COVID-19: The uncounted costs and the choice ahead

We’re going on two months since the pandemic upended our daily lives, and what began – for many – as a long unexpected-but-not-entirely-unwelcome staycation is transitioning to a new normal, a world in which we are back to our lives and our jobs but at a careful distance, a summer without festivals and fairs, sports teams playing in empty stadiums.  A year or more, perhaps, without singing in choirs or feeling comfortable hugging our friends, without visiting our elders in care facilities.  Within myself, I am feeling increasingly restless and reckless, pulled between a desire for freedom from fear and a sense of social obligation, to continue to slow the spread and “stay home, save lives” as our governor implores. 

I find myself meditating on a passage from The Living, by Annie Dillard.  The entire book, a work of historical fiction set in late 19th-century northern Washington State, is a reflection on what it means to be alive, to feel alive, to choose life over fear in a world defined by mortality.  Within the context of frequent and unexpected death from accidents and disease, one of the main characters (Clare Fishburn) is under constant threat from an armed and mentally unstable man (Beal Obenchain) who wishes him dead.  This leads to a climactic confrontation and a choice, a moment of clarity, a joyful and courageous surrender, as the character turns his back on the threat, accepts the possibility of death, and walks on (pp. 385-386):

When Obenchain stood and stopped him—his face thickened under his hat—and told him he was not going to kill him, he was not going to die, Clare looked out over the trestle and down to the water, where gulls flew without bending their wings. Obenchain was offering him a view he had to reject. The tide on the bay was slack at the flood. There was a plank walkway on the trestle by the rails. Clare moved onto the walkway, nodding and serious; he held his breath as if he were diving.  The trestle quit the shore, and Clare stepped out over the bay and the strait in a socket of light.  Sky pooled under his shoulders and arched beneath his feet.  Time rolled back and bore him; he was porous as bones.

‘No,’ he said to Obenchain – but Obenchain was already far behind him on the bluff, his head swaying up like a blind man’s.  No, indeed.  The sky came carousing down around him.  He saw the sun drenching the green westward islands and battering a path down the water.  He saw the town before him to the south, where the trestle lighted down.  Then far on the Nooksack plain to the east, he saw a man walking.  The distant figure was turning pea rows under in perfect silence.  He was dressed in horse’s harness and he pulled the plow.  His feet trod his figure’s long blue shadow, and the plow cut its long blue shadow in the ground.  The man turned back as if to look along the furrow, to check its straightness.  Clare saw again, on the plain farther north, another man; this one walked behind a horse and turned the green ground under.  Then before him on the trestle over the water he saw the earth itself walking, the earth walking darkly as it always walks in every season: it was plowing the men under, and the horses, and the plows.

The earth was plowing the men under, and the horses under, and the plows.  No wonder you are cold, he said to the broken earth, he said to the lighted water: you kicked your people off.  No generation sees it happen, and the damp new fields grow up forgetting.  He would return home and see his cedar shingles off on the train.  Clare was burrowing in light upstream.  All the living were breasting into the crest of the present together.  All men and women and children spread in a long line, holding aloft a ribbon or banner; they ran up a field as wide as earth, opening time like a path in the grass, and he was borne along with them.  No, he said, peeling the light back, walking in the sky toward home; no.

I love that passage because it combines remarkably evocative imagery of enduring natural beauty with the transience of human life, and Clare explicitly accepts the world as it is, complete with the ever-present possibility and ultimate inevitability of death, and chooses to ride the cresting wave of the present.  And he does so without reference to a particular God or vision of the afterlife – which would limit relevance to those with similar beliefs – but simply a joyful commitment to this mysterious and miraculous experience of life that we all share. 

When I think ahead to a year without gatherings, without contra dances and potlucks, without concerts, a year of fearing closeness rather than embracing it, a year of religiously washing our hands, wearing masks, keeping our distance from our parents and grandparents, I think of a song that my father wrote, to the melody of Tom Paxton’s The Last Thing On My Mind:

Recorded May 13, 2020, with my father’s guitar

In the morning the sun so gloriously greets the day
Brings the light, ends the night
And in the streets the people go the same old way
Without sight, without light
And how many days just pass us by
When we never really live and we never really die
And we never really laugh and we never really cry
And we never really know the reasons why
In the evening all the colors gather
In the sky, the western sky
Yet in the streets the people all would rather
Just get by, just get by
And how many days just pass us by
When we never really live and we never really die
And we never really laugh and we never really cry
And we never really know the reasons why

~Ed Stone, sometime around 1980

In this case we know the reason why, and we are accepting a lesser life in the hope that doing so will lead to lesser death.  But perhaps that is always the reason why.  Perhaps we don’t really live and really laugh because our fear stops us short, tells us stories that keep us small, keeps us confined to the past and future, the virtual and the distant, while neglecting the miracle of the here and now. 

