Littwin: A self-isolator’s guide on life during the coronavirus pandemic

Self-isolating Grandpa walks in on the action with grandsons Lalo and Ricky. I don’t know where the hats came from, but I wished I had one, too. (Photo by Angie Littwin)
Self-isolating Grandpa walks in on the action with grandsons Lalo and Ricky. I don’t know where the hats came from, but I wished I had one, too. (Photo by Angie Littwin)

Reporting from an undisclosed self-isolation location:

OK, it’s not funny. I am mostly self-isolated, though, which is a lot like being quarantined, which is a lot like nothing I’ve ever done before.  In fact, I have refused to even think of myself as a senior — I know, OK Boomer — except when I ask for the discount at the for-now-closed movie theaters. But I apparently am old, I do have an underlying disease (Type 1 diabetes), and so that puts me solidly in the at-risk community, which means, for excitement, there’s always the moment when the mail arrives.

I know that Cory Gardner, who is self-quarantined because he came in contact with someone who tested positive, can relate, although (guessing here) he’s still not answering my phone calls. Jason Crow is also in self-quarantine for the same reason. By the way, he will return my calls.

This week, I have my Medicare-required quarterly appointment with my endocrinologist.  We’re doing the appointment by phone because a doctor’s office or clinic or hospital is the last place to be. In fact, outside is the last place anyone should be if you don’t have to be there. Yeah, I saw the photos from Clearwater beach, but I hear — from people who do go outside — that some public shaming has begun. But as a writer from New York magazine wondered, could America’s hyper-individualism be our downfall?

(And by the way, of the many failings of the Trump administration in this crisis, not having enough personal protective gear — PPEs, they call them — for doctors and nurses and others is a scandal even among scandals. Don’t get me started on ventilators. Or the still-mystifying lack of tests. Meanwhile,  here’s an update from health officials in Los Angeles County: Hospitals there have about 2,200 ICU beds. Only 152 are open.)

The warnings we’re finally getting, even from the White House, are not about scaring anyone. This is trying, if belatedly,  to “flatten the curve,” as they say, on this pandemic. It was John McCain who used to talk about causes bigger than ourselves. Well, this pandemic is an American test case. Hell, it’s a global test case.

Businesses must know this and must act accordingly, working to help their employees. The government must know this, and the White House is now making noises about sending everyone a check of $1,000 or more. Suddenly everyone is a Yang Ganger. Is it too late for Andrew Yang to get back in the race?

But $1,000 is not enough. Michael Bennet is among Democratic senators — including Sherrod Brown and Cory Booker — who are calling for $4,500 for all adults and children in the United States, coming in installments, because this pandemic is not going away. I’d be happy if there’s a cutoff at a certain salary or a sliding scale, but getting the money out soon is what’s most critical.

As everyone knows, there is rent to pay, there are mortgages to pay, there is child care to pay, there are college loans to pay, and on and on. The pandemic will almost certainly lead to a recession, if we’re not already there. And the critical point, in the case of people’s physical health and the nation’s economic health, is to rebound as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, unemployment requests are now booming. In a tweet from CPR’s Andy Kenney, we learn these stunning, but unsurprising, numbers: On March 9, there were 400 Colorado unemployment claims. On March 16, 3,900. On March 17, 6,800 — by 10 a.m. This is a trend line that will keep heading up, in much the way that the stock market, with an exception Tuesday, keeps heading down.

I mean, everyone should know by now how serious this pandemic is. And yet, CNN interrupted its political news to show San Franciscans — where the order is for everyone to shelter in place — walking around, jogging around, skateboarding around, as if nothing is wrong. This is not just a problem. It is the problem. This will not go away until everyone understands that. And don’t blame the kids. I keep reading that boomers — my people — are no better.

Even Trump, who says we shouldn’t gather in places where there are more than 10 people — which is basically everywhere — seems to finally know how serious this is, meaning it’s not a Democratic hoax or a media hoax or that the numbers are headed down. He has adopted a different tone, but it’s still a Trump who says he always knew it was a pandemic, even back when he was saying all is well. Now he’s standing every day in front of his  task force. Why is he there? Here’s a guess: It’s an election year and the latest polling shows a great majority of Americans just don’t believe anything he says about the pandemic any more.

My office used to be at a neighborhood coffee shop, for which some of us regulars have taken up a collection for the baristas. And as we’re being reminded, it’s a good idea, if you can afford it, to buy gift cards from your favorite restaurants, which work on a very slight margin. Many that are now forced to close may never reopen.

