Business Musings: Assessing Pandemic Damage

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From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I suspect spring in Las Vegas will always have reminders for me. In those first dark days of the pandemic, when we were wiping off our groceries and viewing our neighbors with great suspicion, when we were wearing cloth masks that were makeshift at best, and running out of toilet paper as well as hand sanitizer, I ran outdoors.

Very early in the morning, taking the stairs from our condo down to the street, actually crossing the street if I saw anyone at all. There was a group of us who were out at that time of day—a redheaded runner who lived on Fremont Street (and ran the same route, only going the opposite direction), a middle-aged woman who walked and was usually on the phone, and a man from my building who walked his three bulldogs every day at the same time.

We didn’t talk. We waved from a proper distance. All of us carried masks, but weren’t masked. We’d hastily put the mask on if someone came close. I actually wore a neck gaiter that I could pull up like a bandit.

This morning, I was sorting my clothes for the upcoming summer and found some cloth masks. I’d already noted last fall that I was unwilling to throw my cloth masks away, even though I haven’t worn any since late 2020. I’ve been wearing K95 when I need to wear masks.

I did stash the cloth masks, though. They’re in a bag I got from the musical Hadestown. I think that’s appropriate.

There are many things that remind me of that spring. Not people—I haven’t seen the first two from my early morning group since 2021. I see the neighbor often. I also see the spring changes.

Back then, I would run, and later in the day, Dean and I would walk, around the neighborhood. We looked at little round cacti that got their spring growth (and sometimes bloomed). At the pollen that littered the street three blocks down. At the spring flowers that had a moment just before the summer heat crushed them.

The neighborhood is different now—there’s been a lot of building and remodeling and growth—but some of those pockets remain. And at this time of year, the sight of those things immediately sends me back to those fearful days.

I like to think I got through them pretty well. I was as realistic about the pandemic as I could be. My history background both informed me and worried me. Dean stopped asking me when I thought the pandemic part would end because my answer was always, Give it three years. That’s when the pandemic started waning in the 1920s.

Here we are, three years later. Yes, I know, dear readers, COVID-19 is still with us. Friends have had it all through the fall and winter. A friend just had a bout last week. If I log onto Facebook, I see even more friends who are suffering with the virus, even if they’re vaccinated. That disease is pernicious and it wants to infect us all.

. . . .

Markus Brauer, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison teamed up with professors from the School of Journalism and Communication on a study conducted in the early days of the pandemic. The results were published recently.

It found that “higher media consumption—seeking out the news—was associated with more emotional distress.”  I read an article about it in the University of Wisconsin alumni magazine, On Wisconsin, and had a visceral reaction:

I wasn’t extremely emotionally distressed.

Denial much?

I even had trouble getting through the article. Then I found this paragraph:

The study doesn’t allow for causal conclusions. While it is likely that seeking out news updates about the pandemic led to emotional distress, according to Brauer, it is also possible that people who are distressed try to manage their emotions by checking the news more often.

The second half of that paragraph describes me and my coping mechanism. When I’m upset, I seek information. The more information I have, the calmer I become.

Although I doubt I was calm after March of 2020. I doubt I was calm for years.

. . . .

I knew how to survive minute to minute, hour to hour. I also knew how to calm myself in moments of political stress (which we had an abundance of in the U.S. that year). I had been a reporter for a reason. When something goes haywire, I seek information. I look for causes and solutions. I gather data. I check the data to see if it changed overnight.

I am very aware of these habits and actively sought them out.

What I didn’t realize was the impact this all had on my fiction writing and reading. I noted a few things. Such as…I couldn’t read romance novels at all. A part of me no longer believed anyone would ever get a happily ever after. I didn’t want to read certain types of mysteries either, because they were distressing.

Science fiction and fantasy provided a lot of escape, but I have a problem with those genres. My years as an editor made me highly critical of them, so I needed to approach them sideways—trying not to look too hard at what the author was doing.

I defaulted in my reading to a lot of favorite authors because I knew I’d get a reliable read. That was helpful, but my reading declined and as it did, so did my writing.

Or so I thought.

What really changed was this: I had become what I call outer-directed. When I’m threatened or in crisis, I focus on what’s around me, not on what’s inside me. I can’t get lost in a made-up world, because that’s just too dangerous. I don’t dare go through this world with blinders on. Something even worse might happen.

I struggled and wrote and read what I could. I found other things to focus on, though. Writing and reading didn’t give me an escape, but learning Spanish did. It took concentration and felt like I was feeding that outer-directed part of myself.

That lead me to taking school (which was online at that point) too seriously, something I had to work my way out of last fall. I am not a young student with a bright future ahead of her. I really don’t need these classes. They’re for me. So I don’t need to be anal about it, and I don’t need straight As. I’m taking classes for myself, not to get a career or figure out my future. I’m there to learn, and, sometimes, to have fun.

During lockdown, I had to start running in the mornings, which took my best writing time, because the gyms were closed. Those morning runs became a lifeline. I met a lot of (properly distanced) Las Vegans on those mornings—everyone from the security guards at a parking garage (imagine that job) to the street vendors who slowly returned to Fremont. There are a lot of people who glue Las Vegas together in the hours before 7 a.m, people you don’t see later in the day.

I was out there with them, earlier and earlier, because it gets so damn hot here, and no way in hell was I going to the gym and trying to exercise masked among people who felt they didn’t need to follow the rules. (Yes, it was that bad, even into late 2021.)

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7 thoughts on “Business Musings: Assessing Pandemic Damage”

  1. In those first dark days of the pandemic, when we were wiping off our groceries and viewing our neighbors with great suspicion, when we were wearing cloth masks that were makeshift at best, and running out of toilet paper as well as hand sanitizer, I ran outdoors.

    I did the opposite. I didn’t wear masks, went to the grocery store several times per week, socialized with like-minded friends and neighbors, suspected nobody, and lived as normally as possible. I was also fortunate to live in an area free from the restrictions imposed in so many other places in the US. Some chose to wear masks. OK. Nobody ever gave me a hard time for not masking. If a private business asked me to mask, I complied. The days never really turned dark.

    • It continues to startle me when I realize there were people who lived in lockdown for years. The Florida pandemic experience was so different that I often can’t communicate clearly with people from other places.

  2. Different people have different reactions to stress.
    And few things are as stressful (barring family catastrophe) than social upheaval.

    The one thing common to all social upheaval events is a tendency to draw in, focus on kinship and tribal ties. And considering the country was already undergoing low level tribal warfare, the outcome was innevitable: 10x more conflict. The pandemic is to all clinical purposes over (three years was a good call) but it has been followed by the specter of global war and chaos which is only getting starting. WWIII won’t take the form of WWII or WWI or even WWO but rather it will be fought in different arenas, not just geographically. Economic, technological, and sociopolitical are just part of the battlefields of the day, all in parallel.

    Consider the pandemic a sign of things to come.
    Because a lot of tribes the world over are placing bets based on fallacious reads of the worldvand committing to self-destructuve paths. And it’s not just Muscovy.

    • Agreed, Felix.

      For me, being cut off from regular face-to-face interaction with friends and others was what bothered me during the lock-down.

  3. I think your next post on anxiety nails it.

    There are benefits to being somewhat fatalistic and not obsessing over uncertainty and health. (Or — heaven help us — Trump phobia.)

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