Strange times, with silver linings
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, responds to a reporter’s question at a March 25 coronavirus (COVID-19) update briefing.

Strange times, with silver linings

Panic looks a lot like the Kübler-Ross model for the five stages of grief — and yet, people are reaching out to one another in new and creative ways

BRATTLEBORO — “After Sept. 11th, I thought I'd seen everything,” a close friend in New York confided to me this week, as President Trump threatened another quarantine.

So did I.

I moved to New York just after my 21st birthday. I'd landed my dream job on a national news desk at a major media organization, writing and editing stories from around the world.

In the next several years, I would handle every type of breaking news imaginable: the U.S. election recount, 9/11, the war in Iraq, the 2003 power outage that plunged 50 million people into darkness across the Northeast (reviving more fears of terrorism), and the 2008–2009 global financial meltdown.

I lived overseas and reported on the rise of the Islamic State, the Volkswagen emissions scandal, and Russia's interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

I witnessed, time and again, what happens when people panic. And I learned that it looked a lot like the Kübler-Ross model for the five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and, finally, acceptance.

I guess I thought I'd seen it all, too.

Until now.

* * *

While it still seems utterly incomprehensible, we now are embarking on yet another presidential election season, even as we learn, very rapidly, that what initially appeared to be an outbreak of 41 severe pneumonia cases in December linked to a wet market in Wuhan, China - known for its notoriously inhumane wildlife section - has snowballed into a global pandemic that, as of this writing, is ravaging an estimated 199 countries and territories and now swiftly spreading across the U.S.

No one in this country seems to have any handle on what we are now facing. We don't have parents, or even grandparents, who can tell us what they did the last time the U.S. experienced a global pandemic, which was more than 100 years ago - let alone one with a TV-show president.

While many Americans (not excluding the Deep Thinkers in Washington) originally tut-tutted the notion of the novel coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19 for short) shifting from China to the U.S. within a month's time and threatening our entire economy, that's precisely what happened.

Widespread panic has sent U.S. markets into the fastest bear-market plunge Wall Street has ever seen, outpacing the speed of the 1929 stock market crash. We've watched, apoplectic, as our own leaders and politicians have dumped their stocks while telling us everything is OK.

Denial, check. Anger (and fear), also check.

Financial forecasters predict the U.S. economy could shrink by a record 12 percent in the second quarter alone, with the International Monetary Fund projecting the economy will slide into a “recession at least as bad as during the global financial crisis or worse” in 2020.

Just over a week ago, New York became the nation's COVID-19 epicenter and, here in Vermont, this past weekend, the number of confirmed cases topped 230 with a death toll of 12, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

In late March, the journal Science published a study estimating that for every confirmed case, five to 10 more people are likely carrying the virus. Yet even with COVID-19 cases largely underreported, the U.S. now has more than any other country, with cases exceeding 180,000, followed by Italy, Spain, China, Germany, and France.

Globally, more than 846,156 cases had been confirmed as of March 31, with almost 50,000 dead. Confronted with an enemy we cannot see, but know surrounds us, many of us feel sad, helpless, or even numb, which has made it difficult to get through the day. Depression, check.

* * *

In Windham County, confirmed COVID-19 cases over the weekend were below a dozen, as schools closed, employees began to telework from home, and hundreds of residents opted to self-isolate in an abundance of caution.

Across the state, Vermonters are begging for more data left in hundreds of comments at the bottom of news stories. When Burlington's death per-capita rate surged last week in line with some of the highest-risk cities in the country, like New York, a small group of people in one online forum demanded to know the ages and health profiles of Vermonters who have died.

“If it is largely or exclusively elderly people and/or those with compromised immunity,” one woman wrote, “that knowledge would reduce the anxiety of the general population [...] and permit everyone else to transition back to work and schools as quickly and safely as possible.”

Many others agreed, with one chiming in, “It is irresponsible not to disclose age and health. It feeds into the anxiety for all. We need complete data to understand who this virus is killing. [...] We all can't stay home for months.” Bargaining, check.

I called the Vermont Department of Health, and it did confirm that most of those who have died in Vermont are elderly. But it declined to give more specific information, or even an age range, simply saying that “their characteristics are in line with what's happening in other states.”

Bottom line: Vermont's authorities do not want people transitioning back to work or schools at this time, because it would further spread the virus and put more people at risk. Even if you are healthy enough to weather the virus yourself, you could easily spread it to others, and those people could die.

And because it is a “novel” virus, it is unclear how it will affect you, until you have it.

Your medical history, immune system, age, and gender can all play a role in your ability to survive. (Statistically, men seem to be getting hit hardest across the globe.)

With no treatment for COVID-19 available, our only weapon is to work together - by staying apart - to prevent its spread. The hospitals, which are there to treat the fallen, are not our front line. We are.

“Americans won't be able to do it,” a Ph.D. based in southeast Asia who specializes in communicable diseases told me during a recent interview. “You are too in love with your liberties.”

* * *

But I see hope in Vermont and elsewhere, as people reach out to one another in new and creative ways. These are strange times, and we are all feeling increasingly isolated, but there are silver linings.

While teleworking in recent days, I have met colleagues' kids, families, and pets for the first time. Seeing their homes and speaking with them has humanized and connected all of us.

I have talked and Skype-d and Zoom-ed with more friends around the world in the past week than I usually do in a year. I am writing letters again. Catching up on books. Tackling daunting house projects. Painting. Playing oft-neglected musical instruments.

Outdoors time and moments in nature have taken on new, deeply significant meaning.

Walking through our downtowns and shops has become an entirely new experience, as avoiding your neighbors and friends by the doctor-recommended 6 feet is now seen as a sign of extreme care and courtesy.

At a grocery store, while attempting to maintain a wide berth of a man in line, I was met with a smile and a “Thank you.” (Many women will know what I mean when I say this truly is a novel experience.)

We are understanding, perhaps for the first time, that our communities really are filled with ordinary heroes. Our garbage-haulers, mail carriers, grocery store clerks, and especially our health-care workers are taking incalculable risks every day, multiple times a day, so that we can shelter at home in the best possible health and comfort.

We are rediscovering our families and, alternately, our splendid solace. (“For the world's nerds, introverts, and recluses - this is our time!” another friend proclaimed back in February.)

With so many of our social and professional commitments on hold, we are suddenly being given the gift, if only briefly, of simplicity.

* * *

If you have a part of yourself you need to reclaim or connect to, now is the time. If you have a friend or family member you need to make more time for, here is your window. If you have wished for more time to meditate, cook, volunteer, or just take a long walk in the woods, this is your chance.

It is not a time of leisure, to be sure. It is a time of enormous stress and uncertainty.

But by necessity, it is a time to be with ourselves and our loved ones and to be still. To take stock of the things that matter most and, when the world is back to some semblance of normalcy, to not forget what we have learned during this time.

Trumpian politics tells us that U.S. isolationism is the key to success. But even here, it is only through a global, herculean effort at isolationism that we can get this deadly virus under control.

More than a test of health, or politics, or even economics, this is a social test. If we can do this, who is to say that we, as a global community, cannot tackle similarly unwieldy problems - like the global wealth gap and climate change?

On Sunday morning, just before I turned in this piece, my mother, who is in her late 70s, called me to say that, while she had carefully self-quarantined, she had awoken with a sore throat. We don't know her status yet and likely won't for days.

“The world is small,” she said. “And we are going to have to learn how to deal with this together.”

Acceptance, check.

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