I grew up in the shadow of a virus that devastated outcasts like me as the world watched nonchalantly. HIV and SARS-CoV-2 may have more differences than similarities, but I find a strange familiarity in a virus that takes advantage of the primordial human need for connection.
The disease caused by this virus seems to feed on hope. It improves before it gets worse, gradually, bringing us to a moment of relief before digging the knife any further. Numerous patients have described episodes of apparent recovery, followed by a new and more horrible stage of illness. Fever, fatigue, pain, and shortness of breath begin to subside, but at this point, a certain despair occurs in the lungs that cannot be controlled. My partner and I heard the story of a man in his 30s who had been intubated, improved, the doctors found him fit to remove him from the respirator, and then they started crashing.
I try to imagine what it would be like to be that man’s family and hear that result. I imagine the fog of the pandemic, suffering without access to a dying relative, imagining that loved one in the back of a refrigerated truck. I imagine the temptation to condemn the doctors instead of the virus for the fate of the patient.
And then I try to imagine medical personnel making impossible decisions about where to direct the meager time and resources that are disappearing by the minute, witnessing unimaginable numbers of people in their final moments, under sedation and alone. I imagine that the hospitals, suddenly hungry for income that had once gobbled up, considering whether they will close at the same time that the need for their services is greatest. Given these visions, it is difficult to justify hope.
And despair is easy to imagine, because it’s happening to my industry, too. Journalists die and lose jobs from this virus, while the public is desperate to get information about it. People promise dollars they can barely afford to help journalists stay afloat. But because many of the dollars that kept these journalists in business came from advertisers, news organizations, even those with healthy audiences, are dying. Heavy newspapers are falling left and right. the Cleveland Plain dealer, a 180-year-old newspaper that once had a newsroom with hundreds of journalists, is reduced to a handful of journalists, to cover a city of nearly 400,000.
Why, you might ask, what services like hospitals and news organizations are closing when the public seems to need and want them the most? The answer is not that we have bad nurses or bad reporters, or that people have turned away from medical authorities and that the press has become too liberal to gather a massive audience. The answer is that our economy had, over the years, stopped at the cheap and endless consumption of things whose true costs were carefully hidden from us, a game of hands that we call financialization. Amortize the cost of your phone over the course of a year, and it would almost seem affordable. Amortize the cost of your health in an insurance plan and it will give you comfort until you need it most. Amortize the cost of your career for the duration of a student loan, and only as you get older will the price start to rise. Amortize the cost of your home for life, and at least you would have something to pass on to your children. In this way, we become a nation of debtors, the prices of our lives set by the true owners of our phones, our homes, our health care, our education. The things we get without paying your full costs come from subsidies. The costs are all hidden. As long as people’s incomes are stable, the system works for almost enough people to keep it running.