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The Growing Frustration of Shelter in Place

As we hit the two month mark for Shelter in Place here in the Bay Area, I figured it was a good time to reflect. I’ll jump right in and say that there’s been tremendous failure at almost every level. As a generally positive person, this is quite a statement for me. If there’s anything positive I take from all this, it is how many people are good and want to do the right thing. We see protesters and unmasked crowds on the news, but most people I interact with when I’m out are being good and thoughtful citizens. It’s also fascinating to see how small businesses have been adapting, from their own, creative DIY protections for employees and customers, to pivots, with some restaurants not only doing take-out, but offering “grocery packages” and meal kits for cooking at home. One nearby restaurant even had toilet paper in their grocery package!

Leadership from the government? A disaster. The federal government failed us completely. Even as a small government fan, pandemic response is the kind of thing they actually should be doing. Instead, they left it up to the states, in spite of us all being in the same pool. State leadership has constantly contradicted the federal government, each other, and themselves. Local leadership in many places has been even worse.

And most sadly on a personal level, partisan politics has become woven into every step of this. Reasonable precautions to keep each other safe being turned into a political position. Wearing a mask in public and hand washing should never have become political. There is nothing new or factually controversial about these precautions against the spread of viruses. It’s science. And it’s our health, our lives.

But even I’m getting frustrated. I was happy to comply with the Shelter In Place orders while we figured out what to do. The number one priority had to be immediately slowing the spread so that our hospitals would not become overwhelmed. Here in northern California we succeeded, but now what? Criteria for re-opening has been slow to come and unclear. It’s often focused on what will happen with each phase rather than what actually needs to happen or change before we get to each phase. As the weeks go on, there’s pressure for even what we have for re-opening criteria to be relaxed or outright ignored so we can re-open more quickly.

But the evidence shows this virus has a long incubation period and a high rate of asymptomatic cases. Without widely available active infection testing and antibody testing, we have no idea who is sick, who has recovered, and who has yet to be exposed. Without this information, the only thing we’ve bought over these two months of financial hardship and sacrifice is time for hospitals to prepare. That’s an important step, but a lot of people are still going to get sick and die when we re-open. We’re going to be right back where we were two months ago, but with more room in the hospitals. Is that all we can really hope for at this stage? After all that? No wonder people are upset.

My family will still comply with restrictions and exercise caution even long after the worst has passed, but we’re also privileged enough that this whole thing has been a big inconvenience rather than a real hardship. We can effectively work from home, we have not suffered income loss, our childcare needs are met, and we haven’t been hit by the worst of the shortages. But most of my life was spent living paycheck to paycheck, so I have tremendous empathy for those who are facing financial ruin in the face of this crisis, and now have to contemplate putting themselves and their family at risk to go back to work too soon. It breaks my heart, and there’s little we can do. We follow health guidelines, shop and eat local, and have adjusted our charitable giving to match the current needs, but it doesn’t feel like enough.

Hindsight is 20/20, but while the specifics of this pandemic and virus are new, we’ve understood how viruses generally spread for a long time. That the federal government is scrambling to figure out a response, and every state seems to be on their own coming up with a plan, is ridiculous. Pandemics happen, it was inevitable, why were we so poorly prepared? The answer does get political, and that in itself is a problem. This should have been a time when we came together to fight this tiny enemy killing our species, and instead it’s been a fear-fueled, political mess. If we had just been presented with a clear plan to fight this from the beginning so we knew what to expect and the criteria for moving forward, we’d all be in a much better place. People are smarter than either side of the political spectrum would like to believe right now. Fear and uncertainty are what’s tearing us apart and providing a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories and misplaced anger.