Despite being constrained over the last year, I’ve continued to be extremely active. This pandemic time gave me a chance to sort through heaps of treasures and artifacts from my extensive travels.
The date I remember the most was Thursday, March 19, 2020. I was welcoming my evening Movie Club members at the Dixon Public Library, ready to energetically analyze “The Godfather.” Disturbing news reports had been circulating the last few days concerning a possible new pandemic — reported as originating in Wuhan, China that past December — as rumors and fear began to spread both nationwide and around the world. Suddenly, I received an emergency fax shortly before 7:00 p.m. from the Solano County Library system headquarters: in bold capital letters, it urged immediate closure of all libraries and all workers were to be sent home! I told my bewildered club members the dire news, and that has been the last time I have seen any of them face-to-face.
[Earlier, in mid-February, my wife and I took a two-week Holland America cruise through the Panama Canal, which also stopped in several Central American countries. We felt completely safe, but every passenger was aware of extra hand-sanitizer stations on board, and signage reminding everyone to frequently wash their hands and cover their mouths if they coughed or sneezed. No face masks were issued at this point, and nobody got sick on the entire voyage. People followed on the emerging pandemic news with keen interest, particularly the reports of strange new illnesses on Princess Cruise Lines ships and others, such viral outbreaks causing early returns to port and/or quarantines. We were glad to have made it home safe and healthy on March 1!]
After March 19, everything here in Davis came to a virtual standstill. People stayed home from work. Stores and businesses shut down. Bars and restaurants shuttered. Our downtown streets were deserted. Freeways were mostly emptied. Medical facilities and grocery stores remained open, but panic buying led to a severe shortage of — incredibly — toilet paper! Next to vanish from the store shelves was hand-sanitizer, Clorox wipes, Lysol disinfectants, and other cleaning products. No one knew how fast the deadly new virus spread, but we only knew it attacked the respiratory system by breathing in infected droplets. World health experts were otherwise baffled. Next to close were our local schools, churches, movie theaters, and our public library. UC Davis followed by cancelling classes, then told all students who were able to return home to their families. The campus was soon locked down.
Our inspirational role model and fitness coach, Steve Bonnel, then came to class at Rancho Yolo and sadly announced that the Yolo County Department of Health had now forbidden any such indoor group gatherings, to help prevent the lethal virus from quickly spreading. Ever smart and adaptable, Steve kept all of his fitness members informed via email as to any new developments, and he soon set-up a wide series of remote fitness classes via group Zoom for his members to participate and stay fit while viewing on their home computers. This also kept people socially engaged, upbeat, and feeling less isolated. It was a brilliant and popular substitution! Coach Steve once again displayed his true leadership and dedication to our needs.
Meanwhile, expert immunologists went to work on developing a vaccine to combat the Covid-19 menace. Face masks in public, and social distancing of six feet from others in public, were now required. Older adults age 65+ , and those with pre-existing medical conditions, were discovered to be most at risk of getting very sick and even dying from the virus. (Later, it was found that 81% of the total U.S. Covid deaths were from these groups.)
Locally, people in Davis tried to make the best of being stranded at home. Many houses were thoroughly cleaned top to bottom for the first time in years, and long-delayed repairs and renovations were finally enacted. Garages were likewise totally cleaned out and reorganized. (Speaking for myself, I went mercilessly through the vast accumulations of my travels to 114 countries — keeping only the most precious souvenirs and memorabilia. It actually took a few weeks to throw out all of the debris!) Many residents also relearned the joys of backyard gardening and landscaping. Neighbors rekindled relationships with neighbors. People now had much more time to interact with others than before, not having to rush off to work, etc.
To no surprise, we learned in late April that our small group, two-week tour to Indonesia in June was cancelled.
