I grew up in the shadow of a virus that ravaged outcasts like me while the world looked on in indifference. HIV and SARS-CoV-2 might have more differences than similarities, but I find an odd familiarity in a virus that preys on the primal human need for connection.
The disease this virus causes seems to feed on hope. It gets better before it gets worse, by degrees, lulling us into a moment of relief before digging the knife in farther. Numerous patients have described bouts of seeming to be on the mend, followed by a new, more horrible stage of illness. The fever, fatigue, pain, and shortness of breath start to subside, but just then, some desperation of the lungs takes hold that cannot be managed. My partner and I heard a story of a man in his mid-30s who had been intubated, improved, was deemed fit by doctors to be taken off the ventilator, and then began to crash.
I try to imagine what it would be like to be that man’s family, and to hear that outcome. I imagine the fog of the pandemic, suffering without access to a relative who’s dying, picturing that loved one in the back of a refrigerator truck. I imagine the temptation to damn the doctors rather than the virus for the fate of the patient.
And then I try to imagine the medical staff, making impossible decisions about where to direct scant time and resources that are disappearing by the minute, witnessing unimaginable numbers of people in their final moments, under sedation and alone. I imagine the hospitals, suddenly starved of revenue they’d once gorged on, considering whether to close at the very moment the need for their services is greatest. It’s difficult, given these visions, to justify hope.
And it’s easy to imagine the despair, because it’s happening to my industry too. Journalists are both dying of and losing jobs to this virus, at the same time the public is desperate for information about it. People are pledging dollars they can scarcely afford to help reporters stay afloat. But because so many of the dollars that kept these journalists in business came from advertisers, the news organizations—even those with healthy audiences—are dying. Heavyweight newspapers are falling left and right. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, a 180-year old paper that once had a newsroom hundreds of journalists strong, is down to a handful of journalists, to cover a city of nearly 400,000.
Why is it, one might ask, that services such as hospitals and news organizations are closing when the public seems to need and want them most? The answer isn’t that we have bad nurses or bad reporters, or that people have turned away from medical authorities and the press has grown too liberal to gather a mass audience. The answer is that our economy had come to rest, over the years, on the cheap, endless consumption of things whose true costs were carefully hidden from us, a sleight of hand we called 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 into an insurance plan, and it would give you comfort until you needed it most. Amortize the cost of your career over the duration of a student loan, and only as you age would the price begin to grow. Amortize the cost of your house over a lifetime, and at least you would have something to pass on to your children. In this way, we became a nation of debtors, the prices for our lives set by the true owners of our phones, our houses, our health care, our education. The things we get without paying their 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 going.