Safety in the Time of Covid-19

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

[written May 23, 2020, barely two months into lockdown for social distancing]

The convention is to tell children they are safe, meaning to convey to them that you are protecting them from harm of any kind, and that nothing can come and hurt them (in the words of the Sondheim song, “not while I’m around”).

For ourselves of course, it’s long since that “safe” has taken on an increasingly notional application of meaning. Now, even cautious political leaders, I mean mainly our mayors and governors (determining the highly localized constraints on movement and behavior, mainly socially, to be applied to the citizens in their jurisdiction), are speaking of safety with a largely elastic and relative set of connotations applied.

The degree of safety effectiveness of proposed loosened measures are purely a function of assumptions about data regarding the virus and its impacts, none of which has been accepted by anyone as unquestionably accurate, including the most credible and esteemed of scientists and scientific bodies.

When we now talk about safety in the context of loosening constraints, of “re-opening” society (which mainly means opening again to the public previous temporarily shuttered commercial and public-access venues for any number of socially compelling functions), we are not talking about safety in children’s terms. We are talking about a manageable and acceptable level of increased risk of exposure and infection unless the protocols for engagement by individuals with other individuals – never mind crowds – are followed more or less immaculately and conscientiously at all times in all circumstances.

Let’s face it. To be sure, there is no safety for anyone who will not accept a level of risk that in practical terms means that any participation in a return to what, for the rhetorical convenience of the term that we all somehow still understand, I’ll call “normal,” will mean there is still a chance of contracting the illness, and all that may befall themself thereby afterward. Let’s say the risk is much less than when we were still circulating, with the virus already being transmitted communally, and we were taking no precautions whatsoever. But there will never be perfect safety, or anything close to it, with no risk of infection and its potential complications, until the disease is effectively eradicated, or there is a cure that is at an even greater level of efficacy than the most minimal risk defines, or there is a vaccine that works successfully in a similarly high number of participants who submit to its application.

We’ve already been told (Dr. Fauci can’t seem to keep himself from saying it repeatedly – for what it’s worth, I believe him) the disease will never go away. At best we can hope for a kind of virtual dormancy for a very, an unpredictably, long time.

In the meantime, I think it’s best that what we’ve already been told are the best practices – which have defined the baseline definition of protocols for sheltering in place – for reducing the risk of infection remain the best practices. Especially so, as some significant portion (which will no doubt grow, contemporary human nature, and the American character, being what it is) of the populace increasingly goes out and about.

I know what I intend to do, and I count myself, and recognize and admit freely, that I am privileged and fortunate that for the time being I am in a position to do so. Moreover, and I admit this too, I am less bothered by the prospect of a prolonged, much more prolonged than heretofore to this moment so far this winter and spring, period of, let’s face it, isolation and limited or circumscribed social engagement, than apparently a lot of people (most?) are.

I can’t help thinking of the tales of privation and unnervingly great risk to life and health that were imposed by the conditions in certain places in the world for a significant number of people during the last world war. That was years. We face no such somewhat indeterminate prolongation of the burdens of real existential threats, beyond our individual capacity to mitigate or control them. And of course, if one has been paying attention for the last period of history (take as large a slice, up to the 75 years since that second world war ended, as you like) there have been places in the world that at any given time, people have had their very lives under siege one way or another – utterly beyond their control – for unpredictably long periods of horror and anguish.

I can take an admittedly hard to predict number of months, while people in far better position to something ameliorative struggle to produce a working solution, while I sequester myself, with no lack of immediate and adequate comfort and nourishment. I’d rather be free. But my life, in this case, under this threat, so much a determinant of the behavior of millions of people I was suspect of – not for stupidity and lack of caring on their part, but for their lack of attention and discipline and, yes, sometimes, forgetfulness, if not simple childish crankiness – I can, quite literally, live with staying away from them.

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