Will I be exposed to the disease and be forced to stay home waiting to find out if I get sick? It’s possible. If I get sick, how sick will I get? I have no idea.

Experts say that some 30 to 70 percent of the world population will get the disease during the coming year, but that doesn’t tell me much about what to expect for myself or the people I love. As I’ve said, I wish I knew how this all turns out.

Photo by the author: Supermarket shelves in Sandy, Utah, on March 14, 2020. CC BY 2.0.

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