Pandemic in the Land of Plenty
Updated: Jun 29
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
We were supposed to be fighting for our lives with crossbows and Samurai swords, living off of canned food left by the dead, reduced to our primal selves—the best and the worst of us battling for survival. The system would suddenly and catastrophically collapse around us. The virus would make piles of dead people in churches and end civilization itself.
Also, there might be zombies.
Speaking as a lifetime consumer of post-apocalyptic entertainment, the current COVID-19 pandemic isn’t exactly what we prepared for, and I am deeply grateful for this. It is still early days, but for many of us, the crisis is psychological rather than physical. Certainly, there is disease and death—100,013 confirmed infected and counting in the U.S., 1,545 confirmed dead as of this writing. But so far, it is cabin fever that most afflicts me—ennui, restlessness, boredom, and the daily numbing spectacle of the 24/7 Coronavirus Channel. It is a battle against fear itself rather than a battle for basic survival. The power is still on. Food is still plentiful. The police will still show up if I call. I have a vast library of cheap entertainment accessible to me on multiple devices—cell phone, iPad, desktop computer. There is Wikipedia and YouTube and Twitter. I can do a deep dive on the Bubonic Plague if I care to, or watch dozens of instructional videos about the proper technique for hand washing during a viral outbreak. I can map the route to the nearest Publix that still stocks toilet paper. I can order food from Costco and have it delivered by a nice young woman from the gig economy whose latest gig is delivering groceries during a pandemic.
I tipped her twenty dollars online before she arrived, but then, realizing that she had incurred some personal risk to make my delivery, I put an extra two five dollar bills in a ziplock baggie for her. She arrived in a smallish white sedan with my groceries neatly boxed in the trunk. I was waiting her for her on the front porch wearing latex gloves and holding the baggie by the corner as if it contained toxic waste.
What the hell am I doing, I thought, suddenly feeling foolish. She stepped out of the car and I noticed that she was not wearing latex gloves. I watched her hands as she loaded the groceries into a four-wheeled canvas cart I had lined with plastic bags, making a mental note of every surface she touched.
After she drove off, my wife walked outside and we both stood over the cart strategizing about how to bring the groceries into the house. We’ve already had several discussions like this one. There are new rituals to replace old ones. In two weeks of sheltering in place regular bed times for our nine year old have dissolved. So too has the prohibition against her sleeping in our bed. The old limits on screen time have disappeared as well. Showers are not as regular as before. But now we all wash our hands religiously after we enter the house. We don’t touch any surfaces when we are outside of the house. And we always make a plan for bringing groceries into the house.
“Did she look sick,” my wife asked?
“No,” I answered, “but I was surprised to see that that she was not wearing gloves.”
We discussed various articles we’ve read about how long the virus can live on different kinds of surfaces: Cardboard—up to 24 hours. Copper—up to four hours. Stainless steel—three to four days. I said I had just read an article that said not a single case of coronavirus has been traced to a food delivery. My wife scoffed at this.
We settled on a medium crazy approach. Perishables go in the refrigerator right away. Non-perishables stay in the cart near the door, for a few days, presumably to allow the virus to die. And then, wash hands while singing the birthday song. “Crazy” means one of us (usually me) is being overly cautious. “Medium crazy” means yeah, it’s a little bit over the top, but agreeably necessary under the circumstances.
The groceries tell a story about how we are weathering the virus. Blueberries from Florida. Strawberries from Mexico. Nutella from Canada. Boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios. The supply chains are still moving. I am relieved to see this.
This is what pandemic looks like in the land of plenty. We will live off the fat of the land. We will binge watch our favorite TV shows. We will follow the grim updates on coronavirus.gov. We will endure.
Stuck in my house for two weeks, I am painfully aware of stuff. Piles of it. Clothes. Toys. Charger cables. Art supplies. Tupperware. Mail. The average American house holds 300,000 items. Twenty-five percent of Americans with two-car garages can’t park their cars in them. We are probably above average consumers. What to do with all of this stuff in a pandemic? Sell it on eBay to raise extra cash? Barter for food? Open my own dollar store?
How useful is any of this stuff in a worst-case pandemic scenario. If I was forced to grow my own food, for example, could I MacGyver an irrigation system from any of this plastic bric-a-brac lying around my house? Could I make anything useful? An animal trap, maybe. A crossbow? Definitely not.
Plastic is not a thing I think about normally. It is ubiquitous, invisible, except in those moments when my environmental consciousness rises up to remind me of where plastic comes from and where it will eventually end up. But the coronavirus has forced us to think about invisible things in new ways. It changes our relationship to matter itself. Now, when I think about plastic, I think about the life of COVID-19 on surfaces.
Plastic—three to four days.
Last week, I drove an hour to buy groceries at a Kroger in Carrollton, which is in a county that at the time had no reported coronavirus cases. I assessed this trip to be “medium crazy” at the time, but I think some of the shoppers in that store thought I was just plain crazy. I was the only person wearing latex gloves and carrying a container of Lysol wipes. I also appeared to be the only person social distancing with a six-foot personal perimeter. A few staple items were sold out, but otherwise, the store was fully stocked with food. America is not going hungry any time soon. There are TV dinners and frozen vegetables aplenty.
I saw a zombie in the store. She was fiftysomething, white, with long gray-blond hair in a ponytail. She was standing near the the chicken area of the meat department, which was already picked clean at 12:30 p.m., staring at the empty shelves with glassy eyes and a blank expression. She just kept staring. If she were not a zombie, I might have interpolated her thoughts from that look. I can’t believe this is happening, she might be thinking, or holy shit, who bought all the chicken before I got here. But it is always best to give the zombie a wide berth, so that is exactly what I did.
When the pandemic is over, I predict that the elites in this country will call on Americans to go out and shop. Buy things. Use your credit cards. Support the economy. Since 911, this is what has passed for patriotism in America. Maybe we would do this anyway without any encouragement, because we are a mercantile nation, or because we have been brainwashed to associate happiness with buying things. Whatever the motivation, the great plastic crap factory will be turned back on and we will be back to normal. The Big Pause will be over—the pause in which the ambient traffic noise dropped off in my neighborhood and the air smelled cleaner and my family stepped off the fast-moving treadmill of modern life to bond in ways that we had not before...the pause in which I had time to breath and think and feel human, even in the midst of fear and tragedy. We will be back to business as usual in America.
Or maybe we won’t.