Tag Archive: pandemic

Earth Day: 50 Years On

Fifty years ago I participated in the very first Earth Day — yes, I’m that old — by helping clean up litter along Monument Creek in Colorado Springs. I was a teenager excited about all the movements for social change at the time — environment, peace, justice.

At the time I fomented several bouts of indigestion at the dinner table by expressing my views on the Vietnam War, the environment and civil rights. My parents were staunch Republicans, my father had had a career in the military, and he worshipped unfettered capitalism. People like me were considered unpatriotic by the right wing. I remember being particularly upset when I read about how bald eagles were on the brink of extinction because of DDT. “These are our national symbols! And we are killing them!” My father was silent; my mother said, “Do we have to discuss these things at dinner?”

Such innocence then, and hopefulness: teach-ins, creek clean-ups, painting over graffiti on Colorado boulders with rock-colored paint. It was when people started using the word “ecology.” I went to lectures by biology professor Richard Beidleman at Colorado College, where I first learned how everything is interconnected. Disturb one species of life, and you’ll destroy others. Every creature is critical, even mosquitoes and vampire bats. Back then this seemed revolutionary thinking.

What I remember concluding was that, while all these other issues were important: peace, farmworkers’ rights, racial equality, the Third World — the most critical of all was the environment. What would any of these things matter if we had no Earth?

The coronavirus and other recent scary epidemics — Ebola, SARS, for example — jumped to humans from animals. We’re encroaching on species that carry these viruses, and because they’re new to us, we have no resistance. There’s suspicion that the COVID-19 virus came from an animal, possibly a pangolin, sold in a wildlife and seafood market in Wuhan. Humans are capturing rare animals that fetch large sums in faraway markets, hunting them to extinction. That in itself is a crime, or should be. We can never repay the debt we owe animals. But it’s killing us, too.

And it’s not just exotic wildlife markets. It’s much bigger and more fundamental than that. And it isn’t a problem that’s going to end with this virus if we keep on this way. Here are a couple of quotes from experts from one of today’s stories on the NPR page:

“We’re fragmenting habitats. We’re building roads through most regions of the world. We’re incrementally destroying the large landscapes that animals have to live in,” says Raina Plowright, professor of epidemiology at Montana State University and principal investigator of the Bat OneHealth research group.” …

“The real risk is in the wild in the way people interact with wildlife around the world,” says Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance in New York City, a group that researches the origins of pandemics. “That’s where we need to be focused if we want to really do something about preventing the next pandemic.”

NPR. “Coronavirus Researchers Cast Doubt on Theory of Coronavirus Lab Accident,” April 23, 2020.

 In our own greed, we’re killing ourselves.

In the Jewish morning prayers, there’s a blessing, the asher yatzar, a thanks to God for forming the workings of the body. Here’s a loose translation from the Hebrew from the prayerbook Mishkan T’filah:

“Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
with divine wisdom You have made our vital organs
into a finely balanced network.
Wondrous Maker and Sustainer of life,
were one of them to fail —
how well we are aware! —
we would lack the strength to stand in life before You.
Blessed are You, Adonai,
Source of our health and strength.

Baruch ata, Adonai, rofei chol basar umafli laasot.

The more traditional translation gives praise for God’s forming the human body with skill, “creating the body’s many pathways and openings,” recognizing that “if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before You.”

This is earthy. It’s a blessing that’s also to be said upon going to the bathroom. I used to find this a bit strange and embarrassing, especially having been raised as a Catholic, in which spirit and body (“upper” and “lower” were separate.) But as a person with Crohn’s disease, who has known misery without those things working properly, I came to realize how totally appropriate is this bit of daily gratitude.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by a doctor of internal medicine opened my eyes to the marvelous construction of healthy lungs. (“What You Should Know Before You Need a Ventilator,” by Kathryn Dreger, April 4, 2020)

“The lining of each sac is so thin that air floats through them into the red blood cells. These millions of alveoli are so soft, so gentle, that a healthy lung has almost no substance. Touching it feels like reaching into a bowl of whipped cream.

Covid-19 wrecks those perfect workings, turning that billowy whipped cream into a “stale marshmallow,” and other major organs fail due to lack of oxygen.

So in the midst of this pandemic, I am grateful for what I’ve always taken for granted:

The ability to draw a full breath of air deep into my lungs.
The feeling of physical well-being right now, knowing it may not remain so: nothing hurting, no fever, no coughing.
My warm, safe apartment. What are the homeless doing? What hell is that? What will happen when this virus hits the poorest high-population countries? We don’t hear much about that.
A balcony from which to safely enjoy the outdoors as springs arrives, where I can safely breathe clean air. A balcony looking out onto a nature preserve, from which I have seen bald eagles, not to mention blue herons and white ones (or are those egrets?)
The tree full of birds outside my window and the jaunty woodpeckers at the feeder.
That we have the internet and Zoom.
Two cats to share this quarantine with. My little family.
People in life-saving careers, not just medical professionals but the low-paid unnoticed people that keep the gears running: grocery store workers, people who keep the utilities going, etc. People who work in public service.
Netflix and Amazon Prime, to transport me to other worlds and times, that engross me so that, for a while, I forget the pandemic. The series that’s most recently gotten me through: the Australian 6-season A Place to Call Home.
Six pounds of heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo. I’d been trying different varieties and accumulated them, not imagining how perfect they would be for this time.
The excitement of picking up two weeks’ worth of groceries at Cub yesterday. The kitchen looks like Santa Claus came to visit.

