Staying Home to Stay Alive

Becky O'Malley
Sunday March 15, 2020 - 12:13:00 PM

So here we are, knee deep in a catastrophe different in kind from anything we have ever experienced, and the President of the United States of America is a blithering idiot. His media availabilities last week were a good opportunity to see exactly what that term means.

First: idiot. It is clear that he doesn’t know the simplest thing about medical science, for example that a vaccination must be administered before you get sick to do any good. He’s established himself as the leader of a flock of sheep eager to jump over a cliff, as exemplified by one of his fans I heard on a radio call-in program: “America is the best in medicine, and there will be an anecdote soon which will cure everyone.”

Yes indeed, Trump’s foolish followers believe in “anecdotes”, not antidotes. Obviously, they also haven’t heard that “data” is not the plural of “anecdotes”.

And blithering: his recent—I hesitate to call them this—press conferences were ideal opportunities to observe an idiot blithering, defined by Merriam Webster as “talking foolishly”. Time and again his mind wandered into uncharted waters, often to contradict something sensible one of his scientific advisers had just said.

What is blindingly clear is that we can’t rely on the people in power to do what needs to be done to get us through this. Donald Trump and his Republican Party henchmen and henchwomen have almost succeeded in Grover Norquist’s 2001 expressed goal: “I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

The federal government is almost drowned for sure. Now the rest of us will have to work together to do what needs to be done to bail us out. 

There’s a poster circulating on Facebook which says: 

“Your grandparents were called to war. You're being called to sit on the couch. You can do this!”. 

It’s a bit more complicated than that, but there are lessons about working together to be learned from the history of the last century.  

Start with the New Deal, the U.S. response to the Great Depression. The website of The Living New Deal project gives you a good idea of what can be accomplished with the right leadership in a fairly short period of time. 

America’s ramp-up for World War II is another source of inspiration. The Rosie the Riveter National Museum in Richmond is a great place to learn about how the quick response was organized, but alas, it’s been closed because of the COVID-19 emergency. 

Now, the clearly perceptible goal is to try to prevent the epidemic from growing so fast that medical resources can’t cope with it. The name of the game is “social distancing”, though we might need to do a bit more than sitting alone on the couch. 

For those of us who are at higher than average risk because of our age or a pre-existing condition, it really does mean staying home almost all the time, not just sneezing into our elbows. 

If we must go out, there are some old strategies that might help. 

I’m old enough to remember a childhood haunted by fear of the polio virus. My vigilant mother made sure that if my sister and I had to go somewhere in St. Louis, especially downtown on a streetcar, we wore white cotton gloves and avoided public drinking fountains.  

Just to be safe, we’ve invested in some white gloves at our house, though it looks like we’re not going anywhere for a long time. 

Many still did get polio before the vaccine was created, despite an abundance of caution. The question remains: How do you take care of all the extra patients in an epidemic? 

A friend remembers that when he got polio as a very small child he was treated in a makeshift hospital with cots set up in a church from which the pews had been removed. He’s retained an image of his parents looking down on him from the choir loft. 

Now, this was the late ‘40s in Ohio, and he’s African-American, and segregation was still alive and well in many places, including Ohio. That might have affected availability of hospital beds, but today we again lack facilities for the expected flood of virus victims. 

Several decades ago one of my day jobs was editing an academic journal for hospital administrators. At that time there was a lot of handwringing over the “excess” number of hospital beds in our journal. Many rooms were eliminated as a cost-cutting measure, so now there’s been a serious overcorrection in the opposite direction. It appears that we won’t be able to handle the predicted number of COVID-19 virus patients with the existing facilities. 

Where can we house those who need to be isolated? Governor Gavin Newsom has authorized commandeering of hotels if needed, but how many empty hotels are there? 

One idea: college dorms everywhere are being emptied out as students are being sent home. Here in Berkeley, city officials, U.C.B. administrators and health professionals should start working right now on a plan to turn dorms into emergency hospitals.  

Also, every week it seems that a new apartment building is completed. There are already a couple of them in Berkeley which look like they’re still empty. These could be used for patients and also perhaps as temporary homeless housing, if the Governor would step in and requisition them as he has with hotels. 

Berkeley currently has no comprehensive system for registering the existence of rental units and their occupancy status, which is sorely needed even in normal times. This has been discussed from time to time by councilmembers, but now would be an excellent time to accelerate the creation of such a database.  

But back to those of us who must shelter in place at home. There’s been a lot of self-righteous online nattering about “hoarding”, but in fact limiting the number of your trips to the grocery store by stocking up for future needs as much as possible when you must go out is prudent. Running to the store every day is not. 

Judge not lest you be judged in return. 

It’s gratifying for those who use the nextdoor.com service to see offers from younger readers to shop for house-bound elder residents. The young person ahead of you in line who buys four packages of oatmeal or yes, toilet paper, might well be purchasing for several older at-risk neighbors. 

Given the perilous lack of intelligent leadership from the top, it’s up to us to act sensibly together while keeping physical distance from one another as we must. That’s not going to be easy, but it’s necessary.