Stephen Hunter

As 400,000 Face Death, America Focuses on the Holidays

(Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash)

With 15 million cases, 200,000 deaths, and COVID running free in 48 states, I was asked what it’s like to live in this America. Well …


The COVID-19 pandemic is building wave upon wave here in the United States. Along with the expected winter surge has come a mass delusional response to the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas; to celebrate these traditions many simply have chosen the path of magical thinking: travel and gather, drink and be merry, come what may.

In the total absence of any integrated plan from the top, individual states and often plain, old individuals are left to the mercy of their own, limited judgments. And, not to make it easy, conspiracy theories roam the land unchecked. It’s estimated that a full 400,000 Americans will die by the time the new president is inaugurated in January. That’s 400,000 dead in less than one year and from one disease. We are in uncharted territory and, until a vaccine shows up, we are on our own.

Like one huge rack focus in a movie, from macro to micro, we plunge; going in one smooth camera move from out in space with our bright blue planet bobbing in the dark, then zooming down through the atmosphere and cloud layer and further down to where we see first the continent, then the country, then the region, then the town, and down into a single house on a single street. Finally, the shot comes to rest in the folds, swirls, and lobes of an individual brain. This virus, being omnipresent, exists at all of these focal lengths at once.

That’s enough to make anyone’s head hurt. What’s it like? Here in my self-imposed, mask-wearing, hand-washed, lockdown exile, luckily, I have access to at least one of these focal points … my own brain. I bring you news from the frontlines.


Wide Lens/Frontal Lobes

Bob Ballard is an oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer. He’s best known for, in 1985, locating and diving down to the wreck of the H.M.S. Titanic.

He also happens to be a big proponent of something called the Gaia Principle. This is the theory that the Earth is a single, integrated organism. If any part of that organism threatens the whole, the Earth will, in one shiver, shake it off. Ballard would posit that new viruses are one way the planet is doing just this; using, in a sense, its own immune system, to shed the offending pathogen: us. As this pandemic first showed its fangs and then spread with rapacity and rapidity, Ballard’s Cassandra act sprung immediately to mind.


Ballard would posit that new viruses are one way the planet is doing just this; using, in a sense, its own immune system, to shed the offending pathogen: us.


At a macro level, are we beginning to reap what we have sown? This engenders collective guilt and dull helplessness edged with nostalgia. There’s this tsunami headed right for us and all we can do is collapse into our beach chairs and watch it roll in as we think how good we had it and how good it all still might have been. If only.


Medium, Long Focus/Left Brain

The more responsible of us try to stay au currant of the latest science. What can we do, short of medical intervention, to help both ourselves and our communities “flatten the curve”? How can we responsibly do this without tanking the whole economy? This is important because, as vaccines appear on the horizon, no one wants to be the last soldier to die before the Armistice.


Medium Close-Up/Right Brain

Is there a way, in the midst of this, to get your grown children to come home for the holidays? Get them here without endangering anyone – even someone in the house who is immune-suppressed? Yes, but it takes precise planning and an org chart that would serve for a military invasion. It involves testing both going and coming; full-on quarantines both coming and going; twice-daily temperature checks; ditto Oximeter readings. And, even with all that in place, no plan is foolproof. You stop at numerous points during the day, wake up at 2:00 a.m., wondering if it’s worth it.


Extreme Close-Up/Lizard Brain:

Here lies sheer mortal terror. Daily, news outlets feature video from inside ICUs across the land. Medical staff are interviewed; they’re exhausted, many of them in tears over the mass death they’re witnessing. Patients, immobilized, we only see through glass doors, in semi-darkened rooms, tubes in everywhere, spending their last days on earth alone, afraid, cut off. Refrigeration trucks usually used to transport food are lined up behind the hospitals to handle the dead. It’s impossible not to empathize, put yourself in that lonely, sterile room. There’s fear, there’s dread, and there’s fatalism.

Yes, near the brain stem, fatalism curls up like a dog before a warm fire. Got to die of something; maybe you should embrace it. As Al Pacino would have it, what actor doesn’t love dying?


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