Letter from Coronavirus Penitentiary

Yesterday, or the day before, we received an email from a friend in St. Petersburg, Fla., who said public alarm in the U.S. over the coronavirus pandemic is approaching the batshit-crazy level. “I don’t know what to say or do.” 

Among rank-and-file Mexicans, here in normally somnolent San Miguel, not so much. There’s a general awareness of the issue and the city government has closed public schools and some public venues, but folks are not closing stores, locking themselves in their homes or walking around with face masks. The Tuesday Market is open and buzzing. No problema. 

Brown humor: A piñata vendor in Mexico City came up
with a coronavirus special.
But the expat population, tuned in to reports from home, has worked itself into high-anxiety mode. On Saturday we spotted a foreigner on the street wearing a face mask and surgical gloves. Hope she didn’t get run over by a bus. That would be too ironic. 

Question: What’s the difference between “isolation” and “quarantine”? They are hardly the same. Check it out.

Expats we know have receded into “full isolation mode.” Visitors have fled back to the U.S. as if escaping an oncoming hurricane. Travel plans have been scrapped. Churches and most other social and cultural venues have gone dark until further notice. And the rumor mill has revved up to warp speed with a myriad remedies, herbs, tinctures and potions, and other quack cures. 

My favorite curative is to drink a liter a day of pulquea rotgut Mexican type of booze. That’ll certainly take the edge of being locked up at home. 

And forget buying face masks, alcohol, hand sanitizer, and aloe vera gel. Anxious Americans have bought them all out. There’s even been a run on toilet paper.

Question: Why are people stockpiling toilet paper? Hint: Because in a panic, people become neurotic and irrational. 

Impromptu displays of toilet paper at Soriana supermarket. 

Question: What is the proper way to wash your hands? Alton Brown explains. 
I confess being spooked—frankly afraid—by the incomprensible barrage of news, opinions and speculation about the coronavirus epidemic. We live in a relatively secluded seven-and-half-acre ranch, and have curtailed our outings to town to necessary errands to buy groceries. No movies. No restaurants. No church. We wash our hands manically. We remain at home, scour Netflix and Amazon for movies we haven’t seen. We read. We cancelled a two-week trip to England. We cancelled a lunch for four friends we had scheduled for Friday. 

I just asked Stew if $1300 pesos for a load of river rocks I wanted to order for the garden was too much money. 

“Not when you’re in prison,” he said rather peevishly.  

But how long can this regimen last? After he initially dismissed the threat, Trump now says the  coronavirus epidemic is serious business that could last until August. Are people going to be locked up in their houses until then? How many small business are going to survive this hiatus?

Question: What can you do with your retirement portfolio to soften the blow of the yo-yo gyrations of the stock market caused by the coronavirus panic? Not a great deal, it seems. 

News from the U.S. about the virus has indeed been relentless, alarming and confusing. The stock market has tanked to 2008 levels. Mainstream media has flogged President Trump for spreading false and contradictory information, while more sympathetic organs, such as Fox News and Breitbart now proclaim the president’s handling of the crisis has been exemplary, a model for other countries to follow. 

Whatever the answer to that may be, the one thing that has struck me about Trump is his lack of empathy, or even the affect of empathy, let alone compassion, toward those infected in the U.S. and in other countries, or the general American public who may be paralyzed with fear and confusion.  

George W. Bush was certainly empathetic and compassionate after the World Trade Center terrorist attack, even to the Muslim community in the U.S. So was Obama, following a mass shooting at a grade school in Connecticut. And Bill Clinton was the master of a hackneyed yet quite compelling, “I feel your pain” spiel to victims of natural disasters. 

I haven’t sensed any such vibe coming from Trump, who has careened from blaming a “foreign virus,” telling Americans it’ll all soon blow away, to blaming the media and Democrats for starting vicious rumors, and ultimately washing his hands of any responsibility “at all” for the debacle over the lack of testing kits. Obama was blamed for something, but Hillary and her emails so far have escaped Trump’s deflective anger. 

It’s almost as if rather than feeling concern the human suffering caused by this public health crisis, his attention has mainly focused on his own fears that a once almost sure reelection bid suddenly may be in danger. 

Only in the last few days has Trump and the sympathetic media recognized the coronavirus pandemic is in fact a national emergency. And Trump has come up with a “stimulus” plan to revive the economy that is expected to cost about one trillion dollars. That goes on top of the trillion-dollar tab of the Trump tax cuts. Apparently, “deficit hawk” Republicans have left the building.

I have wondered too whether the coronavirus panic—dare I say it?—may be slightly overblown. I remember the Y2K panic when everyone at my workplace was required to be at their desk on New Year’s Eve—to do what, I’m still not clear. The clock struck midnight, and a minute after, and nothing happened, except for the billions of dollars the government and the private sector spent on the alarum. 

In the case of the current hysteria, it’s not only the airlines and corporations that are losing money, but the mom-and-pop vendors and service providers whose customers, and income, have vanished. 

As we enter the second day of our self-quarantine at the ranch, I already sense that Stew’s getting a little testy. A friend in the States warned me yesterday to be careful that Félix doesn’t bring the virus with him to work. Someone else told me she has been cleaning the house just to kill time, and may be running out of things to dust or polish.  

If this goes on for months, we’ll all start to go a little wacko. 

In my case I fear far more dire consequences: Stew may throw in the towel and tell me to do some of the cooking.  I don’t even want to think about that.  

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