The numbers freaked me out today. Maybe it’s my academic focus, I dunno, but I see things on a trend line. What keeps standing out to me is how every time there’s a prediction about the coronavirus, reality exceeds it. Whatever you think about numbers or public policy or “love over fear,” surely you can remember that sort of thing over only a six-month period?
When my husband and I decided to “prep for the coronavirus” back in February, we felt really smart about buying a month’s worth of freeze-dried food, an extra 6-pack of toilet paper, and extra shampoo and cleansers.
We assured each other we weren’t being too crazy, that it was okay if we had go-bags and a month of prepper food, we weren’t having a paranoid meltdown.
...and that was true
Not three weeks later, I was exposed. Our employer sent everyone home on the Friday and I contracted COVID-19 on the Sunday morning, not even 48 hours later. All of that was before anyone in the US shut anything down, if you can remember back that far.
This is why I went to work for them, because they have continued to have a better and more effective action plan than any entity in the country besides Apple. That’s my gauge for when it’s safe to come out: when the Apple Store opens at our local mall and our company calls everyone back in to work at our desks.
Everyone else, including me and my own household? We keep getting it wrong, shrugging, and getting it wrong again.
April 8: coronavirus death projection revised down to 60,000 [passed that on 4/30]
April 17: “Experts think 50,000 by the end of April” [actually 4/24]
May 15: “pass 100,000 by June 1” [actually 5/28]
...but then, strangely, it seems like death projections aren’t really in the headlines anymore? Hmm, I wonder why?
When I got sick, I was like “it’s airborne, I got it from someone who was sitting 10 feet away.” Of course in April 2020 that made me sound like I was either exaggerating or had no idea what I was talking about. How does it sound now?
When I got sick, I was like, “I know what day I was exposed and I didn’t start getting sick until the 16th day.” My doctor was like, “yeah, whatevs” until another week of symptoms, at which point he graciously apologized.
When I got sick, nothing I had was on The Official Symptoms List (tm). I kept having to tell people that my symptoms started with sneezing fits and itchy eyes, just so they would know not to talk themselves out of it.
My attitude is always going to be, whatever the mainstream idea is of something, I will be more cautious than that. I drive the speed limit (or at least, I used to before I canceled driving in my life). We save half our income. Ever since I dropped my keys down the elevator shaft I’ve been just that little bit extra careful.
(Except, that is, for the day I decided to go to brunch after prepping for what I recognized as a dangerous pandemic and then immediately contracted a deadly illness THE ONE TIME I WENT OUT).
That is the only reckless thing I’ve really ever done besides remarrying after a nasty divorce. But that was a risk that paid off.
Okay, so, by Jessica’s Rules everyone should assume “allergy symptoms” might actually be COVID, distance a minimum of 10 feet, and quarantine three weeks, not two. Not impossible. Not insane. Just - cautious enough not to get the dang thing the way I did.
For whatever reason, everyone else’s baseline assumptions seem to be to keep assuming that cautious people are overreacting and that their worst guesses can’t possibly happen. Even though all those estimates keep proving to be excessively optimistic.
Now, let’s talk about optimism for a minute.
I am an incurable optimist. I mean, seriously. I believe that pessimism is profoundly lazy, an abdication of the power to just keep on troubleshooting and persist in reframing for more options. Humans were born to solve problems and invent things. That is why we can use tools and recognize patterns.
On the other hand, as an historian I have to admit that default mode for humans is an endless tidal wave of BS. One problem followed by another problem followed by a double-up of problems, just to keep it interesting.
Optimism doesn’t mean we pretend that bad things aren’t going to happen, and a wicked lot of them. It means we believe that we can find a way to get past those bad things. We handle them. We figure out how to deal. We don’t ignore things, we confront them and wrestle them down.
Possibility thinking works best when we consider the widest possible array of potential issues, as well as good outcomes. Facing up to the worst risks, not just the most likely ones, can sometimes reveal much nicer solutions. And then we collectively feel that much more impressed with one another because we’ve done something on a larger scale.
This is part of how to make a strong marriage, by the way. Shared adversity. It works with family too, and that’s why every time I visit with my family we laugh so hard we fall over sideways.
We could be doing that together, as a nation. Or at least as a neighborhood. Here in Corona Cove CA I keep being less and less impressed with my neighbors every single day. A crisis is no time to be coughing and spitting on people and shouting at people while they’re just trying to do their jobs. Pull your socks up, geez.
This is what I think, as a futurist. I think that the rest of this year is going to be very, very bad for the United States. For whatever reason, a lot of people are very busy trying to deny how this thing has been working out so far. They’re going to be awfully depressed when they finally clue in to reality and the three-week lag time on the data.
Once we finally snap out of our collective delusion and start getting pragmatic, we can put our famed Yankee ingenuity into effect.
In World War II, we increased our production of airplanes by two orders of magnitude in only five years. 265 planes and a cargo ship every day. We know how to make things! We know how to make things fast!
When we feel like it, that is.
We’ve done a lot of underestimating this year. We’ve underestimated the nature of the enemy over and over again. (If you need reminding, “the enemy” is a vicious little human-hating virus that looks like a dog toy from hell). We’ve underestimated the sheer rudeness of people under stress. We’ve underestimated people’s emotional commitment and willingness to die (and kill) to preserve their notion of personal autonomy.
I think we’ve also underestimated our ability to pull together and work as a community. I think we’ve underestimated our ability to harness patriotism to fight this thing. I think we’ve underestimated our centuries-old core of inventiveness. We kick butt at a lot of things, and logistics, supply chain management, and R&D are a few of them.
If we can get Hot Cheetos to every convenience store in the land, if we can have 24-hour drive-thrus, then surely we can get swabs and vials. If we can teach each other to play Candy Crush and Angry Birds practically overnight, then we can teach each other how to avoid an airborne virus.
I believe in the American ability to get things done, and I believe in our ability to scale up testing, continue to test more and better treatments, and most especially, invent better-quality masks and filtration systems. If we’re going to win this battle, we’ve got to do it the same way we won WWII, with industry and with hustle and with innovation.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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