Here in Seattle, we’re embarking on a journey that not all of us might survive. A journey with no fixed timeframe and a destination that could only be called “back to normal,” before the times of COVID-19. Ten days ago, our local officials told us to prepare for the disruption of everyday life. I thought a lot about those words. The advice was to stock up on food, medicine, and other supplies. So my husband and I went to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the hardware store and bought stuff. Not too much, as not to look ridiculous to our neighbors (though who cares today how ridiculous we looked ten days ago?), then we went by our normal routines.
Then Microsoft, where my husband works, advised its employees to work from home. Now our children’s school is closed. All good so far. We’re practicing social distancing. But are we really prepared for what’s to come? I’m trying to figure out which past experiences might help me get ready for what lies ahead, though I have a feeling this is like barring the windows when a tsunami is coming and the whole building will be swept away. How do we prepare for a tsunami-sized disruption of our everyday lives?
I lived through a people’s uprising in 1989 in Romania and I can remember the eerie feeling during those winter days when we didn’t know what the future held. But in those days, there was hope for a better life, which right now is replaced with fear for a worse one. Also, the disruption in our everyday life lasted only a few weeks. By early 1990, children were back in school listening to pop music and ditching their uniforms. Also, as a kid back then, it wasn’t my job to worry about food and the collapse of our society—that was my parents’ job. So that experience doesn’t help me now, when I have my own children to worry about and my elderly mother and aunt back in Romania.
How long can we live in our house without going out? People I know say they’re already hunkering down with supplies. But I don’t think many of us have enough supplies at home to last us a few months in isolation. Looking at China, South Korea, and now Italy, we’re talking months of disruption, unless the virus abates with the change in weather—which would only be a reprieve, because it might come back in the fall, as the Spanish flu did back in 1918 and after.
I lived through broken supply chains in the 1980s Romania, but that experience doesn’t help me navigate our current situation either. Supply chains there had deteriorated over a long period of time, not all of a sudden, which allowed people to create parallel venues, from the urban black market to the rural links between communist farms and individual households, which then supplied friends and relatives in the city.
Here in Seattle, I don’t have a Plan B in case the grocery stores close and Amazon warehouses stop shipping. I don’t have relatives in the country who can send me a chicken, or a friend at a warehouse or a supermarket. Here, if we run out of food while locked down in the house, we have to go out. And go where? Maybe a central place that stays open through the outbreak where the lines are huge and people spread germs while being forced together in small quarters. Or maybe the National Guard will deliver food at our doors. Do we have the infrastructure for that, at such a large scale?
While the official advice is to prepare for disruption, there isn’t much else we can do that I can think of. But preparing might mean something else: mental preparation for when everything we take for granted is gone. For that, my past has prepared me well enough. When my father died in 2014, one of the things I always took for granted disappeared in an instant. Ever since, I lack the certainty of tomorrow and that, surprisingly, makes me less anxious as we head into this new, awful adventure.
Based on the science I’ve been reading since January about the coronavirus, I’m convinced this will get worse before it gets better. The virus is not going to pack up and leave us alone. The virus is like water: it seeps into every crack available and it keeps going. And the whole humanity is its playground now. What we can do is put obstacles in its path so that it doesn’t go everywhere at the same time. So that our hospitals can still help sick people as they trickle in, instead of arriving all at once. So that the virus doesn’t get to mutate into ten other deadly strands at the same time because we give it a giant incubation space.
But slowing down the virus is hard work that will take a lot of time. It means employing all those hygiene procedures about washing hands and coughing into your elbow (shouldn’t we wear face masks already?) and staying home when sick, etc. And stocking up on supplies. And staying home. For a very long time—because this virus needs time to incubate and time to make the next person sick, which means that we won’t know for months if we have stopped it in its tracks or just run it into a corner from which it will spring up again. And that’s the best-case scenario of disruption. Where the economy stalls and jobs are lost.
One thing this virus had confirmed for me is how shortsighted the talk about borders and countries is in the face of one common, invisible enemy. A tiny, barely-alive microscopic entity on one side of the planet has already killed people on the other side. Because of it, I feel more connected than ever to all the other humans on Planet Earth. Sure, I feel connected when I worry about climate change, but this virus is making things crystal clear, fast: We’re all in this together. All my past experiences can take me only so far. This is a planetary emergency that would be much better managed if we’d all see how powerless each of us is—with our temporary supplies of toilet paper and our laptops connected to the internet.
So, yeah, I’m preparing for something I can’t even imagine yet. And no matter how diligent I am in my preparedness, I will eventually depend on other people to get me and my family through this. And I’m prepared to help other humans, though I don’t know what I can do just yet. Maybe if I get the virus and then recover, I could help take care of sick people if and when I’m immune. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor or a nurse. I’m not a scientist or a pandemic specialist. I don’t know what’s coming. But it’s coming.