I really appreciated reading Charles Yu’s compelling piece in The Atlantic. I wasn’t happy about what he said, but I sure appreciated his perspective. He wrote:
“Human civilization – thanks to advancements in science, medicine, social and governmental structures – exists inside a bubble, protected from the kind of cataclysmic event we are currently experiencing.”
Yu makes a solid point about this “bubble”, particularly for those of us living with a chronic and progressive illness like heart disease, which makes us particularly vulnerable to the “cataclysmic event” called COVID-19. .
I must add that Yu is a Columbia University-trained corporate lawyer-turned-TV-writer-turned novelist living in California, so he might be forgiven for omitting in that sentence what he really means: “human civilization in first world countries“.
Developing countries may or may not enjoy the advancement privileges that he (or I) enjoy, and it could be further argued that countless neighbourhoods within his own United States cannot take privileges for granted either.
It can take a global pandemic to remind us that any modern advantage we enjoy exists only within this fragile bubble, described by Yu as having a “thin layer that pops easily”. Now, events that were once considered inviolable – sending our kids to school, for example, or weddings, graduations, even funerals – were postponed indefinitely. Lineups for food banks. Nursing homes filled with COVID-19 infected seniors whose families were not allowed to hold their hands while they were dying.
That bubble has popped. But the centre of that bubble, the part that will persist long after current COVID-19 precautions are lifted, according to Yu, is the psychological bubble that many of us still cling to.
“What we really mean when we say that this pandemic feels ‘unimaginable’ is that we had not imagined it. Even as our stark new reality becomes clear, it remains hard to accept that ‘normal’ was the fiction.
“It will take some time to let go of the long-held, seldom-questioned assumptions of everyday life: that tomorrow will look like yesterday, next year like the last.
“The current pandemic crisis and our responses to it (both individual and institutional) have reminded us that it’s not the unreality of the pandemic, but the illusions shattered by it: the grand, shared illusion that we are separate from nature, that life on Earth is generally stable, not precarious.”
Within a few short months, we have graduated together from a crash course that teaches us how unstable our life on this precious earth can indeed be, as precarious as it has always been for others who are “not like us”.
As many seem to believe, bad things are what happen to other people. And if they do happen to us (through death or divorce or a life-altering medical diagnosis), we will somehow survive by clutching at trite platitudes like “Everything happens for a reason!” or “God never gives you more than you can handle!”
What we’ve been experiencing during this COVID-19 crisis is a thin sliver of the catastrophic reality happening day after day, year after year worldwide, far beyond the perimeter of our cozy bubbles: devastating droughts, famine, earthquakes, hurricanes, forest fires, war zones, refugee camps and other sources of fear and suffering that we mistakenly believe will never touch us.
Here’s a closer-to-home example: consider the people we see interviewed on the news whose homes are built in the middle of a flood plain. Decade after decade, tearful families share truly awful stories of being homeless after yet another devastating flood, as if surprised this could have happened to them. Again.
Julie Morse once interviewed her neighbours in western Washington state about this phenomenon. It’s an area so prone to flooding that rivers there have reached flood stage more than 1,400 times in the last 20 years. Yet people continue to rebuild their flood-damaged homes on flood plains (usually with the assistance of government-funded disaster relief programs) – as if they don’t believe they live on a flood plain. They simply cannot accept it.
Of course, we long for a return to the way our lives were, pre-COVID-19, but first we need to face reality head on, and to learn what the countries affected before us have to teach us.
When physical distancing, stay-home protocols and travel restrictions are abandoned in favour of hugging strangers at large indoor parties, arena-sized crowds, and packed airline flights once again, this novel coronavirus will almost certainly re-emerge in another wave, just as every global pandemic in history has re-emerged.
The end of the COVID-19 virus crisis won’t be like shutting off a tap, although we may dream longingly about how great it will be “when this is over”. Now is not the time to drop important public safety precautions that are based on protecting the common good. We have to accept that.
My five-year old granddaughter Everly Rose asks me, “When can we have sleepovers at your house again, Baba?” One day, precious girl, one day. . .
That dream will take time, likely far more time than we can even guess at this point.
Do not be surprised to see that emerging COVID-19 news reports will continue to include scary lists of new confirmed cases, new hospitalizations, new mutations of the virus, and new deaths as people begin too early to abandon public precautions. For those living with chronic illness who have been white-knuckling through months of self-isolation, so scared to catch this virus, it’s especially important for us to acknowledge reality instead of politicized bafflegab.
First, hospitals and medical specialists will be busy playing catch-up, treating worsening medical conditions of those whose treatments have been delayed by more urgent COVID-19 priorities. See also: “Empty beds: when heart patients are afraid to seek help“
Charles Yu concludes his unique perspective in The Atlantic with a nod to the lived reality of the majority of the globe’s citizens:
“Things aren’t necessarily going to be okay in a reasonable time frame just because we want them to be.
“To think otherwise is to succumb to the fiction, a sheltered, resource-rich mindset, presumably not shared by the billions of people who have long lived in volatile conditions and are thus under no such illusions.”
People whose expertise and experience have been built on global front lines studying how pandemics actually work will not be making idle promises to patch up that magic bubble for us.
Please. Stay safe.
Q: Are we too willing to give up public safety COVID-19 precautions?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about how heart patients manage health crises in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease. You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).
♥–CardioSmart (a report from the American College of Cardiology on how COVID-19 affects heart patients)