"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Locked Down, Shut Down, And Totally Spooked–Shuttered And Scared To Death By COVID

Betty Arlen had never been a timid woman – careful, practical, and sensible; and never one to take risks – but in the Year of COVID she became a fearful shut-in. 

Reactions to the first wave of the virus varied by personality.  There were those who had been through Africa’s civil wars and survived pestilential hellholes, who had served on river patrols in Vietnam, who were extreme bikers, mountain climbers, and downhill racers.  They took the news of the coming pandemic with aplomb.  They would be careful, just as they had been on their ascents of Meru, incursions into Cambodia, or clandestine raids on Houthi encampments in Yemen, never sniffed at the possibility of dying in an ICU, but never feared death.

Image result for images river patrol boats firing in vietnam

There were those who had come to terms with death and dying either thanks to religious faith, existentialism, or la dolce vita, or  te morituri salutant macho fatalism.  Others simply followed orders and obeyed official restrictions.  Government will help us, they said, and listened assiduously to statements from CDC, official Washington, and local authorities. There was nothing any individual could do in the face of such an invasive horror, they believed, so it was best to let those who knew, those in power, those elected as guarantors of the rights and well being of the governed, take charge.

Image result for images gladiators te morituri salutant

And then there were the likes of Betty Arlen, terrified from the moment of the first identified case of COVID; and who quickly adopted the most drastic measures to protect her life and health.  She was one of the ‘first responders’ to the virus, the ones who sequestered their mail and packages for three days in back-forty outbuildings, who sprayed every surface with powerful disinfectants, who put commercial air filters in every room, who wore triple masks and plastic face shields inside, day and night, who never set foot outside her redoubt, and waited for the pandemic to pass.

Weeks and months went by with little change in the forecast – more and more disease was on its way, spread through negligence, ignorance, and obstinate political defiance; and new, deadly variants of the virus, caused by this same indolence and irresponsibility were mutating, degrading the healthiest immune systems, ripping through protective firewalls, and joining in a biological perfect storm to threaten life itself.  Betty was petrified with fear.  She became wan and drawn from lack of sleep, wasted and skeletal from lack of food, and wild-eyed and tremulous with anxiety and fear.

Image result for images weird COVID protection

Where was her equanimity? friends asked.  How had such a practical, down-to-earth mature woman become such a terrified recluse?

Had they looked more carefully, they would have seen that the answer lay in the very question they asked.  It was her practicality, parsimony, and tight judiciousness which were major contributing factors.  Her life had never been one of risk assessment, but risk avoidance.  Why shouldn’t one drive the most armored cars on the road to be able to survive traffic accidents even though the chance of getting into one driving a tank was far greater than in an agile import? 

Avoidance of risk was an expression of avoidance of waste.  Why should one spend one dollar more for an item, even though the opportunity cost of bottom-line searches was high.  Why should one take a devilishly complicated route from A to B, through warrens and back streets, potholed roads and unmarked alleys to save time and gas, when such routes were aggravating, disturbing, and distracting?

In short she had created a complex set of practical algorithms which were created to preserve her resources, waste nothing, save everything, and live carefully.  There was little room in such a life for fancy let alone risk.  She had a visceral dislike for the showy and the obvious. She dressed down never up, always looked well but put-together, and was an old maid in attitude, predilection, and activity.

The pandemic gave her the uncontrollable willies because it was so unknown, uncontrollable, and changeable.  Her algorithmic complex was worthless against COVID.  There were no absolutes.  There were no right and best ways because the road signs kept changing.  First she was told that she could catch the virus by simply touching likely infected surfaces, all surfaces in fact because the airborne virus could land unpredictably and everywhere.  

Betty scrubbed like a washerwoman until her hands were red and raw and then came the news that the chances of viral infection from contaminated surfaces was almost nil.  There was no need for volumes of hand sanitizer, industrial disinfectants, and sluicing of water. She breathed a sigh of relief, but bad news followed  good – the virus was not only spread by exhaled droplets but by aerosol dispersion against which masks had limited effectiveness.  In her house, an old pre-war house with poor insulation and more holes than a sieve, the virus would certainly infiltrate, and no matter how many masks she wore, she would get sick.

Image result for images 19th century washerwoman

But no sooner was this awful prospect disseminated than the government backtracked.  No, they said, it was droplets after all, and there was none of the ‘viral ubiquity’ that they suspected.  Another sigh of relief from terrified Betty.

This round of ups and downs continued.  First this, then that, until the information universe was a mess – total confusion, irrationality, tracks and backtracks, statements and retractions.  What was a woman to do? 

By this time a ‘fuck it’ mentality had spread through the populace.  Even those who had been careful and safe, opened up.  Come what may, they said, life in a series of panics and shutdowns was not worth living.

Betty could not abide such dereliction, nor could she, given her upbringing, possibly entertain such vanity.  It was time to double down on the virus, not let up; and by all means and every means, do everything to protect herself. When she finally stepped out her door it was in the equivalent of a NASA space suit – an outfit that was a combination firefighter asbestos, biohazard security impenetrability, and hazardous waste disposal triple-layer high-tech fabric. Nothing could convince her to lighten up.  Dying was a serious business and every means to keep it at bay was worth the effort. 

Image result for images men in hazmat suits

Over the months, the virus became more and more under control.  Bars and restaurants opened for business, life slowly returned to normal; and when the vaccines came and were distributed, normality was in the air – for all but for Betty who still trusted nothing.  The vaccines were at best 95 percent effective but far less for those whose immune systems were weak either from underlying illness or age. Add to that suspect protection against new variants, and you might as well throw Moderna and Pfizer in the trash.

So Betty changed nothing.  Opprobrium if not bitchy cattiness on the part of neighbors and former acquaintances forced her to lose the Hazmat suit, but everything else remained the same.  She went out only rarely, could not stop herself from scrubbing and purifying, continued to wear two masks and a plastic shield, and hunkered down with a vengeance. 

Her family wondered why she, a normally warm and generous person, refused to see them; and her few remaining friends began to see her as weird eccentric.  She had become not only a self-imposed recluse but a caricatured exile.

Of course she never caught COVID, and died of something else entirely.  At her age one thing or another was bound to kill you and eventually did, so all her panic was for naught; but it is perhaps unfair to criticize her or anyone for their behavior, so pre-determined as it is.  The end of her life which should have been a happy one was a lonely, separated one. 

A cautionary tale, certainly; but everyone has their own wild imagination to deal with, so lessons are hard to learn.

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