The Pandemic Diary: May 5

Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.

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May 5: There was a meeting.

The purpose of the meeting was to figure out how to make the participants’ own problems someone else’s. It was at that meeting that someone first gave voice to the notion of “declaring victory.”

That idea — simply “declaring victory” — is a pretty powerful tool in the hands of the shameless. It’s one we used to use at my old law firm all the time. To deploy it, one simply declares the matter at issue to be settled. If it requires the assertion that black is, in fact, white, all the better.

The point is to shift the burden to the other side — or to create an “other side” completely — and to turn a crisis into a confrontation in which you have the high ground. You transform a situation in which there is ambiguity or confusion into one in which there is certainty, well-founded or otherwise, at least on your part, with the other side’s uncertainty suddenly becoming its weakness.

You force the other side to demand things of you when they’d prefer to be reticent. You make them overtly refuse to do something you want them to do when they’d prefer to be coy. You dare them to sue you, with any hesitation on their part a tell of their weakness. The upshot is that, by declaring victory, you make the other side act in a given way that gives you a simpler means of attack or a simpler mode of defense. I used to take part in meetings in which this course of action decided upon all the time, always with full knowledge of the disingenuousness of the declaration of victory. That was the point. It was a tactic for when the substance was not in your favor.

This meeting, however, was different. It did not take place in a law firm conference room. It took place at the White House. At this meeting the decision was made to simply declare victory over COVID-19. To declare it over or, at the very least, something close to over. To, as I talked about yesterday, do everything possible to transform the pandemic from a national emergency to a matter of boring and accepted background.

At this meeting it was decided to leak the bogey of 3,000 daily deaths in June. To “draw the sting,” as we used to say back in the day, by disclosing damaging information now, before the other side has a chance to bring it out as news or as an accusation. When 3,000 a day are dying in June, the declaration of victory allows them to say, “hey, we said that this would happen a month ago. It’s not a surprise.” And if only, say, 2,800 die on a given Wednesday, it allows them to declare a mini victory in the interim.

Part of the declaration of victory requires getting off of the war footing with respect to COVID-19. Here’s how they’re doing this:

Trump administration officials are telling members and staff of the coronavirus task force that the White House plans to wind down the operation in coming weeks despite growing evidence that the crisis is raging on . . . It is not clear whether any other group might replace the task force. But its gradual demise, which officials said might never be formally announced, would only intensify the questions about whether the administration is adequately organized to address the complex, life-and-death decisions related to the virus and giving adequate voice to scientists and public health experts in making policy.

Asking what will replace the task force is a silly question. Nothing, effectively, will replace it. And that’s by design.

It’s all part of a forced normalization in which Trump and his administration believe that if they start acting like there’s no pandemic there will, effectively, be no pandemic. That, in the absence of press briefings and public officials signaling that COVID-19 is a crisis — and absent any other indicia of urgency — it will cease to be treated as an urgent crisis by the press and the people.

If and when critics attack the president for this or for the ongoing, disastrous effects of the pandemic, he will cast himself as an agent of calm normality and cast his critics as the party of death and disease. As downers who want to distract the country from the miraculous economic recovery he is on the verge of bringing about. COVID-19, Trump will soon attempt to claim through his actions, has been vanquished. The situation is within expected parameters. Anyone who says otherwise is living in the past and is, frankly, a drag.

This sort of thing has been Trump’s m.o. for a very long time. To say everything’s great when it’s horrible and to accuse his opponents of doing exactly the things he has done. To behave awfully, irresponsibly, and even illegally and to have the press and the people shout “hey, that’s not OK,” only to shout back “So? What are you gonna do about it?” The declaration of victory puts the onus on the accuser to do the very hard work of reining in the miscreant. Work that has almost always proven to be impossible given the power of the presidency and the fecklessness of the media and Trump’s opponents in actually following through. Declaring victory in the face of seemingly insurmountable evidence to the contrary is a tactic that has worked amazingly well for Trump until now. Now he’ll no doubt go back to the same well again.

I don’t think it’ll be successful this time, at least not politically speaking. For all of the resiliency Trump has shown, I do not think he’ll ultimately get away with claiming that 3,000 people a day — over 100,000 people in total — dying in a pandemic which he has manifestly mismanaged is, actually, a victory. Indeed, I strongly believe that he will lose the election in November.

But that’s pretty cold comfort given that his declaration of victory now cannot be redressed in any effective way for the next six months. And that to get to that point it will, apparently, require the deaths of thousands of people who would not die if, instead of pursuing gambits like this, Trump or anyone near him took this crisis even remotely seriously.

 

I had to take a drive today. The drive took me through a part of town I don’t go through all that often anymore. Part of it included my old neighborhood, where I bought my first house back in 1999. I still like to go by it sometimes to see how it’s holding up. I went a bit out of my way to do it again today.

I sold that house 15 years ago, but the same people I sold it to still live there. They were a young, recently-married couple then and the small, older, but kinda funky house suited them, just as it had suited us when we bought it five years earlier as a young, recently-married couple. By late 2004 we had a baby, though, and another one on the way. The small, older, but kinda funky house was quickly making less sense for us.

