By Rama Sobhani
I saw one of those stupid memes on the internet the other week when this quarantine business first began.
A meme, for those who don’t know, is when you take a photo or still frame from a movie, or something, and put some ridiculous caption underneath it to make a point. But this meme caught my attention because it said something like “you realize just how isolated you were all along when you’re forced to quarantine and notice no change to your lifestyle.” Yup, that’s me. Tucked away silently in the woods at Ouabache Trails, I don’t get out or socialize much. I’m a solitary man, as much as I can be with my wife and cats next to me.
But things are getting weird no matter how one cuts it and even one, like me, who spends all his time keeping to himself, has to stop and take notice. The only thing remotely like this I can remember is the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King affair failed to convict several LAPD officers of assault and numerous other charges. For a whole week, the area known as “South-Central” burned at the hands of people angry with what seemed like an obviously tilted justice system. I watched it all on TV as news copters broadcast the sights of burning buildings, furious looters and Korean store owners taking to rooftops with semi-automatic rifles to protect their livelihoods from rampaging fools.
OK, it’s not gotten to that point yet because of quarantines and if you were up here at Ouabache Trails, you wouldn’t know anything was amiss. That’s why I took a moment to connect with some people who are on the front lines of the Corona beer backlash, uh, I mean, coronavirus pandemic, to get a sense of where we are in these strange days and how things are progressing in Knox County.
“It’s going pretty good,” said EMA director John Streeter. “I noticed today there aren’t as many people out and about and that’s a good thing, but we are having issues with social distancing. I hoped we could do better with that.”
Streeter had his hands more than full in April because of a horrendous storm that foisted 80 mph winds that inflicted a good amount of damage all over the county. He was out surveying damage hither and thither, trying to figure out if a tornado had touched down, which would mean the possibility of federal funds to help residents rebuild. Well, no such luck, Streeter said. Straight line winds. But at 80 mph, that’s close to Category One hurricane levels. All of that on top of quarantines during COVID-19.
“It was an event within an event,” Streeter said of the storm, referring to ongoing public health measures. “With the wind event, I had to put some people on hold who had been responding to COVID-19 calls to take care of the storm damage. We had to make sure we didn’t have people in structures that needed to be rescued, but at the same time we had to stress social distancing because COVID-19 is alive and strong.”
But Streeter talked briefly about a problem equally as big as continued COVID-19 transmission: the economic consequences of forced business shutdowns and social isolation. Streeter said while it’s unpleasant, it’s necessary and that the public really ought to heed the idea of keeping trips to local stores to a minimum. People were out doing their shopping, he said, even the day after the big storm.
“A lot of people were out and they weren’t essential personnel,” he said. “We had to get around them. I don’t know what they were doing, but they weren’t staying home, which is what they should have been doing.”
Local resident Dolores Shelton, 75, was until recently working for the county health department carrying out routine immunizations, which had to be put on hold because of contagion fears. Shelton, a registered nurse for 55 years, said that while she’s not in any immediate economic distress (and that her landscaping and other household chores have been the beneficiaries of her extra time), there is cause for concern about the consequences of this quarantine.
“Economically, we’re already in trouble,” she said. “That does bother me, but I don’t have any real solutions other than to practice staying at home. Being in the medical profession, I understand the need to stay at home, but the economic impact is bad.”
Shelton is in the age group most likely to be seriously affected by the mysterious coronavirus and she is still confounded at how many people her own age or older are not taking every precaution to avoid a horrible death by suffocation in one’s own bodily fluids, as happens with the viral pneumonia that accompanies fatal COVID-19 cases.
“I know three weeks ago when I went to the grocery store, there were too many people my age and older and some of them weren’t even wearing masks … this hand washing and staying away from people, this hasn’t been taken seriously enough in previous epidemics … and now they’re pushing it.”
Dr. Alan Stewart
Both Shelton and Streeter said not everyone is taking the coronavirus seriously and, admittedly, I’ve read many opinion pieces that have said about the same. (As an aside, Twitter is a cesspool of humanity. Avoid at all costs.) But Streeter, Shelter and the county’s public health officer, Dr. Alan Stewart, all say this is quite serious and it’s only because Knox County officials took it as such so early on that things have not gotten bad locally. There have been only a handful of cases so far, no deaths and everyone who was treated for COVID-19 locally was quarantined for an additional two weeks after symptoms disappeared, per Dr. Stewart’s recommendations, which were based on data from Wuhan, China, supporting that.
“I think generally, we’re doing pretty well,” Stewart said. “We did a couple of things right early. The YMCA closed down and the schools did, too, and we were early in adopting social distancing.”
“Being in the medical profession, I understand the need to stay at home, but the economic impact is bad.”— Dolores Shelton, RN
Stewart’s recommendation for an additional two weeks of quarantine following the disappearance of symptoms is even longer than what the Center for Disease Control recommends, but if the results tell the story, it works.
But how long will this self-imposed quarantine go on? It’s hard to say, according to Stewart, and while he’s optimistic that Knox County will be ahead in being able to open back up for business because of the early adoption of emergency measures, he said the county still can’t get ahead of the state and we’re all still bound by what the governor orders. Something to consider, Stewart said, is that another outbreak is possible and maybe even likely. Pointing to the analogous situation of the 1918 flu pandemic, Stewart said outbreaks occurred for two years, abating after the first and flaring back up the next year. That could easily be the case with COVID-19.
“In sympathy with people with small business, I say we open back up rather quickly. We’re in a better position than large cities, but we can’t move faster than the state,” Stewart said.
Even then, while restaurants and other public places could open back up, Stewart still recommends implementing social distancing while conducting business, so not seating people too close together in restaurants would be a necessary stipulation.
But right now, it’s still time for the “full-court press,” as Stewart calls it. Maintain self-imposed quarantine to make sure we don’t see another outbreak in the county.
What’s in our future?
Probably the most poignant observation that Stewart made is one that I’ve been milling myself, which is what kind of precedent does this change in lifestyle set for the American Way of Life? As far as I know, apart from World War II, this is the first time that governments have ordered such things as business shutdowns and what amounts to rationing of goods and services. President Trump has called this a “war on an invisible enemy,” and governments have acted accordingly, imposing restrictions on daily activities. Not many alive today still remember bacon grease being collected for the military, copper being redirected out of consumer goods to make bullets and silk being redirected from ladies’ stockings to make parachutes for the airborne infantry. But is this going to be a permanent lifestyle change? Dr. Stewart thinks certain changes will be permanent.
But the coronavirus will pass. What likely won’t is the lingering economic impact of the chain reaction that it has set into motion. An economy based on gambling with debt is a fragile one and the debt chickens are coming home to roost. This is just the beginning of a bigger problem that touches on doom. May the benevolent overlords at least grant us enough of our inherent freedoms to weather that storm. In the meantime, my hair is getting out of control for lack of a barber to cut it and I’m getting bored reading stupid memes on the internet.