In this morning’s New York Times a summary of the mistakes we’ve made here in the U.S. in coping with the coronavirus, which has put the lie to our already tattered notions of national pride. I feel battered on all sides, even though it’s been easy for me so far. A professor of occupational therapy with college junior sons, we were enjoying a spring break vacation in Kill Devil Hills as the nation shutdown in mid-March. They closed the bridge to the Outer Banks the day we left, and that Monday, like teachers all over the country, I learned to zoom.
Our sons zoomed, too, in their bedrooms here at home. They’ve chosen all online classes for the first semester of their senior years and will be studying in their bedrooms again. One – an ocean rescue lifeguard – has taken advantage of zoom to stay on until the tail end of the season in Nags Head. The other, a budding film-maker, has set up an online business adding special effects to music videos. My wife, an occupational therapist in a free-standing polytrauma unit on the VA hospital campus, wears a mask all day, has helped 3-D print thousands of face shields, and has seen only one covid case in her building so far. I’ve had it easy, really, isolating at home, working with a half dozen students on their doctoral dissertations and capstones, tinkering with a couple books I’m writing, and cramming to learn strategies for teaching my fall lab course in what we call a hybrid (half zoom/half face to face) model.
I only leave the house a couple times a week for groceries, hand-washing and squirting disinfectant, and scowling behind my mask at those with bare faces. I get squirrelly, sure, but I’m an introvert, so that helps. I read, I write, I ride my bike, I cook and mow the lawn, I blog and post to social media. I’ve marched for BLM here in Richmond, with the old folks who haunt the edges of the crowd. On occasion, I Facetime with a distant friend and we’ve even had a couple socially distanced cocktail meetups on our screened-in porch. We’ve been lucky, healthy so far. Yes, my wife’s 102-year old grandmother died in March in her assisted living facility. She’d been spry, even danced a little on her birthday, but spiked a fever and was gone in two days, back when there were no tests, so we don’t know. As one son drily put it, “Even if it wasn’t the virus, something was going to get her.” Eventually, I imagine, we’ll bury her beside Grandpa, but for now her ashes sit in an urn (she didn’t want to be cremated, but there was no other choice). Our other grandma resides in a dementia unit in a New York nursing home, well-cared for, but only able to wave with some bewilderment at family visitors through a window. A close friend died in late July of cancer. The last time I saw her was in February, and not being able to visit her to say goodbye saddens me. In my extended family, some have caught Covid and recovered at home. But like I said, we’ve been lucky so far.
I know, however, that a lot of our luck comes from our special privilege. We have a roomy suburban home where we can all live comfortably in shutdown. We have jobs. I even have a job that allowed me to work from home this summer. We’re on the same page about the virus, and look after each other. Yes, it’s worrisome that some others in my family and some neighbors distrust the science, have marched against masking, throw up their hands and call this the End Times, etc. Across the decade plus of the Obama and Trump administrations, politics have distanced us. Like so many others we’ve learned never to discuss politics at gatherings. But now, when the only way to slow the virus and lower the death toll is for all of us to pull together (the way other countries have been able to do), it worries me more that we’re so divided, so confused, somehow making public health political.
But here we are. I’m gearing up to put on a mask, a face shield, gloves and scrubs, and walk back in the classroom again in less than two weeks. My students need hands-on labs in splinting, physical agent modalities, prostheses, movement therapy in stroke, and more, or our accrediting agency won’t let them graduate. I’m in my mid-60s, so in a marginally high risk group. Sort of wish I’d retired last year. But instead I’ve agreed to stay on at my job until the end of the school year next May, because the state hiring freeze means they can’t replace me right away.
I’m – I think the word may be – “trepidatious.” We’re at least a year away from a vaccine reaching us all. As I write this, more than 155,000 Americans have died from this thing, and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, more are suffering disability in their recoveries. For now the university where I work plans to hold nearly half its fall classes face to face. If I had to bet, I’d say that we’ll be back to full-time zooming by Columbus Day. Meanwhile, thousands more Americans will die.
Why is it so hard for people to face facts? Why can’t our President lead? A couple months ago, I mused on Twitter, “Think of the lives we’d have saved if Ivanka had added masks to her fashion line?” What I meant, of course, was that if Trump had seen a penny profit in those masks, he’d have pushed them hard. But here we are. As he so famously said, “It is what it is.” I tell my students to roll with it, to be safe, and to recognize that this is a year they’ll be telling their grandchildren about. For now, like my boys, they look forward to graduating into a scarcity of jobs, even in the health care field. But they’re young and resilient, and as a friend posted the other day, remember in the late 60s and early 70s, young men graduated directly onto a flight to Vietnam. My parents turned from their teens into World War II. It’s scary, yes. But wouldn’t it be wonderful, wouldn’t it be patriotic, if we could, as President Obama reminded us at John Lewis’ funeral the other day, turn towards each other? I mean, at the very least, think of the lives we could save.