Sunday, February 10, 2008

Chapter Eleven

The news our family hears regarding the drop in compliance and its results for Tampa is a sobering affirmation of all they have been practicing up to this point. It is also a worrying realization that despite their best efforts, they may still be exposed to the pandemic flu because of someone else’s choices.

They review all the contacts they’ve had over the last two or three weeks. Scott’s visits to the properties they are responsible for have been more curtailed than usual and he also continues to wear PPE when he is out which adds a layer of protection. None of their units are within the boundaries of the infection spikes. While this a relief, its not exactly an "all clear" sign either. Sissy has had a couple of contacts from within their own neighborhood - one when she was checking on an elderly neighbor that was sitting for what appeared to be an unusually long time on his porch swing, and once at the refuse burning site (located diagonal from the front of their house). And James talked to a neighbor lady over the privacy fence when she called over to see if Scott could help her add some security to her front door.

As far as they can tell, no one was symptomatic that they came in contact with and no one that has since shown any sign of illness. The kids, Rose and James in particular, are very somber after hearing of all the deaths of the youths.

"I guess you want us to say that could have been us."

"Well, yeah. It would be great if you could acknowledge that we haven’t been restricting your contacts just to make you miserable."

"We get it. OK? We do get it."

"And I can trust you all - you two especially - not to sneak out and upset your mother any more than you already have with the attitude problems around here."

"No dad, you know we wouldn’t do that," Rose replies. "Its just I’m nearly an adult and I get tired of feeling like I’m being treated like I’m Johnnie’s age."

"I don’t like feeling like I have to treat you like you’re Johnnie’s age. You and James are both old enough that you should be able to understand what your mom and I are trying to do. We shouldn’t have to deal with the attitudes and the repetitious complaints about how unfair life is. Trust me. We already know. You think this is a great situation for us either? We work ourselves sick trying to make sure you have a roof over your heads and all you all act like is you can’t wait to escape it. This isn’t just about anyone’s comfort. This is about our family’s survival. About keeping each one of you alive."

Sissy intervenes, "Scott, I don’t think they mean to come off like that; ungrateful or misunderstanding. We are all just under a lot of strain."

"I don’t care whether they mean to come off like that or not. If they want to be treated like adults then they need to start acting like it."

"You’re right," Rose says.

"Huh?" Scott is surprised into asking.

"You’re right. I’ve been feeling sorry for myself. Its not fair that things are like they are. But its not your or mom’s fault."

"Yeah, what she said." James agrees.

"We’ll try not to be so negative. Its not like this can last forever. Right? Right?!"

Scott and Sissy can hear in their voices that they are resigned to the situation. But being resigned doesn’t mean that they aren’t still upset, and the kids certainly are. There is no way to tell them "how long" because no one really knows with absolute certainty.

The Spanish Influenza was at its worst in 1918 and 1919 with three distinct waves, but things were different back then. People didn’t travel as much. They weren’t as dependent on modern conveniences like electricity or just-in-time delivery of goods and services. There is also some thinking that the things that make the pandemic "better" for parts of the country – the mitigation strategies – may also make it last longer. Everything has been kind of hypothetical up to this point. Now everyone is experiencing a steep learning curve in real time.

In areas of the country that did not implement mitigation procedures or that had low compliance to the mitigation efforts, they continue to see a significant number of cases of influenza. However, in some of those areas it appears that the number of new cases is declining, while in other areas the number of new cases continue to climb. But in either case, it looks like the numbers of death attributable indirectly to the pandemic remain constant – for example from lack of medication availability for chronic illnesses, lack of services for long term care patients, suicide, normally non-life threatening accidents that cannot receive treatment, etc. These casualties are being called collateral deaths.

Even though Tampa experienced a spike in infections, prompt action by local public health officials keep it from becoming a catastrophic break down of everything they had worked for up to that point. It is a close call, and one that the community has, at least for the near future, taken to heart. The area is returning to previous mitigation compliance levels and this slowly allows the health care system to recover enough to empty the triage tents … but as a visual reminder, the tents are not taken down. There is still a higher than previous percentage of absenteeism to contend with, but financial necessity will force many who are absent due to fear to return to work in short order.

And speaking of financial matters, that's one of the big three topics of conversation around the refuse pile in our family's neighborhood. Health, finances, and the weather. Not only our neighborhood, but also everywhere. Same thing people have always talked about, but now it is not just a polite enquiry. Now it is a gleaning to see if you are doing better or worse than your neighbor. To see if your neighbor knows something that you don’t. To find out if your neighbor has something that you don’t, and if so how did they get it.

