St. COVID’s Day

March 17th.  St. Patrick’s Day.  This was the first year the BCA moved the annual world tournament from July to March.  The first year as well that my teammates were all able to attend, and so the first time we’d be competing as a team in several years.  We’ve been anticipating this time for months, saving and preparing.

I imagined St. Patrick’s Day in Vegas to be something certainly worth observing.  In a city so  obsessed with consumption and excess, I was certain there would be plenty of good people-watching to be done.  And of course, a few Irish whiskeys along the way perhaps.  But not too many, as the team competition would be starting the next morning and we would want to be sharp and ready for the the already formidable task of having to start shooting pool at 9 am instead of in the late afternoon or evening as most of us were more  used to.

But instead, as the sun was going down over the Nevada desert I was hightailing it out of Las Vegas instead of celebrating.  The team event was cancelled as of Sunday evening.  We had remained in Vegas through Tuesday for my teammate who was still competing in the individual’s tournament (and ended up winning 3rd place in his division – not bad being able to say you’re the third best player in your division in the world!).  But as of 5 pm or so he had finished, gotten his check, had his picture taken, and it was time to leave.

I drove up to Vegas the previous week alone, knowing I’d be driving two teammates and their gear back.  But now I was also driving our league president and his wife back.  The hotels were shutting down and kicking everyone out.  Rather than wait another day for their flight back to Santa Barbara they squeezed into my SUV and I used my Tetris skills to fit their gear in as well.  It was a cozy bunch headed into the sunset.

We were maybe half an hour out of town when the classic rock station interrupted their playlist for a live broadcast from the governor of Nevada.  For the next 20 minutes or so we listened to him talk about what the state of Nevada would be doing immediately to respond to the threat of COVID-19.  Yes, the hotels would be shut down by noon the next day.  All gaming machines in the state would be turned off in a matter of hours at midnight.  People were being ordered to stay at home as much as possible.  It was clear an entire state was essentially closing, hunkering down and hoping that by doing so the spread of COVID-19 would be slowed, and fewer people would get sick and die from it.

We sat in stunned silence.

Good zombie movies often center around an unlikely collection of people forced to work together to survive.  That’s all well and good for a movie, but as we raced towards the sinking sun I couldn’t  help but think that this isn’t the group of people I would have hoped to be my apocalypse survival squad.  Not that there weren’t some good skill sets here.  Our league president served in the US Navy.  One of my teammates was good with his hands.  Another had experience in caring for people with disabilities.  It was a good, gritty crew to some extent.  But I couldn’t help but lament, as we drove by mostly empty gas stations and restaurants and Motel 6’s with their lights turned off that I would have preferred to be facing the apocalypse with my family, even if we weren’t quite as gritty and our survival chances might not be as good.

That ride, and listening to the speech from the governor is likely something I’ll never forget.  Unlike any experience in my life.  Unlike 9/11.  Unlike housing busts and recessions, presidential assassination attempts or even the vague background threat of nuclear war as a child and young adult.  This was something different.

Three weeks later it remains something fundamentally different.  How long can a country shut down?  How long are people expected to shelter in place and avoid one another?  What are the long-term costs to our country not just economically but socially and politically?  We don’t have any road maps for these sorts of considerations.  As competing models and evolving models of how the infection will play out in our country shift and change, something seems clear.

COVID-19 will have to be a pretty big deal.  If it turns out to be a smaller issue than anticipated, if it turns out to have the overall impact of a really bad flu season, there’s going to be hell to pay.  Or at least there should be.  There will need to be some very specific repercussions against a government ordering people to shut their businesses down and destroy their livelihoods rather than guiding people but allowing them to make decisions that seem to make sense.

Either COVID-19 is devastating to our nation as an actual health crisis, or it will be devastating to our political structure and the people who sacrificed untold small businesses out of fear or paranoia.  It’s possible that both things could happen, though I pray not.  But understanding whether COVID-19 is ultimately dangerous enough to very possibly destroy an entire economic and political system is something we aren’t going to know until after the fact.

It’s popular to compare COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920.  The Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans in less than two years.  We’re currently at not quite 13,000 deaths.  This is, of course tragic, but also confusing, as an undetermined number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 are also strongly related to underlying and pre-existing health conditions.  At the same time, there have been an estimated 24,000 deaths from the flu through the end of March, and I assume that some number of  those deaths also involve compromised health situations.  Depending on what news reports you choose to believe, we may already be seeing the COVID-19 infection rate slowing in the US.

It will be painful and fascinating in the coming years to understand better whether we reacted appropriately to COVID-19 or not.  Whether the economic and political damage incurred is something we can recover from or will lead us into new economic and political realities couldn’t  have foreseen.  Most zombie movies never play out the long game of community and state and nation and world rebuilding.  Nobody has the attention span for that.  Or  at least, we didn’t used to.

Hopefully we do now.  Because we’re all in this together, an unlikely group of people thrust together and required to work together to survive.  I pray we’re up  to the task, and careful about the precedents that are knowingly or unknowingly being set right now.  I hope our skills, Tetris or otherwise, are up to the task.  And I hope people are willing to work together towards these ends rather than continuing to isolate and scream at one another through their face masks and social media masks.  There are challenges ahead but also opportunities, if we are wise enough to discern enough and brave enough to take them.  Hopefully the darkest part of this night-desert-drive is over, and we’ll be seeing the sun coming up shortly.

 

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