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COVID zero expectations: the pandemic diaries

Part One

Having joined the Peace Corps, I was sent to the University of New Mexico for training. It proved an intense summer of language instruction (Spanish), the history of the host country (Colombia), daily soccer, Outward Bound-like courses in rock climbing, rappelling and horseback riding, followed by long treks into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Upon arrival, we were assembled in an auditorium where the staff and instructors were introduced and the months-long curriculum explained. Our contingent had also been assigned two psychologists who, along with our instructors, would evaluate our individual performances. Taking stage center, I recall the shrinks, as we called them, speaking at length about “culture shock,” a phenomenon we would almost certainly experience, especially in the first months of our in-country assignments.

But then the psychologists knew something we didn’t: all of it, call it culture, was profoundly complex and nuanced, something we think little about when it’s our own (does a fish know it’s swimming in water?), but can be a source of tormenting discontent when it’s not.

The psychologists also introduced us to the term “high risk-high gain.” The Peace Corps would attempt to assess projected volunteer outcomes. How well would we adapt to our placements — urban barrios or remote rural villages? The key word was risk, meaning would we thrive despite the difficulties of coping as strangers in a strange land — the language elusive, the norms and customs a mystery — or would we, out of anxiety and frustration, choose to leave? Of course, often in the dead of night, feeling profoundly alone, we asked ourselves the same questions.

The reason I mention the above is to point out that risk assessment is embedded in our daily lives. There is little we do that is inherently zero risk; hence we do our best to avoid harmful outcomes. That’s life.

Regarding the past fraught year of the coronavirus, much of our national discourse has been consumed with judging risk and its mitigation, while sorting out the ever-morphing avalanche of information and analysis delivered by an array of epidemiologists, doctors and politicians. Week after week, we grimly bore witness to the demonstrably lethal outcomes for some who contracted this highly contagious disease. And those who became sick and survived often struggled for months to recover.

Mitigation became our mantra: A national lockdown was declared, our daily routines soon included masks, social distancing and hand-washing. We said hello from afar, and our isolation only deepened. A common analog became the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed some 50 million people worldwide. And from the presidential bully pulpit, COVID-19 was initially compared to a case of the seasonal flu (a runny nose, a slight cough, some aches). It was a monumental false equivalency driven by denial or, more likely, dissembling.

To one degree or another, we are all risk-averse: we wear seat belts, install smoke detectors, look both ways before crossing the street, reevaluate our many choices, struggle against those blinking yellow habits.

And yet, over this past year, being cautious has taken on new meaning, our sense of vulnerability heightened, for others and ourselves. By way of ending an email or conversation we say, “Take care.” We counsel one another to “stay safe.” We hope the enclosed or attached note finds them well, meaning thus far in this pandemic journey we/they have avoided the virus and so must continue to live defensively, practice mitigation, stay mindful. It’s not over until it’s over.

And yet, remarkably, what was promised has now become a reality. The extraordinary pharma-government effort to develop vaccines has resulted in three: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. And so we continue the now-familiar process of risk assessment: to get the shot(s) or not. As well, this new moment is embedded with the fragile expectation of COVID Zero.

To be continued.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.