"Well hello there Scott."

"Hello Mrs. Linden. You need some help with that bag of trash?"

"No honey I don’t, but thank you. Are you and that nice family of yours doing OK?"

"Yes ma’am, about like everyone else around here."

"Well that good to hear. No one has seen your children since this whole thing started and hardly anyone has seen Sissy. A lot of people were wondering if something had happened to them or if you had sent them away some place like they did back during the war. But I told them that was nonsense because I hear them over the fence on most days."

"We are keeping the kids away from everyone, quarantined I guess you could say; and Sissy with them just to be on the safe side. Hope the kids aren’t making too much noise for you."

"Oh no, don’t even think that. I enjoy hearing the kids. I miss my volunteer work at the children’s library. That makes sense I suppose, having the kids quarantined. How does Sissy get groceries if she can’t go out? Do you pick them up? Aren’t the prices outrageous."

"We get by. Nice to see you are OK Mrs. Linden. I need to get back to the house with these ashes."

"OK dear. Don’t be a stranger."

Scott quickly crosses the street and enters their property through the side gate. Sissy catches him making a face as he sits the bucket of ash down and starts stripping off his gloves and mask.

"What’s with the face? And why’d you bring back those ashes?"

"An excuse."


"Mrs. Linden was just about to get going good on grilling me. It’s the only thing I could think of to get me out of there fast."

"Oh Scott, honestly, she isn’t that bad."

"Oh yes she is. And she’s not the worst one, just the most polite."

"She’s probably just lonely."

"She’s probably just nosey. Just like the rest of them."

"Scott! She’s a nice lady."

"Sure she is. I never said she wasn’t. That’s what makes her dangerous. She’s got a gossip chain that’d make the CIA jealous. I let one wrong thing slip out and it’d be all around the neighborhood and halfway across town before the day was over."

"Geez, its not that bad." Sissy says rolling her eyes.

"Yeah it is. Every time I take stuff to the burn barrel its like someone is laying is wait to see if they can pump me for information. Its not so bad when they just ask about the price of gas or whether the power was on at such-and-such an intersection, but when they start getting personal, I start sweating."

Sissy just laughs. "Come on. Lunch is on the table. That should settle your nerves."

"You think its funny? You try being interrogated by everyone you run into. You’d get paranoid too."

"I know, I’m sorry. But it is kinda funny."

"Yeah, well maybe. But you don’t know how much I worry about saying the wrong thing to the wrong person and people figuring out about our preps. They’d be lined up around the next five blocks coming by to ‘borrow’ something. Or worse, depending on how desperate they are."

"You’re right of course. Just the picture of you running from a little blue haired old lady is just bizarre."

And even Scott laughs a little bit when she puts it that way.


When the pandemic was first recognized and accepted, everyone seemed to be wearing a mask of some type from N95 to homemade. As time went on, people became complaisant and stopped wearing masks -- due to lack of availability of fresh ones, inconvenience, they were uncomfortable, etc. Now though, mask visibility on the street is up even higher than at the beginning of the pandemic. Whereas before people would laughingly call masks a fashion statement, now masks are viewed as necessary for stepping into public as clothing. Very few consider them an optional accessory, whether they have been proven to work or not.

Everyone is certainly more wary. People stand much further apart when they converse. Some employers are putting into effect no-contact rules for office settings. This means that everyone remains in their office or cubicle while at work and uses interoffice email, phone, or intercom to communicate with one another; no face-to-face contacts. This is difficult when there is no electricity. Some creative employees develop signals and flags to communicate with one another. What would have felt silly a few months ago is now just part of the daily grind.

Companies that deal with the public open and close their doors for business shockingly fast. Unfortunately this includes offices such as those that deal with social service needs. Clients who had been waiting many weeks to get an appointment with their workers are now told there will be no appointments, no new clients, that all paperwork and requests must be made in writing and that they would process them as time permitted. The social services system should have told their clients "as time and budget permits" because money is tight all over and many social workers have simply refused to show up for work. And everyone is also responsible for cleaning their own work area. Housekeeping was one of the first expenses many companies cut back on. If they didn’t cut back intentionally, they are forced to due to lack of cleaning staff or the inability to provide appropriate PPE as mandated through OSHA workplace safety rules.

One of the main problems facing both employees and employers is that fuel continues to rise in cost. Additionally, it is becoming harder to get, even if you can afford it. Even the bio-fuel cars, not that there were that many to begin with, are having a hard time since they primarily ran off of a fuel made with waste vegetable oil from local restaurants. No open restaurants = no waste vegetable oil.

