Plague Times

There are two images that keep floating around in my head in this time when we genuinely seem to have a worrisome contagion at the door. One is of the 17th century beak masks worn by plague doctors.

The other is the plague infected ship in Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu. Thanks to a fascinating website called Vessel Finder, you can track the real life COVID-19 infected plague ship Grand Princess, which is just off the coast of San Francisco.

A very unfortunate ad.

How do we respond to the Coronavirus crisis? Frequent hand washing seems sensible. But should we prepare to hole up in the house? Should we make a panicked run to Costco for a month’s worth of ramen? Should we stop going to public events and spend our hours at home entertaining ourselves with Vessel Finder? Kelly and I have the luxury of quarantining ourselves but most people do not.

While I can’t articulate what I think our response should be I do know one thing, that some folks in the press don’t understand non-linear threats. I’m far from the best person to weigh in on statistics, but there’s a huge difference between a communicable disease like COVID-19, that has the potential of exponential growth, and deaths from heart disease or cancer. For similar reasons I don’t think most people understand the “black swan” threat of climate change. Things can be fine for a long time before suddenly everything we know collapses. As Mike Tyson once put it “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

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  1. I have been thinking of the story of Eyam, the “plague village” in Derbyshire. It was featured in an episode of Secrets of the Dead on PBS. An entire village self-quarantined. It’s available on YouTube.
    Also, a fascinating book, The Return of the Black Death, by Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan. Very detailed with a (controversial) theory that the Black Death was not caused by Yersinia pestis, but instead caused by a virus.
    The stuff of nightmares.

  2. I forgot to mention the plague graffiti in St Mary’s church in the village of Ashwell, Hertfordshire England. The church has a website that explains the graffiti.

  3. I guess it’s in very bad taste, but I keep wondering about the possibilities for a new TV series similar to the popular series “The Love Boat” but called “The Plague Boat”.

    As a person who would never go on a cruise, even if it were free, I think the environment of many of these vessels is hideously unhealthy. The COVID-19 virus is only the latest manifestation of this. Norovirus has been around for years now and seems to be accepted as the “normal” for cruise ships. I really don’t want to be confined in a gaudy, Disney-like floating third-rate hotel with thousands of diseased, vomiting, diarrhea sufferers.

    Not fun!

  4. Mike Tyson is also a big fan of non-linear thinking (or DMN squelching) psychedelics, on non-linear threats.

    “When former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson first tried 5-MeO-DMT — also called “the toad” — he said it knocked him off his feet, profoundly changing his life. “I came across this thing called the toad. I smoked this medicine, drug, whatever you want to call it, and I’ve never been the same,” Tyson said on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast last year, viewed by nearly 10 million people. “I look at life differently, I look at people differently. It’s almost like dying and being reborn… It’s inconceivable. I tried to explain it to some people, to my wife, I don’t have the words to explain it. It’s almost like you’re dying, you’re submissive, you’re humble, you’re vulnerable — but you’re invincible still in all.”

    One single 50mg vaporized dose — derived from dried venom secreted by the Bufo alvarius toad — often produces hallucinogenic, boundless experiences within one second of inhalation that can last from 7 to 90 minutes, and on average lasts 20 minutes.” — Forbes

    Here’s more on DMN squelching and brain networks opening up. Think of the DMN as the interstate system of our waking brains, shut down the interstates, and youre forced to take the back roads and dirt roads, thus seeing more than what you see usually traversing the interstates.

    Too much , or too rigid, your DMN and paranoia, depression, addiction sets in.


  5. I’m italian ad i can assure you that we are learning very quickly what an exponential growth means.
    No panic but the the day before has been always better than today.
    I think that in a week or tho you will be in the same condition that we are now.

    • Italians were early adopters of quarantine measures. This article: “Controlling the geographical spread of infectious disease: plague in Italy, 1347-1851” is very interesting. It’s from Semantic Scholar and can be located with Google.

  6. I can reasonably be described as a “prepsteader.” A little prepping for a crisis (pick a crisis… any crisis) and a little homesteading are part of my everyday baseline. Whenever a pop hysteria like the Corona Virus emerges I do… nothing.

    I keep a regular rotating deep pantry of shelf stable foods that should last about a year. I pressure can, dehydrate, freeze, and generally store a wide variety of ordinary food and use it everyday. There’s also plenty of soap, medicine, and other useful items in reserve. A productive garden is a great hedge against food inflation and supply chain disruptions.

    I also keep out of debt, have cash on hand, and invest in real things that have timeless value. Modest no-mortgage rental properties generate a steady income. And I work closely with friends, neighbors, and tenants for mutual aid and support.

  7. I’m in the Seattle area, so we’ve been dealing with this in real time. My takeaways so far:

    1) This is really hard to manage due to the asymmetric risks. It’s either really not that serious or it can kill you. It’s not serious enough that we can know who has it and when. That’s how there have likely been hundreds (thousands at this point?) of undiagnosed cases in the greater Seattle area. People don’t know they have it and are fine, then it gets into a nursing home and really terrible things happen.

    2) If you know you are at risk, I’d recommend taking measures. People ARE dying here and that is reality.

    3) I’m not sure what the rest of us are supposed to do? It would be nice to be slowing it down to protect our community, but if we have already very possibly been exposed to it and it’s spreading like wildfire at a low level through the community, does quitting living our lives help anything at all or just punish small businesses.

    4) Do not expect the people “in charge” to have a plan. A good friend who is an ER nurse was not told that she had been exposed to a patient with the coronavirus without a mask until she overheard a conversation talking about that patient. No one bothered to check to see which nurse had checked the patient in….the powers that be are seriously, seriously unorganized. I think this is going to lead to a great reckoning when this passes.

    5) If you like paper towels and toilet paper, I would buy it now. People stocked up on toilet paper at irrational levels….I’m not sure what the greater Seattle area is doing with all these paper towels. Hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol, I get. A year’s supply of paper towels?????

  8. At this late date, after a once world-class sentinel and preparedness system has broken down, the only solution is to accept COVID-19 as a scheme to accelerate the inter-generational transfer of wealth.

    We Baby-Boomers will literally reap what we’ve sewn.

  9. The scene I remember most vividly from Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu was of people dancing in a square, oblivious to or abandoning themselves to fate as the plague advanced.

    I wouldn’t recommend that kind of response with COV19. Though it isn’t as deadly as plague for 96% of the population, my concern is for those among us with weaker immune systems: the elderly, those with cardiovascular problems, MS, autoimmune disorders, etc. I would hate to unknowingly spread the virus to someone who then dies from it.

    Like you and Kelly, I have the option of self-quarantining. When the first cases were discovered here in Austria two weeks ago, I heeded the government recommendation to prepare for a potential quarantine (if I test positive or have been exposed to others who tested positive) by stocking up on food and supplies for 2 weeks. So far COV19 hasn’t spread as quickly here as in other countries, but yesterday the chancellor hinted at the possibility of cordoning off regions like Italy just did, so this may eventually come to pass.

    My strategy would be to stock up on food and supplies, go to public events selectively (in a month, would you regret having missed it? If so, go, if not, stay in), and boost your immune system by getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating enough raw garlic to fend off Nosferatu. Instead of Vessel Finder, devote your time to creative pursuits like woodworking or writing and feed your mind by working through that stack of books we all still have despite Marie Kondo. Finally, acknowledge that in the end, the viruses are in charge and all we can do is keep on enjoying life as best as we can. Which maybe takes me back to the people dancing in the square in Nosferatu after all.

    I hope you and all Root Simple readers stay healthy!

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