False Expectations

As April turned into May, two hundred and four years ago, people across the northern hemisphere expected what they had always expected… the happy arrival of spring.  What they didn’t know is that the sudden eruption of Mount Tambora, a volcano in the Dutch East Indies the year before, would change everything. 

1816 came to be known as the year without a summer.  Winter held tight to its grip.  And even when it finally relented, it never let go entirely.  

Ponds and lakes in northern latitudes remained stubbornly frozen.  And even in more temperate regions, hard frosts continued into August.

Crops failed.  Food prices skyrocketed.  Famine spread across much of the globe.  Riots and mass migrations and wars ensued.  Millions died.

It was no one’s fault.  Human beings had simply stumbled onto one of nature’s countless haphazard twists of fate.

Now, here we are in another spring, a couple centuries later.  And as luck would have it, we’ve stumbled onto our own not-so-very-funny bit of whimsy from mother earth.

The hubris that we wield, the notion that we ever and always can control events, can bend the world to our needs, has been found wanting.

Remember how it all began, lo but a few short weeks ago?  

Remember “flatten the curve?”  

Remember “fifteen days to slow the spread?”

Alas, we’re only a few weeks in, but already it feels like a lifetime.  Already the wheel has turned, in ways that no one is grasping.

The good news about Covid-19 is that its lethality appears rather less than we had first feared.

The bad news about Covid-19 is that it is a remarkably nasty bug, with a stunning repertoire of ways in which to make human beings ill.  And it’s only just begun.

There was an illusion around all this.  A belief that if we just shuttered inside for a few weeks the pandemic would somehow just magically go away.  We could go back to our normal lives and all would be well.

That’s not how it’s going to be.

Covid-19 is almost certainly going to be with us for a very long time.  Sure, we might get lucky and one of the pharmaceutical companies might sprint to the finish with an early vaccine.  More likely, though, is that we’re still many months away from that happy day.

In the meantime, the disease will continue its slow and steady burn through human populations.  And all the self-isolation and social distancing and cloth masks that people wield with such fervent hope, like talismans held aloft against an angry god, will prove for nought.

Covid-19 will not release its hold upon our lives until one thing happens:  60-70% of us have become infected by it and have thus become immune.  Even then, we don’t know how long such immunity will last.  But the one incontrovertible fact in this whole disaster is that that herd immunity is the inflection point where things can once again begin to return to normal.

We can reach that point quickly.  Or we can reach that point slowly.  The one thing we can’t do, is somehow to avoid it.

The hope for many, of course, is that we simply hide in our darkened basements, wearing a homemade mask whenever we venture out for groceries – meanwhile holding to the fantasy that all those online deliveries, the daily mail, and the occasional interaction with our neighbor holds no threat – until a vaccine is available.  We all count on being one of the lucky ones.

Remember ventilators?  Remember all the talk a month ago about how we didn’t have nearly enough of them?  Remember all the angst and urgency to quickly build more of them?  Now, of course, hardly anyone mentions them.  Because now we realize that they don’t work.  If you go on a ventilator, chances are high you’re simply going to die on it.

And, of course, we argue.  Like children, we torment ourselves with pretend certainties.  We rage about staying “locked down” or “opening back up,” never quite realizing that it doesn’t really matter.  The math is, simply, the math.

There’s a very good chance that a year from now – next May – we’ll still be in this.  Covid-19 will still be the central actor in our world.

There’s an even better chance that ten years from now, when the first histories of our time are written, that Covid-19 will be only a footnote.  Simply the trigger that ushered in the greater calamity of our lives.

That is the real story. 

2 Responses to “False Expectations”

  1. Jim Ford says:

    Jeff. Nice piece. Great writing. Except I don’t get what “the real story” is. Please illuminate. Jim

  2. Jeff says:

    Thanks, Jim.

    We are entering a time of economic carnage likely without precedent. That – and the political and geopolitical fallout that will follow – is the real story.

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