So my generation finally really went to war. I’m 54—too old to carry a rifle. I did that for real decades ago, but figured that the young studs would bear the burden of the next serious conflict. Turns out I was wrong. And fighting COVID-19 is something entirely different.
We’ve always taken our oceans for granted. As much as I would like to say Americans are just better warriors than everybody else, that’s not true. We’ve birthed some stellar examples to be sure. However, the reason we never saw a foreign army rampaging across the heartland was because the oceans kept them at bay.
Nowadays our enemy is not so readily dissuaded. He hopped onto an airplane and strolled right through customs alongside the road-weary businessmen, the honeymooning couple from Hoboken, and the college kids studying abroad. He infiltrated the country without anyone being the wiser. By the time we recognized him he had a foothold and it was too late.
This next World War is being fought in our own neighborhoods; that’s not really supposed to happen here. No, that’s for strange foreign places like Syria, Afghanistan, and the Sudan. We Americans liberally export institutional violence. We don’t tolerate it on our side of the pond. Then there was SARS-CoV-2.
Setting the Stage for the Apocalypse
It’s dominated the news cycle 24/7 for the last few weeks and, at long last, rightfully so. Filling air time in such a way as to wrest viewership away from the other half-dozen well-funded professional mobs trying to do the same has in the past resulted in some remarkable journalistic contortions. Rabid for clicks the mainstream media has reliably blurred the lines between traditional news and entertainment. Sprinkle liberally with political bias and, voila, you have modern journalism. The end result is the Kardashians.
At long last, however, the news has its legit Churchillian moment. A global pandemic will ultimately affect every human on the planet, so the talking heads really have something of substance about which to prattle. I give them a C-minus thus far.
The end result is that everybody is perpetually terrified. Death and sex reliably peddle content, and the daily tallies of killed and wounded from this war are updated in real time. A remarkable 17-year-old named Avi Schiffmann created his own coronavirus tracker titled nCoV2019.live back in December when nobody cared about coronavirus. Now his site has 83 million viewers and climbing.
We deal with communicable diseases in my clinic on a daily basis. It’s part of the landscape. However, if you caught something from a patient at work in the past that typically meant the sniffles for a few days or a delightful 48 hours in the bathroom with the runs. By contrast, this disease kills about 3 percent of its victims; that has everybody on edge.
I write for survival magazines, so I saw this coming. We stocked up on masks before anybody else did. We still have to clean and reuse our stock. Nobody knows how long this might last. Wars are weird like that.
The first day we started working in our PPC (Personal Protective Crap) seemed surreal. I always prided myself on being a friendly and non-threatening sawbones. A lot of doctors must have been dropped on their heads as children. Aloof, egomaniacal, arrogant, and obnoxious are some of the repeatable descriptors I have heard from disgruntled patients in the past. I do my best to listen and build a fairly intimate relationship. That’s tough to do when you’re adorned like Darth Vader in oversized safety goggles and a cerulean institutional respirator.
You Never Forget Your First Time
She had been on spring break to the beach with her buddies. They did not heed the warnings because they were young, bulletproof, and immortal. Before we all start peering disdainfully down our long Roman noses might I remind you that we were young once as well. Nobody below the age of 25 listens to warnings from old white guys in suits. That’s why 19 year olds make the best soldiers … they’re never going to die.
She did what modern spring breakers do. I’ll leave that to your imagination. However, part of that involved a brief bus ride with her peers. They didn’t sit on each other’s laps or share a communal flagon of ale. They just climbed aboard a bus and drove someplace.
She got home feeling unwell. There followed two days of fever-about 102 and change-along with a little cough and some diarrhea. She spent the weekend with her family in anticipation of returning to class the following Monday. Then she got the call.
One of her buddies on the bus tested positive for COVID-19. She should likely get tested. When I saw her she was already feeling better, part of that coveted 80 percent who gets this disease but in the grand scheme wonders what all the fuss was about. However, she spent the weekend with the folks she loved most in the world. Some of them were old. Suddenly those spring break plans didn’t seem so important as was previously the case.
Hers was my first COVID-19 test. I tried to field her questions through dehumanizing layers of plastic and activated charcoal. I advised her as best I could based upon what I had read, most from non-technical sources. Nobody anywhere knew what this thing would do. The entire planet was figuring this out as we went along.
I was mesmerized by Avi’s COVID-tracking website just like the rest of the world. The numbers for my little Southern state were still pretty piddly compared to New York and Washington. I never expected it to be real.
The test took five days to come back. What followed were scary phone calls to the girl as well as the State Department of Health and hard discussions with our office staff. The enemy had indeed arrived, loaded for bear and ready to kill. It seemed my generation was finally going to war.
Want more from Dr. Dabbs? Check out Part II of his “Front Lines” series: One Week Into COVID-19 and the Wretched N95 Face Mask.