The latest guidance says that we won’t be singing together again, dancing together, crowding into stadiums again, until we have effective treatment or a vaccine.  That wording concerns me, precisely because it is conditional and not at all time-bound.  We might have a vaccine next year, or we might have one that is 40% effective like for the flu, or we might not ever have an effective vaccine at all, like for HIV.  It’s not like waiting until Christmas.  It’s more like staying in an unpleasant living situation because your scary roommate tells you they are probably moving out sometime in the next few years, and it feels safer and easier to stay put. 

The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has so far resulted in 85,000 deaths and trillions of dollars’ worth of missing paychecks. The question of reopening is usually portrayed as lives lost versus economic suffering, but that equation is missing so much of human experience that cannot be readily quantified. What is the value of dying in the company of family and friends, versus dying alone in a sterile institution?  What is the value of spending nights and weekends with parents and grandparents?  What is the value of cancelled dances and missed glances?  What is the value of making music together in a choir, of gathering in a park for a summer concert, or relaxing in the presence of joyful humans at the Oregon Country Fair or Folklife or a stadium crowd?  What is the cost of isolation – not just in terms of clinical depression and suicide but in quality of life?  How much time spent less than fully alive is worth how much actual death? 

I should note that I supported the lockdowns, imposed at a time when we were facing so many unknown unknowns, when it seemed like the alternative could be millions of deaths in a few weeks, or that we might discover a miracle treatment.  The lockdowns also provided a much needed reset of the rat-race economy, a chance to stop for a moment, to take time to think, to consider our approach to this new death-bringer in our midst rather than being dragged thoughtlessly forward to meet it.  But I also cautioned, in my first essay on COVID-19, that we might well be faced with a difficult choice if eradication proved impossible.  Two months have passed since then, and the time for that choice has now arrived.

It is time, I believe, to consider the possibility of surrender.  Not an unconditional surrender, with COVID-19 patients overwhelming our hospitals, but an acceptance that in order to return to our lives and our loves, we must accept a higher chance of death than would be strictly necessary.  A choice like Clare Fishburn, to say “I reject the idea that I will not die,” and to thereby choose to live.

In order to morally make such a choice, we must address two serious ethical dilemmas.  The first is that any choice that increases one’s chance of death is deeply personal, and should ideally never be coerced.  At the moment we have waiters and hairdressers who are afraid to return to work, yet who face the loss of unemployment payments when their industries reopen.  We have elders with conditions that render COVID-19 extremely life-threatening, who wish to be able to choose continued safety in isolation even as life resumes.  The second is that our society is built upon structural inequalities, which are showing up as disproportionate infection and death rates among African Americans, immigrant communities, and low-income families employed in essential trades.  This has become a political division, as a few on the right posit that death is OK so long as it happens to those people, while many on the left counter that the only reasonable approach is to continue the lockdown indefinitely and minimize death at all costs.

We will not be able to address these dilemmas completely, but we could certainly do better.  We should offer continued unemployment to anyone who is uncomfortable returning to work, along with the option of paid education for retraining in lower-risk careers.  We should ensure that we have delivery systems in place to provide low-contact essentials to those who choose self-isolation.  We should create a National Essential Service Corps, with voluntary enlistment and good pay and benefits similar to the military.  This force should be deployed to keep essential services open – including meatpacking and public transportation – while allowing at-risk and fearful workers in those areas to take extended paid vacations until local outbreaks subside.  Such a service would also expose a wide array of people to these “dirty” and underappreciated jobs, and likely generate a public outcry to improve pay and working conditions.

If we can protect the most vulnerable and address demographic inequality, then perhaps we can follow in the footsteps of Sweden, which never imposed a lockdown on their population.  They have been criticized for having a higher death rate than neighboring countries, but neither has it been catastrophic, and in fact it has remained lower than locked-down Spain and Italy.  Perhaps our control is not even as effective as we believe it to be.  Regardless, the novelty of COVID-19 has worn off, and we understand it far better than we did a few months ago.  Now we must simply choose, each for ourselves and together as a society:  will we constrain our lives indefinitely, in the hope that we can claim dominion over this virus, or will we follow in the footsteps of Clare Fishburn, accept the possibility of death, and set off courageously across the trestle toward home?

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