WASHINGTON — Except for wrapping duct tape around my head, I’m trying not to get hysterical over the coronavirus.
I know, it’s not funny. If you’re elderly, it’s potentially serious. Maybe. Sometimes but not always. We don’t actually know. Yet, to follow news reporting on the elaborately named novel COVID-19 is to conclude that WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE. To avoid dying, we’re told, we should wash our hands, steer clear of sick people and stay away from cruises. No problem whatsoever.
If you’re over 60, which until now was the new 40, we should consider “social distancing.”
For something so potentially lethal, at least more than the usual flu but not as much as SARS or MERS, two other coronaviruses, hand-washing seems bland advice considering that people really ought to wash their hands frequently under any circumstances. An aunt of mine gave her nieces, nephews and cousins an early jump on obsessive-compulsive disorder with her greeting whenever we entered the house: “Go wash your hands,” she’d sweetly command. As such things go, I’ve become my aunt.
Social distancing, meanwhile, is my specialty so, I think I’m all set for the duration. I tend to avoid crowds as a personal policy and otherwise have never minded solitude.
On the other hand, what if I’ve been surrounded by sick people without realizing it? We now know that the two-week dormancy of coronavirus means people are sick and contagious without being symptomatic. And, without adequate tests, we have no way of knowing how many people are infected. The latest number reported Tuesday – more than 750 cases in the U.S. – is surely far below the actual number.
Self-quarantine is the state of nature for an at-home writer in residence. It comes with the job. And there may be to some a certain appeal to the notion. Imagine the quiet if everyone stayed indoors for a few weeks, the calm, the serenity. Or, alternatively, the domestic disputes, disorder and dysfunction when cabin fever peaks.
Many of my former Georgetown neighbors in Washington are being asked to self-quarantine after discovering that the rector of Christ Church was unknowingly infected as he shook hundreds of parishioners’ hands the past couple of weeks. Some of those congregants are well within the designated demographic – we’ll call them older — that COVID-19 can hit hard.
The latest entry in the Center for Disease Control’s advice column is that the over-60 peer group should “stock up,” in case they’re forced to stay home for a long period, and to avoid crowds. But stocking up means what, exactly? And how much is enough? Naturally, I’ve made my list. For some reason, I thought Ramen noodles should be on it, though I’ve never bought them before. Other items not usually in my cart – a gallon jug of Clorox, Popsicles and saltines. One might think I was planning to get sick.
But do I do the shopping myself or order online? Am I being ridiculously paranoid or sensibly cautious? The constant media coverage, for which we are alternately grateful and resentful, begins to feel like an invitation to hysteria. Given that hand sanitizers and masks are out of stock everywhere, I’m buying 190 proof alcohol and glycerin to make my own sanitizer and avoid the busy checkout lines. Down South, of course, pollen coats everything, which is making lots of people cough and sneeze without having the bug.
The order of the day then: Wash those hands, per usual. Check on your elderly neighbors, as we should anyway. Be prepared but don’t panic. But even that message kindles paranoia. Or worse: some eye rolling. In South Carolina, where I’m holed up at an undisclosed location, I’ve heard several people call the viral scare a nuisance to be ignored. With President Trump, normally a germaphobe, still shaking hands and promising that everything is just fine, it’s little wonder that some are skeptical.
My view is different: hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
And, no matter what, keep plenty of duct tape on hand. It’s more comfortable than you might think.