Thursday, March 18, 2021

On the one-year anniversary of our two-week shutdown

The retrospectives have been running for nearly a week now on the nightly newscasts, as we look back, and try to make sense of, the COVID-19 world in which we've been living for the past year.

The shutdown was looming as early as March 11 when the 2020 St. Patrick's Day Parades were all called off. Right before the primary? That was... unsettling. Then, on March 12, I ran a post just reciting the cancellations of various events I'd received in that day's email. They were falling like leaves from an oak tree on a windy day in October.

The Archdiocese of Chicago suspended the public celebration of Mass and closed its schools as of March 13. Governor Pritzker closed schools statewide shortly thereafter. I put up a post last March 14 addressing the widespread skepticism about the need for such draconian measures. By this time, the Circuit Court of Cook County had made its initial shutdown announcement, too. I noted at the time that there were only 46 reported COVID-19 cases in total in the entire state.

Those first few days were like a horror movie -- a good one, one where the monster is not revealed right away -- because the movement in the shadows, the inexplicable rustle of something in the darkness, is more terrifying than anything the audience can actually see. We heard ominous tales from Italy and California and Washington State -- but there really wasn't anything yet happening here (only 12 cases were reported on March 16; the very first COVID-19 death was not reported until March 17, 2020) -- and, yet, our lives had been abruptly stopped.

Stopped, yes, but not stopped entirely.

We had to do the primary first.

I was confused by the mixed messaging from our state and local leaders. At a time when we were told that every other normal activity had to be curtailed, the primary would have to go ahead. Why?

Looking back, my suggestion that the primary be reset for August would not have been helpful. The virus was much more than a rumor by August and it probably would have been more dangerous to stage an election then than in March. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

But, anyway, the reason why I submit that today, March 18, 2021, is the true anniversary of our continuing two-week shutdown is because, as far as I could tell, the real shutdown did not begin until the polls closed on the Feast of St. Patrick.

More than a half million Americans have died since. So many, many more contracted the disease. I know of one 2020 primary candidate who contracted the virus, as did that candidate's spouse. Another 2020 judicial candidate lost his father to the disease. I'm sure there have been others, but this is what I know for certain.

I also know that there are those---still---who contend that the number of fatalities has been inflated. There are widely shared anecdotes about persons in hospice on account of terminal cancer who also caught the virus -- and were therefore counted as a COVID-19 fatality. There are stories, perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, of persons brought into the morgue with any number of bullet holes but whose blood, on autopsy, tested positive for the virus. Any such bullet-riddled corpse was allegedly counted as a COVID-19 casualty. Let us stipulate that some of the numbers can be whittled back in this fashion.

But if you take those persons out of the total, you must in fairness add in persons like the mother of a friend of ours. Past 90, she was moved into a different facility shortly before the lockdown began. Already confused, but in excellent physical health, she became lost entirely when COVID-19 protocols prevented her family from seeing her. She could talk to family members on the phone but she couldn't understand why they could not come to visit. Could not be with her. Despite her good physical health, she deteriorated rapidly and died lonely, confused, and hurt. She did not contract the virus, and is recorded in no one's totals, but COVID-19 killed her just the same. She was surely not the only one.

The 538,000 American COVID-19 deaths (to date) still pale in comparison to the 675,000 Americans who died from the Spanish Flu in 1918, especially when one takes into account that our national population is now more than three times greater than what it was then. If there were as many people living in America in 1918 as are living here now, all other things being equal, the death total from the Spanish Flu would have been around 2 million. And the Spanish Flu, like COVID-19, had a disproportionate impact on the elderly. But the Spanish Flu also targeted, and carried away, huge numbers of healthy people aged 20-40. Thankfully, this has not happened with COVID-19.

Objectively, then, by many measures, COVID-19 is 'not as bad' as the Spanish Flu was. Don't be suprised, though, if relatives of COVID-19 victims don't see it that way. And there is the very real phenomenon, too, of "Long COVID," persons who are afflicted with significant symptoms, including difficulty breathing, months and months after they have allegedly 'recovered.' (There is some exciting new evidence that vaccination is helping at least some Long COVID sufferers, but this is by no means certain.)

So COVID-19 has been bad. People will argue forever about whether things might have been better if we'd done this or that. Many of us acquired a new mantra in the past year: "Follow the Science."

Mr. Trump's baseless promises that the virus would just disappear, for example, were easy to mock in this way.

But the sad truth was "science" was all over the board on this one -- although it was understandable why. This was, after all, a "novel" virus -- it was new -- persons with experience dealing with flu outbreaks, or Legionnaires Disease, or Zika, or Ebola all had something to offer, but their experiences were not entirely transferable to the new crisis. It may be hard to remember now, but serious scientists, not just White House hacks or Red State governors, were genuinely divided on the efficacy of mask-wearing. The experts could not even agree that the disease could be acquired from airborne transmission. A lot of us had a lot of time to read a lot of serious, and seriously contradictory, scientific advice during the lockdown. Despite the contradictions and disagreements---and, I dare say, because of them, because that's how good science actually works---enormous progress has been made in treating the disease and, now, preventing its spread via vaccination.

Most of you reading this probably know at least some people who have at least begun their vaccinations.

So the end is in sight. Finally.

There are signs of life returning to our world.

It was eerily quiet by my Northwest Side home in those first several weeks of the shutdown. With almost all flights suspended at O'Hare, the skies were nearly as quiet as they'd been in those unnerving days following September 11, 2001. The Kennedy Expressway, just a couple of blocks from my home, usually provides a near-constant roar, punctuated, now and then, by CTA Blue Line trains. But with nearly everyone sheltering in place, that roar was not even a murmur.

The traffic noise is back now. It has been building, gradually, for a while. The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament gets underway today. Major League Baseball is back on track, too. Chicago will even allow some fans in the stands when the Cubs and the White Sox open play.

Our two weeks are almost up. And it only took a year. We could never have imagined that it would take so long. And that's probably just as well.

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