There are no short hops to go here and there and run errands. No Sunday drives just for the heck of it. A lot of people are back to walking or using pedal power to get them where they need to go. Bike theft became such a problem that many people now go to work and padlock their bikes to their workstations rather than leave them in a bike rack. For those people that do have to drive, carpooling is now the norm. All the passengers chip in something to keep the vehicle going. Its not always easy or comfortable, and there is always the worry that you could be sitting next to someone who is infected, but everyone is aware you have to balance your risk.

Another problem is the dusk to dawn curfew to adhere to. In the shortening days of autumn, this means that you have even fewer hours to travel to work and complete all that you need to do before you need to be back home before the sun goes down. Work shifts are shortened, but that also means that paychecks get shortened.

And of course, fuel costs and availability continue to have a detrimental affect on grocery prices. There are several elderly people in the Chapman's neighborhood that simply cannot afford to buy groceries anymore as their fixed income does not cover the inflated prices of what little is available. There are more than a few families that are really starting to hurt and there are a lot of leaner people walking the streets. Losing weight from the extra exercise is one thing. Starving is another.

No one is quite sure who started it, but in our family's neighborhood, as people met up with each other burning refuse a primitive barter system was born. Families with children at home looked for things to keep them distracted. People with no children might need help with a car repair. Someone else might need help with home repair. Thus they begin to trade sweat equity for barter items. The casual barter system that had been born of necessity began to morph into something more defined and regular. People now set up folding tables or blankets near the refuse burning area and put on it items they are willing to trade. While it is in the open air, the people in the neighborhood discourage outsiders – people from other neighborhoods – from participating. It isn't an open market, yard sale, or flea market; but a tool that the neighbors use to get around the high cost of living.

And with cooler weather beginning to set in, they need every advantage they can find. Luckily for some like the Chapmans, this means that cooler weather crops can be planted. In other parts of the country, they have already had their first frosts and will have to make do with whatever they have already put by.

For others, cooler weather only exacerbates the feelings of being trapped. Those trapped within abusive relationships or with young children or children with behavioral issues are having the hardest time. There is no escape.

Reporter Devon McLoud’s latest installment was on a woman identified only as "A." She had been confined with two young children for weeks. Her husband was wrestling with his own demons and offered little support and no help. The story chronicled the woman’s spiraling decline from a loving and nurturing mother eager to spend all the time she could with her children to a woman worn down and emotionally drained and in danger of harming either her children or herself. She finally reached out to a support hotline that had been set up within her neighborhood.

The story ended with McLoud sharing a list of coping mechanisms for people suffering from stress related to loss of their normal social support outlets:

1) If the stress involves children, enforce some periods of quiet time when everyone can get away from each other. Stagger them so everyone has a safe space they can retreat too when someone is having a melt down, stripping the room to bare walls if necessary.

2) If communications are still operational in your area, schedule regular phone calls from family and friends. This allows you to have a check and balance system so that your perceptions do not become exaggerated.

3) Participate in some form of daylight, outdoor activity every day.

4) Create schedule that lets everyone know what their jobs are and/or when certain activities will occur. For some this may include lesson planning. It isn’t so much important what you schedule, but that you are creating some structure that will relieve some of the pressure of constant decision making. Part of your schedule should include time maintaining your home environment and keeping it clutter free. A clutter-free environment helps maintain serenity and leads to greater productivity.

5) If power is on, leave the television off. Save it for treats in the evening. Do not use it as a source for babysitting or for zoning out.

6) Find some creative outlet. This could be gardening, woodwork, handcrafts, painting, writing poetry, etc. But try and do something every day to stimulate your brain and express yourself.

7) Find thirty minutes of quiet time each day to participate in meditative type exercises. This could involve religious activities, reading a self-help book, yoga, or any similar activity. The purpose is to help clear your mind of work and worry.

8) No sitting in the same place for hours on end. The human brain needs constant, healthy stimulation. By moving from activity to activity, and having each activity occur in a separate location, your brain will respond in a healthier and happier way.

9) Laughter and play and physical exertion. Even if you start with only five minutes each day, even if you have to force yourself into this activity at first, the people around you will eventually begin to respond. It eventually becomes self-perpetuating.

10) Help others. One way to deal with anxiety and depression is to focus on others - not just your family. Have the kids create thank you cards to area law enforcement, health care workers, firemen, etc. Help a neighbor get rid of their trash. Participate in a neighborhood clean up project. Plant a garden that can be enjoyed by the community.

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