I’m pretty sure the new owners — though I shouldn’t call them that given that they’ve had the place three times as long as I did — had a baby a few years ago. I’m assuming that, anyway, based on the Little Tikes car I saw on the porch one day when I drove by. I can’t tell if they’ve had more kids and I can’t tell if they’ve done any major renovations to the house. From the outside it doesn’t look like it. I guess they’re just better at dealing with one bathroom and drafty windows and all the stuff that comes with an old house than we were.

For years the only car I could see in the driveway when I drove by was a Honda Accord. I’d guess a 2004-05 model, purchased not long after they bought the house from us. They still have it but today, for the first time, I saw a second car. A Subaru Forester. Maybe 4-5 years old. Which is kind of trippy, because our two cars now are a 2004 Honda Accord I bought used after I sold that house and my 2014 Subaru Forester.

I’m sitting here right now wondering if my ex and I didn’t sell that house to an alternate universe version of ourselves who skated in from a parallel timeline. I wonder if they got stuck here and now they’re forced to live out some one-track-removed existence of themselves.

 

Before I passed by my old house I was driving on the Ohio State campus. This was out of necessity, not out of curiosity about the past. Campus, not surprisingly, is empty. The busses were still running, however. I passed or followed several of them. They were still making stops but no one got on or off. The busses that I passed seemed to be empty.

These empty busses were the eeriest, most surreal thing I’ve seen since back on March 18 when I saw people walking around the grocery store, confused and disoriented. I didn’t mention it in that entry because I was sort of overwhelmed by it all and wasn’t sure how to process it, but I encountered a man in the store that day — maybe in his 60s, dressed in sweat pants and a tattered coat, with scraggly hair and looking many days unshaven — who tried to talk to me as I was trying to get my mind around early pandemic shopping. I was looking at the meager bread choices and he was standing near the empty peanut butter shelf, shuffling about in circles, talking to no one in particular at first but then clearly focusing on me.

“They say that you can just live on peanut butter. But the peanut butter is gone . . .”

It wasn’t a comment that invited a response. Indeed, his tone was matter-of-fact, not curious, conversational, or concerned. It was as if he was trying to tell me something about the nature of the universe rather than to merely exclaim something. I’ve thought about that man a lot in the last two months. He unsettled me a good deal that evening and I can’t really shake him from my mind. Sometimes I wonder if he wasn’t from some parallel timeline too. I almost expected to see him get off one of those busses today.

 

I drove on.

I’m sure every 25-year-removed alumnus of a college says this, but dear lord is Ohio State’s campus different now. Whether it’s on the High Street side or on down Woodruff Avenue or Cannon Drive, the place may as well have been transported here from an alien planet, with every sixth building from 1993 retained in order to keep us honest and off balance.

Which is all probably for the best. I’ve never been a guy even remotely likely to descend on his old stomping grounds and revel in nostalgia, but the fact that I probably couldn’t even find the best parts of those old stomping grounds without a detailed map anymore is a handy bit of insurance in that regard. You can’t go home again. You shouldn’t ever try to go home again (even if you do drive by it once in a while). But in case you do try, in a moment of weakness, to actually go home again, hopefully home will hide from you long enough, like Ohio State’s campus hides from old men like me, to where you realize what a hassle going home again actually is. And then you change your mind and try to find someplace new.

 

I was on campus for a reason. Rosie.

Her seizures didn’t stop, even with the new, powerful — too powerful — medicine they prescribed for her. The seizures actually increased in frequency and severity. Last week, during a particularly bad one, she violently flung herself down the stairs. In the past several days she’s had multiple seizures a day. She almost completely stopped eating normally but ate so ravenously while coming down from a seizure that she could only keep her food down half the time. She cut her foot while trying to grab onto something during a seizure a couple of weeks ago. It kept reopening every time she had another one, causing her to leave bloody footprints after each episode. For the past week she slept so close to me at night that it felt like she was clinging to me for dear life and when she was awake she was so zonked out by the meds that she didn’t seem to be taking joy in anything. I’ve been waking up at the slightest noise, worried that she was in distress. It’s probably why I kept waking up and staying up at 3AM.

We made the choice this morning to put her down. Her vet, a neurologist at Ohio State’s veterinary hospital, agreed with us that it was the right decision. I took her down there instead of to our usual vet who has handled this kind of thing for us before. Rosie was always something of a difficult and complicated cat, even when she was healthy, but we decided that maybe, with her final act, she could at least help some vet students better learn their craft or give an idea or two to someone doing some research of messed up cat brains. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Rosie never seemed to know how to simply be. My hope was that she at least found some sort of purpose, tangible or cosmic, in death.

I hugged and kissed her goodbye and left. When I got back to the car I cried my eyes out. Then I drove though campus. I drove past the ghost busses, turned north up High Street and drove through my old neighborhood and past my old house. Then I drove home. Hoping, as always, that I can keep the ghosts in the past where they belong so that I have enough energy to fight the new monsters which present themselves seemingly every single day.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.