When the virus hadn’t yet reached pandemic levels, I was social-distancing. Now that’s not enough. Now my office is at home. I’m typing this on the kitchen table. I’ve got CNN on, which is just giving me a headache, even though I’ve got it on mute, checking in only when the chyron says, “No, this is really breaking news. Seriously. Not the usual BS.” I check in on Twitter and on the usual web sites (including The Indy, of course).  I do it because it’s my job. Following the rules is a good thing, but obsessing is not. And yet I just saw that four players on the Brooklyn Nets have tested positive, including superstar Kevin Durant. Yesterday, it was the Kentucky Derby that was postponed, maybe until September. I’m so old I can remember when the Nuggets and the Avalanche were still playing.

I’m living these days in the separate in-laws compound — it used to be a garage — behind my law-professor daughter’s house. She had already pulled one grandkid out of daycare, and now the other out of pre-K. The schools and preschools and many daycare centers are closed anyway. So, they’re home. My daughter’s law school is closed for now, so she’s working from home.

I call people. I text. I email. We’re social animals, and that’s the best I can do at this point. I do sneak hugs with the kids occasionally, which I guess is breaking the rules, and I read them stories and do tickle fights occasionally, because otherwise I’d die of loneliness, which is not the best way to go.

I know that sheltering at home with kids can drive you crazy, but it works if you’re a not-in-charge grandparent and if your family is lucky enough to be able to afford help with child care. And then there’s the time, which is right now, when I’m arguing with the 5-year-old that his leg won’t feel better if he watches the end of the LEGO movie.

These are all problems of privilege, I understand. But it’s also, in part, everyone’s life now. No one knows anything for sure. Dr. Tony Fauci, America’s go-to expert on novel coronavirus, says it will take at least two weeks — if the testing can ramp up — to know if any of the guidelines he has been suggesting are even starting to work.

In a Vox explainer, we’re told just how long this battle to overcome this pandemic might last. The short answer is that no one knows. The more complex answer leads to the conclusion that it will be a while. The president is already saying it could go until August. It might well go longer. There are more than 100 deaths in America now. There will be thousands. We don’t know how many thousands.

“I think this idea … that if you close schools and shut restaurants for a couple of weeks, you solve the problem and get back to normal life — that’s not what’s going to happen,”  Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told Vox. “The main message that isn’t getting across to a lot of people is just how long we might be in this for.”

Kucharski added that “this virus is going to be circulating, potentially for a year or two, so we need to be thinking on those time scales. There are no good options here. Every scenario you can think of playing out has some really hefty downsides. … At the moment, it seems the only way to sustainably reduce transmission are really severe unsustainable measures.”

So, this is life, which is driving me crazy, in part, because there are no sports to distract me.  That has always been my fallback from as long as I can remember, back when I knew my first dog, born before I was, was named Dodger. My mother always said — not that I’m sure I believe it, but I tell the story anyway — that Dodger was my first word. I’d like to believe that “I hate the Yankees” were my second, third, fourth and fifth words.

Meanwhile, I get my groceries on-line. I get my books on Amazon (something I swore to myself I’d never do, because I support bookstores and newspapers above all businesses). I watch way too much Netflix. Right now I’m binging on “Babylon Berlin,“ about a police detective in Weimar Germany in 1929. I’m up to season three and the Nazis have arrived in force. I just finished binging “A French Village” (Amazon Prime), which is about a French village during the German occupation. And now, of course, HBO has just started “A Plot Against America,” Philip Roth’s alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency in 1940, running on xenophobic isolationism, America First and, of course, anti-Semitism. Sound familiar? The book has been adapted by David Simon (“The Wire”) and his team.

You may notice a World War II, Nazi Germany trend to my viewing, to which I plead guilty. It’s who I am. I counter depressing times with depressing books and movies. It works for me. I don’t recommend it to anyone else. 

But here’s what every person who knows anything about novel coronavirus and pandemics does recommend: Understand that this is a serious crisis, with as yet unknown consequences. We know only that it’s bad and that it’s getting worse. And that it does no good to call it a Chinese virus or to suggest that we’re handling it better than, say, Italy or France or Spain. And if we had put aside politics and attacked this a month or two ago, we wouldn’t be where we are.

FDR famously said that all we have to fear is fear itself. He was talking about the Great Depression, a different kind of crisis, and he meant that fear should not paralyze us. In today’s crisis, it means we have to face reality. And the reality today is that we should social distance as much as possible. Actually, stay inside as much as possible. Understand, as much as possible, that what we do affects others and that we share this responsibility. We got a late start because there were so many mixed messages. Now nearly everyone is telling a similar version of the story.

And while we realize this pandemic can’t go on forever, it’s where we are now and maybe for a good while longer. I know I’m a little stir crazy. I just wish I had Opening Day or March Madness to help me through it.

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  1. A Daily Kos headline half an hour ago: “Senate Republicans try to kill more Americans by delaying vote on coronavirus response another week” It’s laughably partisan, and sadly, it’s also true.