Pandemic: Spring 2020

It started with a bat that infected another mammal — maybe a pangolin (a very endangered scaled anteater-type critter) — that was being sold in a live animal market in Wuhan, China. Then, through a mutation in the virus, it jumped to a human who visited said market. Then it mutated into something that humans could pass to each other. Thus in December 2019 began the citywide infection in Wuhan. From the news we followed, it looked horrendous: Wuhan, a city of 11 million, now a ghost town in lockdown. People being boarded into their apartments by the authorities, and lines of sick people outside the hospital being told by overwhelmed staff, sorry, there’s nothing we can do. There’s no cure, there was no room, there weren’t enough medical personnel. So they were sent home to recover or die, and infect their families. The city was being cordoned off. Desperate people were trapped there.

An ocean away, it seemed distant. Why would the stock market here take a dive because of what was happening there? And of course this kind of thing would happen someplace like China. Never here. We don’t have live wildlife markets, and we don’t have an authoritarian government like China’s, which silenced the original whistle-blower, Dr. Li Wenliang. People protested the government’s handling of the crisis. Was this going to be another Tiannamen Square? Would it really change China this time? Interesting to ponder, but still, something far away.

Then, as people were gradually able to leave Wuhan, the virus, Covid-19, flew with them. Soon it ran rampant in northern Italy and Iran. We heard about towns in Italy being cordoned off. We saw video of people fleeing Lombardy before the lockdown began. It seemed crazy. Milan, home of La Scala opera house and sophisticated center of fashion and international businesses. I thought of my long hoped-for trip to Italy, one I’d hoped to make in summer 2019, which would have been the 40th anniversary of my trip to Calabria, to the town from which my great-grandparents immigrated and where a branch of our family lives, who warmly welcomed me in 1979. For various reasons, I did not go last summer, and it surely will not be happen this summer, though initially I’d thought “Well, it’s just northern Italy. Calabria seems safe.” And now all of Italy is in lockdown.

A video went viral, in which Italians talk to the “themselves” of 10 days ago. It was a warning to those of us 10 days behind them to take the social distancing orders seriously. A rumbling of thunder in the distance. And now two-thirds of us in the U.S. are under “shelter in place” orders, as well. (Written in late March. Now it’s higher.) New York City is turning hellish. We’re seeing scenes that seemed unbelievable when we saw them in northern Italy: freezer trucks pulled up to the hospital to collect all the dead bodies. People dying alone in ICUs because family members, rightly, can’t be allowed in. Trump himself and Drs. Fauci and Birx said yesterday to prepare for the coming week to be shocking. That this week would be our Pearl Harbor, our 9/11.

I’ve been obsessively reading the New York Times, and one day a few weeks ago (or a couple — time has telescoped) — I saw a headline that made me shudder. I didn’t even read the article. Too horrifying. More unbelievableness. The gist was that doctors in Italy were being forced to make horrendous decisions about who to treat and who to let die. There aren’t enough ventilators. Really? That could happen? Well, yes, it happens in war. Triage. Treat the wounded who are most likely to live, and let the others go. Then people here in the U.S. started debating: should everybody go back to work and let the old and the weak die in service to the economy?

This is a war. The Army is building field hospitals in Central Park. A Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, has pulled into New York City’s harbor to serve as a floating hospital. Health care workers, who don’t have nearly adequate personal protective equipment (PPE: one of those terms many of us have learned recently) freely admit to being scared every day.

Wherever you are in life, this pandemic makes it all the more so. Are you alone? Now you’re really alone. Are you with others, in a family? Now you’re really together. I’ve thought, this must be an important relationship marker for some couples: are we going to quarantine together?

Are you selfish? Are you good? Heroic? Now you are all the more so. As for heroic, the Today Show this morning showed some of the 80,000 health care professionals who have answered Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plea to help in New York City. Many health workers are sick, and some have died.

But then there are the low-paid heroes, just trying to hold onto their homes and feed their families, and in doing so, they are feeding us. These are the grocery store workers, the people we don’t notice and don’t give accolades to. They’re risking their health and lives for little pay. And the warehouse workers, all the people in the supply chain. And for that matter, other workers in the hospital besides the medical personnel: the custodians, the guards, the receptionist, the cafeteria worker.

Here in my apartment in Minneapolis, I am useless. I can barely stand it. At least it’s been said that staying home right now is heroic. You save the human race by sitting on the couch and watching Netflix. A few times in my life I considered nursing school but thought it too far out of my realm. I was a literature person and squeamish about blood and needles. Now is one of the times I wish I’d done it, though I’d surely be sidelined for being too old and also immunocompromised due to my meds. But oh, a big part of me would like to be one of those people.

For now, we brace ourselves for the tidal wave we saw envelop Wuhan, followed by northern Italy. We know it’s coming here, we know what it looks like, and we read the ominous predictions: 100,000 dead and millions infected. Soon we will all know someone who is sick or someone who has died — or so it seems. (I wrote this only a week or two ago, and now it IS here. Not quite in Minneapolis, but with the delayed time from infection to symptoms, most of the healthy-looking people out there right now could be ill in a few days.)

I’m seeing more info that suggests that this teeny virus spreads not just through droplets from coughing and sneezing but also through aerosol — that is, in even smaller invisible fragments, from someone’s breath, where they can hang in the air for three hours. People can shed virus for days before they feel symptoms and know they’re infected. If that’s true, it’s no wonder this thing spreads like wildfire.

I’ve been keeping to myself, doing all the right things. But what about that runner who passed me on the nature trail out back, who was huffing and puffing within a few feet of me yesterday? What about the woman I almost bumped into at the door of one of the stairwells in our building, where I said “Sorry,” and she said, “That’s OK.” Was any virus breathed out with those words? Will I die for these little exchanges?

Wuhan was only two months ago. And now here we are, the whole world, practically, in lockdown. Lord have mercy.