Day 22: Letters of Transit

April 16, 2020

Last night, we sat down with our kids to see “Casablanca.” Not all three kids — the middle one took a pass. He often takes a pass. This is how he missed seeing “Come From Away” at the Ahmanson two Decembers ago, a theatrical experience the other four of us still gush about with wonder.

But I digress.

So there we were, me and the 16-year-old and the 21-year-old curled up on the couch, my possibly-COVID husband relegated to another option (he vacillated between the floor and an ottoman). And maybe it was because we kept pausing the movie to explain plot details to the 16-year-old (while her older brother rolled his eyes and threatened, “If she needs to stop one more time, I’m leaving” — but she did, and he didn’t). Or maybe I’ve finally seen this thing so many times that I can get beyond wondering what Ingrid Bergman would’ve looked like without soft focus, and sighing over the tragedy of thwarted love.

But for the first time, I understood in a visceral way the relief those characters must have felt to land in Casablanca, and yet, the burning desire, even need, they had to leave.

Until this virus landed in my community, I’d never been stalked by an enemy before. I thought my dreams of Nazis chasing me sort of counted. I thought the fear I felt the night of September 11, 2001, looking up into a Los Angeles sky brightened only by starlight, wondering if my city would be next — I thought that counted.

No, it didn’t. Not for me, anyway. But now I know what it’s like to find my society up against something implacable and potentially lethal. To make a rough correlation, the outside is Vichy France. My home is Casablanca. It’s safe — for now. I can afford to stay here — for now. There are adequate provisions — for now. But I want — we all want — to get to safety.

That war, when it caught you in its crosshairs, was so much deadlier than this virus. But it was ungainlier, couldn’t travel with the same smooth, voracious ease.

President Trump wants to open up the nation as soon as possible — May 1st, or even earlier for some locales, he reportedly told governors on a phone call today. I confess, I am usually knee-jerk negative on all things Trump. And of course, this nation remains woefully unprepared to confront this pandemic, short as we are on testing, and ventilators, and ICU beds, and ill-equipped as we are to do proper contact tracing.

But what is our alternative? Here in California, we are what’s considered a raging COVID success story. “State’s scariest virus scenarios finally yield to ray of optimism,” read the headline in this morning’s LA Times. “Coronavirus cases in California may be peaking, models show, provided we stick with social distancing.” (italics are mine)

That means everything — so many lives saved — and nothing. I don’t understand how we keep doing this. I see friends posting on Facebook that neither they nor their spouse have had any income for a month. Two, three, four months like this seems unsustainable.

In such moments, I turn to my younger brother, who loves numbers. When he was a kid, he’d grab the sports section each morning and lie on his stomach on the den carpet, the paper spread out before him to the stats section, chewing up the numbers in his head, breaking them down. Today, with business in the doldrums, he fills his time scouring the internet for COVID-19 spread data. Sometimes he sends me what he finds. (Sometimes he makes graphs of infection rates by region, country or state. I’m trying to get him to make a few that I can share here, but so far, he’s a no go.)

Yesterday, he sent me this link. As of today, the New York state infection rate is 11,530 per one million people. California’s is 704. Sure, we can re-open this state, but whether we inch forward, or throw ourselves a big “return to normalcy” party, we still must grapple with the intractable fact that most of us remain unexposed to the virus and don’t have immunity.

But are New Yorkers much better off? Definitely, there are a lot more people in the five boroughs that have survived COVID-19 than in Los Angeles. But we still don’t know what that hard-won exposure is worth in immunity. I came across a study in Science Magazine the other day that sent chills down my spine. The authors — Harvard University professors — explained that viral immunity could be anywhere from five years or more to a handful of months. We just don’t know. And, they added, what’s going on now may not be the worst we’re going to see. I’m just going to quote from their paper here, because they explain it better than me:

One-time social distancing efforts may push the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic peak into the autumn, potentially exacerbating the load on critical care resources if there is increased wintertime transmissibility. Intermittent social distancing might maintain critical care demand within current thresholds, but widespread surveillance will be required to time the distancing measures correctly and avoid overshooting critical care capacity. New therapeutics, vaccines, or other interventions such as aggressive contact tracing and quarantine – impractical now in many places but more practical once case numbers have been reduced and testing scaled up (43) – could alleviate the need for stringent social distancing to maintain control of the epidemic. In the absence of such interventions, surveillance and intermittent distancing (or sustained distancing if it is highly effective) may need to be maintained into 2022, which would present a substantial social and economic burden.

“Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period,” Science Magazine, April 14, 2020

In other words, if this doesn’t work out right, we could be asked to do this for two more years. But we can’t. Can we? People who had solid lives will lose their homes. People won’t have money for food. And will the food even be there? What of our vaunted supply chains, when the virus keeps striking and striking, and we keep shutting down in response?

Just like Victor Laszlo and his soft-focus Ilsa, we all just want safety. We sit here on uncomfortable bar stools in Casablanca, throwing back our cocktails, trying to figure out how to get letters of transit so we can leave this beautiful hellhole.

Remember, in “Casablanca,” security was only an illusion. It was a free French territory, but the Germans kept finding ways to convert life to death. And so we wait in our homes, while the economy crumbles, and we’re “safe” — maybe from the virus, probably not from the economic damage being wrought all around us.

We want safe passage. But maybe there’s no entirely safe passage through this thing.

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