Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Early to Despair

I guess I was early to despair; don't call it prescience for, as I've noted, I'd rather be wrong.

They say misery loves company but I'd rather not have fellow travelers of gloom, it only accentuates the impotence and, indeed, the outrage.

I retired my coronavirus superspreading event timeline months ago, noting that the die was cast, that public health notions were being roundly ignored. If anything, there has been a quickening of dismay since then. While friends continue to send links of doom, there's been no joy in this repetition.

The Sturgis motorcycle rally, the White House clusters, the Swiss yodeling concert catastrophes, the Redding megachurch, the Sweet Sixteen superspreader session, the schools and universities high on their wishful thinking, the Gators, the Yale men's hockey team, and so forth.

Worse still, the continued refusal to address the meatpacking plant and food production pipeline and protect farm and other workers. I'm no Upton Sinclair, but Mr Surgeon General, Mr CDC Director et. al, you have plainly failed. Titans of failure, ship stewards of the Titanic, do you sleep at night?

I suppose if "they" won't even take simple steps to protect themselves, it was always going to be an uphill struggle for them to protect the needy, yet essential, Others.

Social living is a bridge too far for these rulers' psyches, it's the antithesis of the conqueror's catechism.

At the outset it was a parlor game, speculating on which outrage or dereliction would be the most catastrophic in the ongoing shambles. There were many candidates and, sadly, all have done their worst.

Soundtrack: Do your worst by Jaguar Wright

It gave me no pleasure to note that Ghana had managed things better than the US, UK and even France. It would be a strange kind of pride to think of celebrating that we were less inept. Dancing, as it were, on the graves of strangers. Human lives lost unnecessarily anywhere is an affront to one and all.

The notion of a Center for Disease Control is essentially a modern American invention. How many times in recent decades have American or Western logistics and expertise rolled in to save the day around the world? The modern language of public health has long followed the American script. It is confounding to watch the inaction and rank paralysis. Like students watching teachers flail, one starts to second guess all previous lessons.

And now we'll probably want to quarantine any American help. Their navy vessels are suspect viral vectors, Tyson's frozen chicken could well have RNA droplet coating; they have so little concern for their workers safety. Secretary Scalia in any case would have gutted any OSHA enforcement actions. The guys in the white hats died with their boots on.

The big asterisk of skepticism now looms over all things American.

The Brits have had longer to deal with decline and the fall from grace, and have the long history and attendant coping mechanisms to disarm the potency of perceived incompetence, if not impotence. Decades ago, the Suez imbroglio opened eyes and forced a reassessment of their stature. Still the notion that Mr Johnson's entanglements and dithering cost tens of thousands of lives ought to be hard to take.

Rude awakenings galore are in prospect in short. There will be a reckoning for "excess mortality" no matter how couched.

The saving grace culturally is the lack of reflection in America life, especially when coupled with this curious affinity for selective amnesia, mythmaking and nostalgia. Bunk and hokum at once, and the stab in the back routines have been readied to distract. The Murdoch press is well practiced.

There will be scapegoats for the shambles. It will be the usual suspects that will be said to be the blame, no matter how improbable; the stakes are simply too high for the culpable to admit responsibilty.

Still, if all you have is marketing prowess and the hard sell but fail plainly at operational excellence and execution, the world will pick and choose your wares at their leisure.

Goodwill and reputations are hard to win but easily squandered. You have to fall back to the tropes of disaster recovery once your brand in the toilet. Tough crowds abound. The downsides of a grievous decline in stature are all too severe.

I know all too well about lost decades. Ghanaians are still living down visions of Ghana must go and our basket case interludes. Reputation scrubbing is an all-consuming endeavor, if not a generational struggle.

Still, the parade of dubious decisions made, even in the face of months of increasingly dire warnings, is hard to take. You can't say that we don't know how to protect, or where transmission is likely to occur. The timeline made it obvious.

I was incandescent with rage in April that my uncle's rehab facility in Boris Johnson's austerity-ravaged NHS became his grave rather than his sanctuary. The notion that, months later, countless others are having to face this same fate, that other families are going through this unbounded grief is scandalous.

That nursing homes are still daily death traps is beyond disgrace. For shame.


Pandemic fatigue might be a thing, indeed epidemiologists incorporate it in their models, but it only really matters because so much goodwill and time has been squandered. There was no mobilization to secure equipment and resources or ramp up testing capacity.

Beyond ignorance and wishful thinking, there is the fact that people clearly assess risk and value life differently. Fine, I hear you say, it is what it is. Opinions differ, yada yada...

I would counter that, again, this is something epidemiologists model. It's the human factor: for any plan, there will be non-compliance. This is the challenge of any public health intervention. During this pandemic we may all be amateur epidemiologists, but, surely, the best practices are well known by now.

Rules and regulations should be simple and explained plainly. Most importantly, rules should be enforced, shared sacrifice demands no less. If we are all in this together, there can be no impunity, no trips to Barnard Castle.

Clear consistent communication is of the essence. Mixed metaphors are perilous and sow confusion.

The active disinformation and the weaponization of ignorance that we have seen is nigh genocidal, most certainly sociopathic, and, arguably, criminal.

I would say disgraceful if I wasn't so sure that shame was an impossibility with Trump and company.

And yet. And yet.

I'm minded that I've been writing my Things Fall Apart series for years now and should be no stranger to things indeed falling apart. I have my coping mechanisms against incipient despair; I mint playlists, I bury myself in writing and reading. I find joy in small things and optimism even in daily absurdity.

As Theodore Roethke put it in his celebrated poem:

In a dark time, the eye begins to see
Robert Lifton, writing in an atomic age, expanded on this notion and tried to achieve the psychological effect of an emetic through the juxtaposition of carefully chosen words; it's an approach I've come to embrace as an antidote to despair.


Years ago, I came across some paintings by Edward Munch at Harvard's Fogg art museum. It wasn't quite The Scream but they seemed in the same vein. 2020 has been a year of primal screams all around. A juxtaposition suggested itself naturally when I came across Kodjo Crobsen's satirical works which have had pride of place in my pandemic reading. The illustration of the angel that he would publish periodically in his columns, as Ghana seemed happy to go from worse to worse during our lost decades, was especially poignant. The angel's message was always the same and it was fitting:

At this point, subsequent horrific events are still reversible...

So yes, early to despair yet resilient and hopeful for a reversal of fortune. Things can be salvaged and the point of the daily struggle daily is the knowledge that there will be better days ahead.

at this point subsequent horrific events are still reversible, vrs my scream for edward munch

Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,
And wisdom is early to despair:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair

The Leaden Echo - Gerard Manley Hopkins

Optimistic, a playlist

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time

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