Interesting Times

I know everyone is writing, talking, and tweeting about COVID-19, social distancing, and all the fallout that goes along with the pandemic (read: modern plague) that is sweeping the globe. This is part of my own process of dealing with… everything, and I hope you will bear with me while I ramble for a bit.

COVID-19 is not the first disaster I have encountered. In 2009 I survived the Station Fire, the largest wildfire in Los Angles County history. To say that it changed my life forever is an understatement, to be sure, but having survived a disaster already gives me a perspective that may be a little different than most.

First of all, when people in films or television shows are running for their lives, it’s exciting. When you’re doing it yourself, it sucks big time! Been there. Done that. I sympathize and empathize with the uncounted millions who are learning this fact, as well.

Second, disasters bring out the best and the worst in people. We’re seeing a lot of both reported in the news these days, from positive things like people using their 3D printers to make much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers, to negative things like hackers impersonating the World Health Organization’s website in order to spread malware. People like to claim that these levels of altruism and maliciousness are somehow new to this incident, this generation, or this [fill in the blank]. It isn’t. People have not changed fundamentally in thousands upon thousands of years. The difference is that now, courtesy of near-instantaneous global communications, we can see, hear, and track what people do in greater detail than ever before.

The sad truth is that there were plans in the can for handling a pandemic. They were ignored, and from the looks of things, they are still being ignored. This, also, is nothing new. As a disaster survivor, and a student of history, I don’t think there is a single disaster in the entirety of human existence where plans were followed or warnings were heeded. Cassandra, prophetess of the Ancient Greek tragedies, has lots of good company on that score, and I seriously doubt that people will choose wisely at any time in the foreseeable future.

Here is what I think will happen in the short term:

  • Conservatives will continue to push to end the lock downs, will blatantly ignore the risk and the science, and will use the crisis as an opportunity to destroy civil liberties and to redirect funds into their own pocketbooks.
  • The early ending of shelter-in-place orders will spark intense spikes in infection and related death tolls.
  • Liberals will continue to demonstrate their inability to form a united front against the erosion of civil liberties, plundering of national assets, and attacks on democratic processes.
  • The hardest hit populations will continue to be the poor, minorities, and the elderly.
  • There will continue to be disruption of “business as usual” as governments (not just ours) continue to mishandle the distribution of aid, both monetary and tangible, to small businesses and individuals.
  • Moreover, COVID-19 inspired madness will continue through the end of 2020 and into 2021, and beyond.

In the longer term, I think we will see deeper repercussions of the pandemic.

I think germophobia will have a far greater impact on societies around the globe than anyone realizes. That impact will be felt in every venue where people gather in large numbers like concert halls, theaters, and amusement parks, and in smaller venues like restaurants and pretty much every kind of store you can imagine. Even if/when a vaccine becomes available, the damage to our collective psyche has already been done. Something similar happened in the last century when people survived the Great Depression. The survivors carried hard-learned lessons of thrift and frugality with them for the rest of their lives. It wasn’t until Boomers started hitting the age of majority that our culture shifted from a “save everything” modality to one where everything was made to be disposable.

Other random “predictions”…

  • This germophobia will likely manifest in a continued expansion of remote work and interest in online entertainment.
  • Face masks will remain a common sight in public places for the next 2-5 years, maybe longer.
  • It will become harder than ever to get medical insurance in the US, especially if you have “pre-existing conditions” like asthma, lupus, MS, etc.
  • Popular sports like football and baseball will shift to being televised with small or remote-only audiences for a while, and monetization of televised events will continue at an increased level even when large gatherings resume.
  • Esports and the gaming community will finally go mainstream in a big way.
  • An underground of venues, like the speakeasys of the Prohibition Era, will develop where people will gather and flaunt their rejection of social distancing.
  • If we survive as a civilization until then, the 2030s will put the antics of the Roaring 1920s to shame!

If we are lucky, the impact of heavy infection and death rates in the science-denier communities will shift the balance a bit so that those who support science will have a stronger voice. That could have numerous positive outcomes for everything from global warning and the persistent problems with plastic trash disrupting entire ecosystems, to space travel and (fingers crossed) finally getting permanent colonies off-planet, to the Moon and to Mars.

On the flip side, the most strident deniers may go off the deep end and instigate an even more extreme anti-science focus, sending us back into another dark age. It’s a crap shoot, and while I want to hope, I’m old enough to know what shallow, selfish creatures we humans are. As a character in one of Robert A. Heinlein’s books once said, a person can be smart, but people as a group are stupid animals. We will see, one way or another, just how smart or stupid we can be.

I’m also afraid that there will be global unrest. Nations may fall. Civil liberties definitely will suffer. Dogs and cats will live together. It is pretty much inevitable.

In many instances in science fiction, future “histories” depicted the 21st Century as a time of upheaval and unrest, even to the point of near destruction of our species. COVID-19 may be the beginning event that will trigger a domino effect, the single grease drop on a barbecue that starts a conflagration. Some of those future histories included nuclear war. Others foresaw eugenics. And many predicted the devaluing of human life on a massive scale. I hope it won’t come to that, but my bones ache with a fear I cannot name, and I’m afraid that, like Cassandra, I can see a future I cannot prevent, no matter how loudly I scream.

One way or another, we are living in “interesting” times. I hope that you survive them, safe and whole, and that together we can avoid the dire future of my foreboding and nightmares.

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