The City of Davis discouraged Memorial Day picnics, and later cancelled its traditional Fourth of July celebrations. The Federal government sent out stimulus money to keep our national economy alive, for many were either out of work or had their businesses shut down. The USPS, Amazon, FedEx, UPS and other delivery services thrived, however, as people ordered their items on-line. Fast-food chains that offered drive-through services also did well. ‘Big Box’ stores like Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot did huge business, but many smaller stores struggled or simply went under. People who could work from home on their computers and remotely network with their offices did just that, while public schools set-up home schooling lessons, with frustrating and limited success — while private and parochial schools safely remained opened with effective, protective health measures for the students, whose age group was proven to be not at high virus risk. Meanwhile, Zoom computer group conferencing for businesses became the new default. All the while, hair salons remained closed, so people either got rather shaggy or crudely cut each other’s hair at home.
Being outdoors was true salvation for my wife and me. (Fresh air and movement were two of Coach Steve’s main mantras!) We walked an hour a day and bicycled an hour every day unless it was raining. I also did daily bending and stretching exercises, and used two, 10 lb. hand weights for thirty minutes of training. After dinner, I always walked an additional half-hour. When it got dark in October, I nightly observed the red planet Mars as it slowly arced across the sky, and beginning in January, I always looked for Orion’s Belt. These evening walks were always peaceful and relaxing, yet I seldom saw any other walkers during the dark early evening months. Our National Parks were initially closed due to Covid restrictions, but later, more and more people nation-wide rediscovered the beauty of nature once the parks reopened. Yosemite even had to enact a reservation system, allowing only a few hundred visitors a day — such was its popularity.
How did my wife and I typically spend our days? We joked that it was like the movie “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray — the same thing, again and again! But compared to younger couples with children, we seniors suffered very little. We had our health, our finances were secure, and we didn’t lose our jobs. I missed my six volunteer jobs, and my part-time reference librarian work in Davis and Dixon, but we made the best use of our time during quarantine lock-downs. My wife did a lot of reading and exercising, and made dozens of fleece blankets for her community ‘Project Linus’ charity group. I likewise did a lot of reading and exercising, and wrote more than twenty-five new short stories. (I currently have twelve book collections on Amazon, and have written 110 stories in all genres so far, which you can read for free on my website: www.jackkarolewski.weebly.com — Read “Survivor” for my pandemic-themed, fictional, ‘very-resilient-example’ adventure!) I reorganized all my laptop computer files and photos. I am also happy to report that we avoided both over-watching television and over-eating/weight gain. Instead, we watched only one movie per night, and skipped the frenzied news programs — preferring to read the BBC or the AP on-line for their daily reports.
A parched and windy August into September brought huge, smoky forest fires to Northern California, and Davis was under their toxic clouds for several days.
The summer was also filled with political and racial unrest, resulting in some peaceful protests but also in some violent rioting, arson, and looting in Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, cancel culture, defund the police, etc. all newly entered our national vocabulary. In Davis, our gentle statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Community Park was vandalized, and even our police headquarters had their front doors smashed in.
The low point for many came in the dark and colder winter months. When would this all end? people wondered. Baggy sweat suits and pajamas became the new, everyday outfit for many. Mental health challenges arose, with boredom, forced isolation, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and the daily reminder of mortality all taking a grim toll. Watching the conflicting news reports on the spread of Covid made others paranoid with every fever, cough, or headache a possible sign that one had caught the deadly disease. Some people even feared going to see their doctor, believing that they would be exposed to Covid at the clinic. Teen suicides increased. Alcohol consumption went up. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve — all basically went bust across the country, just like Easter had in the Spring.
Covid testing sites next emerged, with either a nasal swab while sitting in your car through a drive-in clinic, or a saliva test spitting into a test tube. The world opened or closed ‘essential services’ based on ICU hospital capacity. In California, a colored ‘tier-system’ was devised, to let each county decide how much social interaction and business re-openings were safe while still being face-masked and socially distanced. Restaurants moved tables outdoors under tents.
Nationwide, there was an unexpected puppy shortage, as people wanted the tactile, warm cuddle of a new pet. My wife and I cared for two female feral cats (both ear-tagged, to indicate they were already neutered and inoculated) whom we named Fraidy and Mittens. They came into our backyard one day looking for food and water, so we obliged. Over time, they came inside for short periods for brushing and petting — continuing to this day. I also noticed people in Davis, on our more wooded nature trails, taking up the fine art of bird-watching, complete with binoculars and i.d. guidebooks.