  2. ‘Totally get the impulse to read up on major catastrophes and plagues when things get bad. Perhaps it’s the reassuring thought that it “could be worse”. After Trump was elected, I took an Osher course on the Plague- you know the one that decimated several continents and that lasted on and off for decades! Now, I’m reading The Splendid and the Vile- by Erik Larson, about the first year of his time in office, when Winston Churchill’s trying to save Democracy from being overrun by the forces of evil. Somewhat echoing our yearning for a courageous and morally forceful leader to rescue us.

  3. Walking, hiking and other solitary outdoor pursuits are exempted from the Shelter-At-Home directive. Please don’t guilt those people getting outside for some air. The pertinent quote: “You will still be able to walk your dog or go on a hike alone or with someone you live with or even with another person as long as you keep six feet between you,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

    And from the NYT, dated today, 3/18:
    Can I go to the park?
    Yes! Getting exercise outside is a great alternative to going to the gym […..] Exercise boosts our immune systems, and even a single workout can improve our ability to fight off germs, according to the latest research. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.

  4. A quick reminder … independent bookstores are working hard to provide reading options. One in my neighborhood, The Bookies, is “social distancing” by not having customers come into the story — but are offering suggestions over the phone, have on-line ordering, and carry a wide range of learning and activity books for children of all ages.
    Everyday discounts! 10% off! 30% off the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association Bestsellers

    They seem to be much nicer people than Mr. Bezos (who I haven’t met — maybe he is a nice person, too) They certainly are more humane than the sisypehan warehouses of Amazon.

  5. MJW, Point taken. But there was a lot of less-than-six-feet-aparting going on. Guess I’m just jealous. My doc says I can’t go outside,

  6. I love Larson’s books too. I just put the Splendid and Vile ebook on hold so thanks for the suggestion. Looking forward to getting it. Also I am down on buying from Amazon…so john in Denver has it right! Go local or even Target instead. Barnes and Noble would also ship books.

  7. You have one and he has been vilified by the Media, Democrats, and a lot of Republicans, before he was elected. New Your folks and New Jersey, was jealous of him in business, and never tried to be subtle about it. I have traveled that area and saw that myself, when I was 17 (on my senior HS class trip). In both states, and the cities, everyone talked at same time, but seemed to know what others was saying. But disagreeing with language and personal attacks, I had never experience before in my life. (Actually, born in Ohio, and had relatives in West Virginia) my traveling in 1930s, and 1940s, was limited. Raised in Church of the Brethren (Dunkard) which had come to USA in 1700s, settling in mountain areas of Ohio, WVa, Va, Maryland, Pennsylvania. I thought I had calling to be minister in my church, but that changed in 1950, when Korean Conflict started, and I received my draft notice, same day I had enlisted 6 hours earlier. Military found me useful, and my whole life changed. Stayed 26 years 18 days, with Top Secret clearance for 24 years of that, on sensitive, classified projects. Taught foreign and domestic personnel, and managed new projects, writing the standards of each. Enlisted service, and retired as a senior NCO. Had worked with foreign governments, and officials, and in final years, briefed very high ranking , military officials, with full authority over my work and subordinates.
    Donald Trump is the most qualified President we have ever elected, so Leftist, Media, and old-time politicians of last 40-50years will keep on hating him. But if they had cooperated with him, and kept their judges operating within the constitution so he could have controlled IMMIGRATION, AS WRITTEN IN LAW, we would not have the trouble that China started. They had the problem, and lied about it, and kept rest of world in dark, until it was in all the world. Whether they worked with the virus, to develop a vaccine, or was weaponing it, make no difference.
    ——And the Leftist, Democrats, in coastal cities and states, made it possible, with not enforcing immigration laws, or letting the federal forces do it. With Homeless, drug addicted, mental cases living on streets, with trash, junk, filth, using drugs and alcohol, all the conditions to explode the virus, to what it has, was present. Same as all History, all religions, and human knowledge of the Human animals, on planet earth from the beginning. Plaques, Locusts, War, Killing, Sex Trade, Slavery has always been present, and still is. Since Earth cooled in space, and cells started building life, we have had illness, plaques, wars, to reduce the populations of fish, fowl, or animals (including the human animals). If we do not learn from history, it will repeat over and over. And Hostile countries are checking what we do, so next Virus will be stronger and more efficient. (VIRUS WAS IN USA, BEFORE ANYONE KNEW IT EXISTED.; BUT DONALD AND HIS SELECTED OFFICIALS IMMEDIATELY TOOK CHARGE TO STOP IT, AND NOT LET MORE DIE, THEN NEEDED. So get over it, and start working to get cures, instead of griping and accusing others.;

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