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Pandemic

Started: 2020-03-15 21:23:33

Submitted: 2020-03-16 01:24:02

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator works in exile to try to bend the exponential curve in the face of a global pandemic

I spent the week working from my house, at my desk in my bedroom, watching the COVID-19 crisis unfold around me, waiting for the next shoes to drop.

Pandemic board with Seattle about to outbreak
Pandemic board with Seattle about to outbreak

I spent my days in my house, shut in my bedroom office, trying to do work but mostly distracted by the crisis unfolding around me. I carefully rationed my trips outside the house: I went running down the trail past UW, and walking around the neighborhood, wondering whether I was keeping an adequate social distance from everyone around me. I went to my cozy neighborhood coffee shop, enjoying the time out of the house, but I was conscious of everything I touched as I sat and drank my coffee and ate and worked on my laptop, wondering who else there was exiled from their work or school. By Friday, the coffee shop had moved all of the self-service milk and cream behind the counter to limit the number of people touching them. I had no good rules to measure my hypothetical risk of exposure, so I hoped that I was striking a reasonable balance between exposing myself and my household versus my own mental health, getting out of the house while I still could.

Office in Wallingford
Office in Wallingford

On Tuesday, I finally got some degree of clarity about the duration of my exile from the office: Google announced that it was recommending everyone in North America work from home at least until Easter.

Seattle Public Schools continued to send COVID-19 updates every evening, mostly justifying why they were not yet closing schools because they thought that the benefits of schools remaining open (childcare, education, and free food for those who need it) outweighed the still-uncertain risks of spreading the virus. On Wednesday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee gave a press conference about the outbreak and vaguely referenced plans for maybe closing schools soon; then an hour later Seattle Public Schools changed their mind and decided they were going to close school after all, for two weeks -- and gave their teachers an hour to prepare two weeks of remote lessons for the kids before they left.

Office set up for Kiesa and Calvin
Office set up for Kiesa and Calvin

Kiesa channeled her panic into planning. She took the vague outline from Calvin's teacher, combined it with some home-school resources, and came up with a schedule to keep Calvin busy and focused and working on his formal education. She put this plan into action on Thursday; and by Friday Calvin decided that he was done with his unscheduled home-school and was ready to return to his regular school, where (presumably) his teacher was a less demanding task-master than his mother. Governor Inslee had other ideas, though; by Thursday he declared that all schools will be closed at least until 24th April.

The Tortue Continues! Calvin's COVID-19 home-school schedule
The Tortue Continues! Calvin's COVID-19 home-school schedule

The district, meanwhile, was adamant that they would be completely unable to provide any online education for any students during the shutdown, because this would be inequitable because not everyone has easy access to computers and the Internet. While I admire them for the moral purity of their stance, it seems ridiculous that no kids are allowed to get ahead -- never mind that privileged kids (like mine) will still get ahead because their parents are willing and able to take on the unexpected burden of their education on a moment's notice.

(No one has any real idea how long this is going to last, so no one is willing to tackle the next question I have looming in the back of my mind: Is the school district going to have to make up all of the last classroom days at the end of the school year? Or are they going to write off the year and pass everyone onto the next grade? Or fail everyone and make them take the grade over again?)

Julian's preschool remained open even as the public schools closed. We considered what to do about Julian and decided to send him to preschool on Thursday as normal (while Kiesa and Calvin figured out Calvin's new home-school schedule), then keep him in the house on Friday, with Sharon (our au pair) keeping him occupied during the day while Kiesa works. This worked fairly well on Friday, the first day we were all in the house together -- except for the times when the kids went running and yelling up the stairs, breaking what fragile concentration I had somehow managed to cobble together after a morning spent distracted by the ongoing crisis.

The library finally decided on Thursday to close after Friday. Kiesa spent all day on Friday trying to get the library systems ready for the shutdown: extending due dates and figuring out how to let some processes run (so staff can still do some work) while not letting anything happen to patron accounts while the library is closed. No one has a playbook for this; everyone is making it up as they go along.

"CoVid19" by @sirpopart

My reaction to the crisis is idiosyncratic. I am not especially concerned about the impact of me or my household catching COVID-19: whatever happens there is going to happen anyway, though I am reducing my own and my household's potential exposure. (There's a perverse part of me that thinks that, if we're going to catch COVID-19 anyway as the pandemic works its way through the population, we might as well get it right now before the local medical system is overwhelmed, since that'll give us a better chance of survival. But that's probably a bad idea.) The thing that does make me anxious is the uncertainty: I don't know how this crisis is going to unfold so I can't make plans -- and when I can't make plans I feel trapped in Seattle, feeding my feelings of dislocation and helplessness and pushing me towards depression. This uncertainty left me unable to concentrate for most of the week, leaving me unable to accomplish very much and depriving me of the intrinsic satisfaction I get from my work.

This is the year we were planning on moving back to the Bay Area, and I was just about to start ramping up my job search when the outbreak went from idle to crisis in a few days. Everyone keeps telling me this outbreak is an exponential growth curve, so the error bars in any estimates of what might happen are measured on an exponential curve. We're two months behind Wuhan, and they're only now beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel -- and that's with draconian public health enforcement and a coordinated government response, neither of which my country is capable of doing. So two months feels like an optimistic best-case scenario for when my exile might end and we can get back to business as normal. Or we succeed in shifting the curve and the outbreak lasts six months or longer and it's September before anyone's going to think about giving me a job in the Bay Area. Or maybe six months of lockdown and quarantine push the country into depression that makes the Great Recession look like a tea party, and no one's going to hire for anything and everything I had in stock is now worth pennies on the dollar.

I am terrified by that possibility because I cannot handle another winter in Seattle. I cannot spend another four (or six or eight) months depressed in the cold and rain and gloom and darkness where the only joy I get is flying out of the state to somewhere warmer and drier closer to the equator (and that's even assuming airlines are still operating next winter and we're not still in quarantine because the petulant toddler in the Oval Office screwed up the response to the crisis).

So that's the existential terror I see when I look at COVID-19: being trapped in Seattle and falling, head-first, into depression again.

Sun sets over Puget Sound
Sun sets over Puget Sound

As of tonight, Governor Inslee has announced a statewide emergency proclamation to shut down restaurants, entertainment, and recreational facilities. It's not yet clear whether my week in exile and all of the other social distancing we've done has bent the exponential curve, and we may not know for weeks (if we ever really know at all). I have no idea where this is going to end but it looks like the only way out is through.

"Clues you're twittering too much : during an interesting dream, you think "I must twitter this", and start looking in dream for your phone."
- Neil Gaiman, via Twitter