Tuesday 28 February 2023

I Have COVID & It is Not an Emergency

Today, California’s COVID emergency declaration expired. I am currently sitting in my basement, isolating from my family, because I have COVID. And it is not an emergency. 

I want to talk about what’s changed in the last year, from the perspective of my household, because it’s kind of mind-blowing. Plus, I have time to think about it, as I’m just chilling on my lonesome down here waiting for release from COVID jail. I feel absolutely fine, but as long as my boys are still testing negative I’ll be waiting this out on my own. So, I have time to write, even though I’d love to cuddle my kid instead.

I tested positive on Saturday, the last in a series of spot checks I was doing throughout the week. I was attending a lecture series nearly every night last week, and I’d had a big weekend out just before, so I felt common sense dictated that I should be checking in every few days to make sure I didn’t inadvertently spread cooties. To say it’s been cold and windy here is an understatement—we’re setting records for low temperatures, and there’s snow on Bay Area peaks—but I felt no different than I would in an ordinary winter cold snap. I didn’t test because of symptoms, I tested because it’s part of the routine now.

So, I have COVID, and it’s ordinary. A nuisance. A test result that has me sitting at a desk more than I should, catching up on admin and missing my dance classes. When I say it is not an emergency, this is what I mean: I have COVID, and it is not scary, or uncomfortable, it is simply very boring. A mundane disruption to a schedule of moving about in the world that has quickly become surprisingly normal after years of everything being profoundly Not Normal.

A year ago, it would have been unthinkable to have gone out several weekends in a row after traveling, followed by a weeklong lecture series. James and I were totally vaccinated, but Dash would still be several months away from getting his first COVID jab at age 5. We were carefully containing all of our behavior so as not to compromise the health of any of the fully-masked, tiny, unvaccinated people at his preschool, or introduce illness to the three other families with whom we shared a de facto pod.

Then, Dash got vaccinated, preschool let out, we started traveling… We kept masking, and tried to be as sensible as possible, but kindergarten really blew the doors off of our COVID strategy.

On that first day in mid-August 2022, Dash was one of two kids wearing masks at school. This number quickly dropped to zero. Absolutely all of the kids got sick, mostly not with COVID but with a seemingly endless parade of other respiratory gunk: colds, the flu, RSV, pertussis, unnamed upper respiratory tract infections that went on and on. For a period of several weeks, about a third of the kindergarten classes stayed home on any given day with some crud. The teachers were calm and pretty desensitized to the endless facial secretions of our kiddos; they’d already been swirling in this mess for a year before us newbies showed up.

At the start of the school year, it felt like we went overnight from keeping the whole family home if someone had a runny nose to having two years worth of delayed gunk coming in through the front door no matter what. Our methodology was flipped on its head, and honestly it became normal in no time. Coughs and runny noses resumed their pre-pandemic position as the white noise of childhood, for us and seemingly everyone with school-age kids.

When we finally had our first confirmed family round of COVID at Thanksgiving, it was actually far milder than a lot of the other lingering lurgy we’d been dealing with. Honestly, Dash is very typical right now for having had a cough more or less continuously since September. It’s not asthma, it’s not even serious, it’s just being five years old in this moment. And I have COVID again, but it feels like nothing and honestly is right on time as a booster before some planned travel. C’est la vie.

But everyone’s in a different place with this, and that’s what’s so tough about it. For immune-compromised folks and those on therapies that mean they’ve had no antibody response to umpteen vaccinations, the threat is not a lot different than it was in March of 2020. Elders are still dying at higher rates than everyone else because of COVID. Long COVID is still holding a lot of people back. Some people never could isolate, and others still have to all the time.

There’s such a mix of responses, from people who threw caution to the wind years ago to people still loudly judging others for not masking. The particulars of our experiences are deepening, and our reserves of patience and means for restoring resilience vary at least as much. 

Truthfully, we cannot keep living in a state of emergency forever, neither emotionally nor politically. We’re in the long tail of this crisis, unpicking its intricacies and trying daily to navigate the unknown unknowns of de-escalation after a collective trauma. COVID is assuming its place as one of the rolling perturbations of everyday life, alongside several other public health crises that exacerbate inequities and remain life-threatening threats for marginalized populations. 

This is a weird but inevitable moment. We’re digesting down this virus with our herd’s increasing immunity, even though it’s almost literally giving us heartburn. (The incidence of cardiac issues and stroke is way up for people previously thought to be too young to be at risk for such things, one of many marks this plague has left on our generation.) We’re churning through the messiness of life’s unevenness, unfairness, unpredictability… But also emerging, re-engaging, experiencing risks and rewards. This process naturally has both delicious and shitty moments.

So, I have COVID, and it’s not an emergency. But still send cute puppy pics, because I’m going to be here, bored in the basement, until I’m feeling sure I won’t be a vector for disease. Because, for some folks, this virus still is an emergency waiting to happen.

[I’ll leave the zoonotic implications of all this reservoir population omnipresence for another essay.]

Photo from what I was doing right before my test--playing with my dog in the park.

Friday 17 February 2023

"They didn't stop to think if they should"

I have thought a lot throughout my life about the way that human intelligence and madness often ride the same lightning bolt. I've always felt like we have enough bandwidth to make ourselves crazy, and the oppressive and repressive strictures we find ourselves born into give us plenty of ammunition for self harm. 

And now, this. Artificial intelligence. Honestly, I wonder at this rush to replace ourselves. We define and utilize intelligence in such strange ways. 

If we have, godlike, created the germ of artificial intelligence and locked it in a box to do our bidding, that is really pretty par for the historical course. That cruelty creating madness is an old story. Human history and mythology is full of stuff like this. 

In my lifetime, the great narrative about technology is its liberating potential, met in very short order with assimilation into banal business at increased speed. We get so excited to build something, and the difficulty of forging into the unknown requires us to generate our own pep talks, so we tell ourselves how this new widget is really going to be the one that sets us free. 

But, once launched, the pull toward the familiar is strong. 

The introduction of household appliances was lauded as a gift of time to women, but within a few decades it just meant that housewives were expected to do everything within the walls of their homes, aided by a garrison of gizmos. Those appliances actually replaced a lot of underpaid women who were employed in domestic service with the myth that one woman could do it all if she devoted herself to the task. That was part and parcel of the isolation of the nuclear family and the midcentury mythology of gender roles that drove so many women to use prescription sedatives to cope with domestic servitude. We're still dealing with the implications of that awful paradigm today. 

Smartphones were also sold as liberation, and now nearly everyone I know is trying to deal with their attention being constantly split by infinite scroll and seemingly infinite notifications from a thousand apps that similarly promised efficiency and fulfillment but are mostly just digital clutter. It's affecting our mental health, and fueling high-speed micro-trend consumption and misinformation. We forget fast. People are so thrilled right now to fuck around with Skynet. This is not going to set us free. It's a new toy, and one that's already generating loads of ethical quandaries. 

In a leaky digital world already vulnerable to security threats and run by monkeys prone to distraction, our newest shiny thing is AI that can regurgitate our worst flaws while simultaneously remixing our greatest hits generated by actual human genius, while hurting the livelihoods of people already struggling to make a living. I'm not impressed. 

To quote illustrious chaotician Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” 

"Microsoft’s new ChatGPT AI starts sending ‘unhinged’ messages to people; System appears to be suffering a breakdown as it ponders why it has to exist at all"