I feel a bit like the government, making promises I can’t or don’t keep. I promised on Friday that I would talk about the question “What mortality rate is acceptable?” I’d forgotten it was Friday when I said “tomorrow,” not planning to write posts over the weekend. I will still address that question, and some more new research and statistics, over the course of the next week. Today, though, I want to talk about what’s going on in different people’s minds as the lockdown approaches two months in some places, and as places like South Korea and Italy start cautiously opening up.
Yesterday was my husband’s and my fifth anniversary and we’d originally planned to have a big party to celebrate. Instead, we had a Zoom call with some of our friends who were at the wedding five years ago. The advantage to this was that we could have people from the US and the UK there without anyone having to travel. Of course, most of the conversation was about COVID-19, the lockdown and the reopening of the economy. It hit me that our conversation represented a pretty good cross-section of the points of view of people in both countries, and each person’s point of view was influenced very strongly by their own circumstances. All of us, no matter how much we try to remain objective, have been influenced by what we’ve had to do—and what we’ve had to give up—over the past two months, and also by the news coverage wherever we happen to be. In my case, I am now unemployed. When I moved to the UK, my employer made me switch from an employee to a consultant relationship, and when they started cutting staff during the crisis (even though the crisis itself did not cause most of their issues—but that’s a topic for another day), all temps and consultants were the first to go. But even before I was unemployed, I was working entirely from home, so I didn’t have to go out at all. We have Ocado to deliver our groceries and Amazon to provide anything else we might need. And we live in London, the hardest-hit area of the UK, in a fairly busy area. So going outside really is an exercise in avoidance if you’re trying to practice social distancing. But it’s not as bad as the very center of London, and I know logically that I could go out and be pretty safe. The longer I stay in, however, the harder it becomes psychologically to do that. I see this happening to my husband as well. At the beginning, he was more cavalier than I was about the whole thing. He was the one walking to Sainsbury’s or Waitrose to get food we couldn’t get on Ocado, which was delivering only once every two weeks for a while. He was walking to those shops without a mask and without that much trepidation at the beginning of the lockdown. Then, he bought masks on Amazon and now wears one out everywhere. He also sprays it with Dettol, so he’s probably doing a little of what Donald Trump suggested by breathing in the disinfectant. So, as the R (rate of infection) rate goes down, and as it becomes more unlikely that he will be infected, he is becoming increasingly wary about going out at all. And if you talk to him about the long term, he is a doom-and-gloom pessimist at this point. It strikes me that a lot of this has to do with the news coverage we’ve been getting on the BBC. I’ve talked before about seeing individual stories about people who died or their families and too little about science and statistics. Well, even if you know that you’re being manipulated, it’s hard to resist that manipulation. OK, I know I’m not likely to be the less than one percent in my age group that gets and then succumbs to the virus, but all I’ve seen on the BBC are stories of seemingly healthy people who have died with COVID-19, and it’s difficult not to be scared. Living in London, it’s impossible to live a normal existence and avoid crowds. I tend to avoid big, crowded events and areas in normal times, but go on the tube, and you will probably not be social distancing. Restaurant tables are close together, the pavements are too narrow to remain two meters apart from other pedestrians, and standing in a queue is a normal part of life. Even museums tend to be crowded in a way that makes it impossible to be two meters away from other people and still see the art.
Our friends from Georgia made the point that cinemas would probably open before live theaters would because cinemas are very rarely more than ¼ full. Well, that’s not true in London. Most of the time I’ve been to see a movie, the auditorium has been pretty full. Maybe not packed, but full enough that you cannot stay two seats away from someone else. And that’s when it hit me that the people in Arizona who back up to open land are going to have a different feeling about things than people in New York City who live on the fifth floor of an apartment building with no outside space. Our cousin from a suburb of Aberdeen is anxious for the golf course to reopen because she is an avid golfer and can walk for miles without seeing another person. She says that Scotland’s stricter lockdown rules are geared towards Glasgow, a densely populated city that has seen a lot of COVID cases. Even in London, our friends who live on the far reaches of the city have access to empty parks and wilderness, while we have to pass a great many people in tight spaces to get to the park—and then spend what used to be restful time walking around the park avoiding people who seem not to have heard about social distancing.
It’s not just geography that influences our experiences. It’s also our jobs and our family members’ jobs. In our little party group, we had two people working in manufacturing plants, each of whom knew people who had come down with the virus, which shut down the whole plant. But no one in those circumstances died or even ended up in intensive care. Our friends with a daughter who was working with COVID patients were much more negative about opening things up—because they’d heard horrible stories of death on a daily basis.
All of these differences, I would argue, are unavoidable, but should not be the major factor in societal decisions about if and when to open up. The government might very well decide that some areas of the country can more easily open up than others, but given the interconnectedness with which we all live our lives, we can’t completely ignore other regions of the country—over even other countries. One friend has a son who lives in Austin who was out in a bar that was packed the first night it was open. This seems to me to be a little in-your-face silly. First, the virus has not gone completely away in those areas of the country, so it would be very surprising if it doesn’t spread with that sort of behavior. Second, even if the people there are generally young and healthy and not likely to get the more severe forms of the illness, it’s unlikely that none of them are passing it on to more vulnerable people. My third reason for not thinking this behavior is appropriate may sound trivial: It just doesn’t look good. But I don’t think it is trivial. If you have a lot of valid points about how to come out of lockdown, if you are worried about the economic effects of prolonging the shut down of everything, the worst thing you can do is prove that you can’t be trusted to behave responsibly. The more people decide that they are not going to make any sacrifices, the more unlikely it will be that their serious points will be given serious consideration. The economy isn’t going to open up tomorrow and be exactly the way it was before no matter how much you think it should; wouldn’t you rather come up with a compromise everyone can live with? Perhaps having a lower capacity in that bar? Maybe having temperature checks before you enter? And don’t tell me that infringes on your civil liberties—you have no inalienable right to pack a bar and endanger employees, etc. And I have a selfish motive for wanting you not to do it. The longer you engage in that sort of behavior, the longer it will be before I can go out and live my life normally, because as long as there are spikes and increasing numbers, things will not go back the way they were.