Scenes from a Pandemic, Volume 3 – Survival through Flexibility and Change

Much has changed since my post just yesterday, and I’m hearing some people griping about the variations in rules and procedures from day to day. It reminds me of my time serving on Hurricane Katrina, how the rules at the service center in Mobile, Alabama changed every day and sometimes from morning to afternoon. This is how disasters are.

Please take the new rules and restrictions as a very good sign. It means that the leaders are listening to the experts, which doesn’t always happen, and that the experts are continuing to learn about the COVID-19 virus, what works and doesn’t work.

There is a myth in American culture, about the strong-willed hero who conquers his (usually a him) enemy through brute force of will. He triumphs by being stubborn, even rigid. In reality, that character would lose. I’m thinking of Dirty Harry and some of Clint Eastwood’s other characters as fitting this model, but in one of my favorite Eastwood movies, Heartbreak Ridge, he plays a Marine Gunnery Sergeant facing mandatory retirement. This character’s motto is, “Improvise, adapt, overcome.”

The COVID-19 virus is causing humanity all of kinds of hell because it has adapted and found new ways to spread and new ways to overcome the armies of human immune systems. We are going to overcome COVID-19, in the end, because we are also adapting – our behavior, our environment – and improvising new ways of living. One of the best books on the subject is called The Survivor Personality by Dr. Al Siebert. He devotes all of Chapter 4 to flexibility. We are going to survive COVID-19 but it won’t happen by being rigid or determined. We’re going to win by rolling with the punches, weaving and bobbing and finding the place and time to counterpunch.  We are going to win by adapting.

As of today, here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, restaurants and bars are still open but with no indoor seating. You can buy at the business and take it out. Even better, you can pay by card over the phone and they will deliver it curbside. They don’t want to touch your cash or cards and they don’t want you to stick around and chat. The list of businesses still open is getting smaller.

Listen for the phrases shelter in place or quarantine in place. We’re not there yet but those terms are already part of the public conversation, and they are probably coming soon. They mean travel bans. At first, those will be loose, discouraging you from unnecessary trips, but the definition of necessary will get stricter. It’s hard to believe that we aren’t already under the same travel restrictions that we have during blizzards in Pennsylvania, but that point is probably coming very soon.

New York State announced today that they expect COVID-19 to peak in 45 days. That doesn’t mean that the 14-day quarantine isn’t working – it is and it will, the whole flattening the curve term that has already been common – but the virus is already out there and we have a late start on it. If this projection is correct then New York will need 12 times its current capacity of intensive-care beds. Twelve times, and COVID-19 has afflicted every state in the country except West Virginia, at least as of this morning. Normally mutual-aid agreements would support New York, but if the projections are correct then there will not be slack in the system.

Pennsylvania’s K-12 schools are officially closed until 3/30/20. Many colleges and universities have already closed out the spring semester.

As for me, I took advantage of the time off to file my taxes earlier than I had planned. I don’t expect H & R Block to be open next week, when my appointment was originally set. I took care of it, but I also heard from their staff that the IRS has extended the April 15 filing deadline by 90 days. Please don’t take my word for it, but check it out if you need it.

My next stop was Giant. I don’t need cleaning supplies and I have no hope of finding eggs, but I did find Butterscotch Krimpets, four boxes for $10.00. I kicked my doughnut habit a year ago during Lent but it has come back and that’s typical, old habits returning during times of stress. I’m still managing my calories and I will get back on track when things settle. If you have a history of smoking or some other habit that you don’t like, please be aware of the tendency to return to it during a difficult time like this.

While I was in Giant, I saw three customers wearing respirator masks. My initial response was fear, because masks only work if you are already sick, preventing you from spreading the illness, but I quickly realized that these customers weren’t sick but rather wearing the masks in the mistaken belief that the masks would protect them. They were wasting the masks at a time when health care workers, with proper training in the use of respirator masks, very much need them, and I was angry, atop being wary of people who were so afraid that they would waste medical supplies during an emergency. I moved away from those customers, which is how I found the sale on Krimpets, so it all worked out.

I volunteer with about a half-dozen disaster and crisis (not the same thing) response organizations, and I have orders to deploy tomorrow, just for a few hours, nearby, just to help to inventory and organize relief supplies. Action binds anxiety and I am excited to go out and make myself useful. Nobody wants emergencies like COVID-19 to happen, but wanted or not, they happen anyway, and I will get to be with my tribe, the folks who jump on the challenge and act to help others.

I will close with a few quotes from a paper called “Are you ready for the next Pandemic?” by one of my disaster gurus, Steve Crimando, who wrote about COVID-19 last month. Steve hasn’t endorsed my post or my blog, so I’m just sharing a few of his ideas that may be useful.

It is also important to remember that pandemics can be long-emergencies, so planners must anticipate a crisis that can span a year or longer…. It may take 12-16 months for a pandemic to be fully resolved.... 

It is important to remember, regarding pandemics as well as other emergencies, that the human response to such events is both phase-specific and hazard-specific. It is helpful to consider the three common types of community and workplace responses to disasters and emergencies, and how they differ in health crises. 

While the most common collective behavioral response can be summarized as “neighbor-helps-neighbor”, there are other event factors that can prevent this common response (i.e., high levels of fear) and in some situations create a competitive survival response that pits neighbor-against-neighbor, thereby eroding the community or co-worker cohesion that is so important to disaster recovery. 

In the wake of a disaster or crisis people typically look for, and find ways to assist each other. Community and organizational cohesion plays an important role in both response and recovery. This “neighbor-helps-neighbor” impulse is referred to as a “Type I” behavioral response. 

That’s where we are right now. Please be safe and be good to each other. Nobody is coming for your toilet paper.