In retrospect, reading a book about a pandemic during a pandemic probably wasn’t the smartest choice. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a beautiful book which really isn’t about a pandemic at all in the same way that the current dumpster fire that is our world isn’t about the raging pandemic either.
It bears being said that at nearly the end of 2021, more than a year into the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, things are not going well.
States with the highest vaccination rates seem to have the slowest growing case counts for COVID-19 while states with the lowest vaccination rates are replaying 2020 with ICU beds unavailable and daily death tolls in the 100s by county.
DC, where I live, is above the average for folks who have received a single shot and about right in the middle for folks who are fully vaccinated. The areas surrounding me, if you drill down to the county level, are doing pretty well too.
Enough of the rest of the country is acting as if nothing is going on that things will never be the same. And that feeling, that distinct dividing line between Before and After, is what both Mandel’s book and this pandemic are really about.
My previous employer sent its workforce home on March 13, 2020. According to The New York Times, the 7-day average case count was 273 and 556 new cases of COVID were reported across the United States. A year later, the 7-day average was 55,045 and newly reported cases numbered 49,557.
The 7-day average on my birthday, more than four months after vaccines started becoming widely available: 151,227 and newly reported cases 87,011, where everyone agrees that the newly reported cases number is likely low because break-through infections in folks who are fully vaccinated are often mild enough that those people don’t get tested.
Here, have a visual courtesy of The New York Times.
It’s easy to get lost in the numbers, to become obsessed by them, because they provide the illusion of control. If we can just make the numbers go down then everything will be okay.
Everything isn’t going to be okay if you define okay as a reset to exactly the way things were before this pandemic. Nothing will ever be exactly as it was in the BeforeTimesTM.
And that’s because everything that came before, and everything we are clinging to now as part of the new normal, is fragile and fleeting and the result of decades of concerted effort that most of us never bother to think about.
In 1978 TheGirlFriend had the pleasure of having Mitch McConnell, then the County Judge Executive for Jefferson County Kentucky, speak at her high school graduation. During this speech, McConnell bragged that over 90% of the U.S. now had indoor plumbing.
Putting that declaration in perspective: 1978 was just 43 years ago.
I’m betting for the majority of the U.S. population that last time they thought about whether a house might have indoor plumbing is exactly never.
The sheer volume of things we take for granted in the U.S. – food production, fresh water, medicine – these are basic things a huge chunk of the world couldn’t take for granted even in the BeforeTimes.TM
The infrastructure – plumbing, fresh water, electricity, cell phones – those are just icing on an extraordinarily unstable cake.
Mandel’s book is a beautiful not because it’s well written, which it is, but because it burrows its message into you like an oak mite: so subtly that you don’t know its in there until you’re already thinking about it as if the idea originated with you.
And maybe it’s okay that everything doesn’t go back to “normal,” back to the way it was before SARS-CoV-2 busted out of China unannounced in December 2019.
Maybe These Trying TimesTM will help so many of us, me included, appreciate what we have for whatever fleeting time we have it.
Yesterday I saw a wild turkey fly into a tree and roost about 30 feet off the ground. The world is an amazing place. I intend to try to be amazed by it as often as possible from now on.