Meanwhile, our daughter is at M.I.T., completing her Ph.D. in Chemical Oceanography through Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute near Falmouth, MA. She was due to graduate last Spring, but Covid’s emergence has delayed her research and thesis by a year. She — and other young people — decry the wasted year of their budding lives. The enforced social isolation, the lack of regular dating and parties, the laboratory/classroom restrictions — all have been frustrating. But she remains resilient and upbeat, as we frequently email and phone her to offer our love and support.
In November, we had a Presidential election, with the media in a 24/7 frenzy, as both sides whipped up further toxic divisions among our citizenry. The result was less than a firm mandate, however, so our country remains virtually half-and-half split between liberals and conservatives — the Blue States and the Red States. Time alone will tell where we are headed as a nation. And will our post-Covid economic recovery succeed, and can we ever pay down our crippling National Debt?
The good news of the final arrival of Covid vaccines in mid-January, 2021, gave us the double-dose Pfizer (94% effective), and the double dose Moderna (95% effective). When my Kaiser Health Foundation announced it would vaccinate all of its members over age 65, I went immediately on the phone to snare an appointment. I waited on hold for four hours, but then got lucky, and was given my first dose of Moderna on January 17, and my second dose on February 14. These initial vaccine supplies nationwide sadly waxed and waned in delivery, however, as Federal, State, and County medical organizations were terribly uncoordinated — frustrating most people with their being unable to book appointments, or with phone lines or websites being overwhelmed and crashing.
My wife and I volunteered in Yolo County to help get people vaccinated at a drive-through set-up at Pioneer High School in Woodland. 100 volunteers distributed 1200 shots on one, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Saturday, and 150 volunteers distributed 2500 shots on another Saturday three weeks later from 10-5:30. People were so happy to finally get their vaccinations! My wife (as did all other volunteers, regardless of their ages) got her two doses of Pfizer during this time. [Our previously mentioned daughter on the East Coast is still awaiting her vaccination turn, however.]
As more and more states and businesses are gradually opening up again — especially because millions of vaccine doses are being given now — there is much hope and optimism that this awful Covid-19 ordeal will be largely overcome in the coming months. What I am looking forward to most is a resumption of international travel, but that depends a lot on how other countries around the world have tackled the virus and made such travel safe. Still, I remain confident of a return to much normalcy. We still don’t know how long the vaccinations provided the necessary antibodies against the virus, or whether we will need an annual booster shot. But life will go on, as it always does… We adapt, and we are resilient as a species! (So would Coach Steve surely agree!)
Lastly, here is a comparison between the horrific 1918-1919 Spanish Flu epidemic and our current 2020-2021 Covid pandemic (also see the two books below for more information):
1918-1919 / 500 million caught the disease, which was one-third of the entire world’s population; of those, 50 million died — 675,000 of those in the U.S. The virus killed mostly those in their 20’s, in the prime of life; no vaccines were possible to be developed, so the strain had to become inert naturally; the economy of the world was never shut down; face masks were eventually worn, but there no social distancing rules; life went on, and the flu went away.
2020-2021 / currently, there are 221 million cases world-wide — with 29.6 million of those being in the U.S.; world-wide deaths now stand at 2.67 million, with 536,000 deaths being in the U.S.; the vast majority of Covid deaths were in ages 65+ and those with pre-existing conditions. Younger people were rarely at risk, and the majority of those of other ages who got the disease did not require serious care or hospitalization. They simply rested in isolation at home and recovered after a few days of fever, coughing, headache, and muscle pains — much like a regular flu. Bed rest and fluids were the ultimate cure.
[By way of a final note, I know of no one who ever got sick from this dreadful disease, and for that I am truly thankful — even as we deeply mourn those who have died. And a huge hug of gratitude goes out to our tireless health care workers, first responders, and immunologists who worked so hard to help us weather this unexpected and challenging year.]