Dear 1990s Jeff,
Consider this fair warning, 2020 is totally fucked up. Can I swear at you? I know you swear frequently, I remember that stage in your life. I don’t swear anymore, except in writing where I have something of a potty-mouth, but only because written swear words carry lots of shock value—much more so than spoken.
I’ll try again, 2020 is totally screwed up.
I’m not writing about the protests—the thousands gathered in cities around the country battling cops, soldiers and federal agents while trying to combat systemic racism and oppression of minorities. I’m not writing about middle-class white guys armed with assault rifles stalking town squares and storming county courthouses intent on protecting their selfish, monocultural definition of ‘patriotism.’ I’m not writing about the economy cratering with unemployment resembling the Great Depression and thousands facing eviction from their homes. Or even the $3.5 trillion of additional national debt we’ve racked up this year alone. Those topics we can explore at another time. I’m writing about the pandemic.
Shortly after New Year’s Day, you’ll read a news report about yet another virus gaining steam overseas. Yes, I know we hear this often, and then nothing much comes of it. Frequently, it’s a big deal, but because it isn’t happening in the United States, it’s only a big deal for someone else. In 2020, it’s a big deal for you. A new, fatal coronavirus will spread around the world, and ultimately reach every nook and cranny on the globe, including yours.
Initially, our President, Donald Trump—yes, that Donald Trump… no, I’m not really sure how that happened, a topic for another letter—initially, Trump will do nothing. “Not our problem,” he says. “Never happen here.” But as many of us suspect from the start, the virus will spread in the United States, big-time. In fact, we’ll become the world’s leader of virus cases and deaths by a wide margin. Through July and into August, Trump will continue to do nothing but point fingers and attempt to confuse and alienate people with lots of ridiculous theories and self-congratulatory praise.
You probably want to know more about this virus. They decided to call it COVID-19—shortened from Coronavirus 2019. At first, you’ll consider the name unimaginative, but don’t worry, it grows on you. It begins to sound futuristic in a very retro way—like it should be written in an Art Deco font. Plus, it leaves room for sequels: COVID-22, COVID-27 and possibly the exceptionally virulent COVID-31.
Starting in February, there will be a long-running argument about the COVID-19 fatality rate. For months, health organizations will report two percent, which is wrong because their logic sucks. They divide deaths-to-date by the number of cases-to-date, even though it takes at least three weeks for people to die, and the cases keep rising exponentially. You’ll be tempted to make a calculation of your own. I divided the number of deaths by the number of cases three weeks prior. I got five percent. Clever, huh?
That doesn’t work either. Almost half of people who catch the virus won’t show any symptoms at all. They’ll just run around infecting everyone else. Seven months into the pandemic, we still have no clue what the fatality rate is. One statistic is indisputable though, if you show symptoms, you have about a five percent chance of dying.
You know those post-apocalyptic books you love to read about plagues conquering the world? (Aside: those aren’t called post-apocalyptic anymore. They’re called dystopian—a term you adopt early and try to own. It doesn’t work, everyone else adopts it too. and now it just seems pedestrian). COVID-19 isn’t like those books at all. In those stories almost everyone dies, and it happens so fast that no one has time to react. COVID-19 happens in slow motion, taking time to build up the algebraic equation that leads to an explosion of cases. Society has plenty of time to respond. In fact, many countries will quickly gain control of the virus and then enjoy a reprieve, which is holding mostly steady through July, but I can’t say if it will last. Even though we’ve been at this for seven months, I still get the impression that we’re in the first miles of a long and arduous journey.
This is how the United States responds to the virus: After completely ignoring it for two months, COVID-19 begins to escalate rapidly throughout several cities simultaneously. We take it seriously, and we shut down the entire country. Everyone stays home. Work-places shutter, restaurants, shops and bars close, schools let out for the year, and everybody keeps their distance from neighbors and friends. We damage our economy terribly, but it’s worth it. We all work together to fight the virus, and we quickly see the number of new daily cases drop by half.
And then we get bored. We get complacent. People miss hanging out in bars. They miss going to parties, eating in restaurants, tanning on the beach. All of these activities restart and the virus spreads. Republicans decide that wearing surgical masks to reduce contagion is something only liberals do. They say government mandates that require mask-wearing violate the constitution. And the virus spreads. Three months later, new daily cases have tripled.
That’s how my story ends. No resolution, no glimmer of hope. I don’t know where it goes from here. Over the next few weeks, schools all around the country will begin to reopen. Everyone acknowledges that people will get sick and many will die—teachers, kids, the kids’ parents, the parents’ coworkers—but no one knows what else to do. Our entire strategy rests on hoping someone will invent a vaccine soon.
Not much good news here but there is a silver lining: In mid-February, you will be running the Gettysburg horse trails on a warm Sunday afternoon (Yes, a warm day in February this year, it was the mildest winter I can remember, and now in August our A/C has been churning for three weeks straight. Is this the rapid global heating that scientists have predicted since the eighties? Probably Yet another exciting milestone for 2020). In the middle of your run, you will have a sudden mental flash telling you to move all of your retirement savings out of the stock market immediately. The politicians who get the straight dope from our national security advisors do this and save millions. You should do it too. Wait five weeks and then rebuy everything. You’re going to be rich.
Sincerely, 2020 Jeff
PS: You’re going to marry a friend of Allie’s named Susan.
Previously Published on jeffcann.com