The Rationalist Papers (12): Living in fear

Today’s column is a personal story. But it’s pretty relevant to what we’re all experiencing right now — both citizens and presidential candidates.

Just a reminder: these Rationalist Papers posts are for the group I call the deciders: conservative, moderate, undecided, and third-party voters considering their choices in the 2020 US Presidential election.

Until recently, I have been doing what you might call “ordinary coping” with COVID-19. The members of my household — my wife, the three college-age adults I live with and I — have done what we needed to do. We don’t go to restaurants or bars or events. Our social contacts are limited, distanced, and done with masks. We shop for groceries in masks. We get take-out. I gave up going to the gym; I see a fitness trainer weekly, in my yard, at a distance.

My parents, who are in their mid-80s, live 300 miles away. Because they were coping with serious health crises in 2019, my siblings and I had been visiting regularly. This stopped in February of this year, in part because they got things to a manageable state, and in part because we no longer thought it was safe to visit and potentially infect them.

But we miss each other very much, and I’d like to lend a hand. So I recently decided to see if my wife and I could safely visit them.

The first step was to quarantine. All five of us living in my house agreed to a strict quarantine for two weeks. We completed all doctor’s appointments and other commitments before the quarantine and locked ourselves down. I canceled the trainer.

No one is visiting anyone now. We planned all our meals and bought two weeks worth of groceries, well over $1,000 worth. And we hunkered down.

Right after we started, I began to get flashes and floaters in my left eye — a recurrence of symptoms I’d had in the other eye. Based on previous experience, it was likely a completely benign vitreous detachment that is common in people my age. But there was a small risk that this was a sign of a more serious condition that would need immediate treatment. I checked with my family and my parents, and only after they agreed, broke quarantine to have my eye checked. It was benign as I expected. Breaking quarantine was a difficult decision, and I hope I don’t regret it.

My wife and I just got tested for COVID-19, and the test came back negative. I can confirm that, as you may have heard, the test is extremely uncomfortable, but not really a big deal. (Frankly, I’d rather have my nostril poked than my eyes dilated.)

Now my wife and I are preparing to make the long drive this weekend. We will bring lunch rather than go into a restaurant on the road. My research has led me to believe that with low occupancy rates, a hotel rest room is less likely to be as a source of COVID than a chain restaurant or a rest stop, so I have planned a stop at the one Tesla charger on the trip that’s right next to a hotel.

Dealing with the reality of COVID

Do you think I’m overthinking things?

I seek neither praise nor sympathy for what it takes to make this visit. It simply is what I feel I have to do. Many people have it worse than I do, and I certainly recognize that.

If you are an essential worker in health care or a grocery store, or a family in a small living space managing work and school remotely, or a recently laid off person seeking a job right now, you are doing what I am doing — dealing with it. We really have no choice. We are Americans and we cope. We help each other out when we can.

Am I living in fear?


No more than when I cover my mouth when I cough, brush my teeth, wear a seatbelt, or signal before turning. These are simply shared accommodations we make so society can operate, keeping ourselves and others safe. It’s good manners to act as if the wellbeing of yourself and others matters, and expect them to do the same for you.

When the COVID risk was to myself and the family I live with, I did what I could to minimize it. But when the risk was to my parents, I felt that I had to do more. Would you put your parents at risk?

These are people in their 80’s with complicating conditions. It’s all well and good for people to say these members of society are just at risk, but I can’t treat my parents as just some members of society. If I had to make the case for parents living — what a terrible thing, to say, but if I did — I could start with how excellent they have been for me and my family throughout our lives. Professionally, my father was the campus executive officer — similar to a college president — of a large branch campus of Penn State, and after his great work there has an endowed award for students named after him. He has continued to teach and give lectures about science and technology well into his 80s. My mother, in addition to the essential support she gives my father, was managing the schedule for a group of senior tennis players until the pandemic put that on pause. These are active people contributing to their community. They are also very dear to me.

You probably have people at risk who are dear to you, and I bet you feel the same way.

Are presidential candidates are making similar choices?

Joe Biden has made mask-wearing a part of his campaign. And this happened recently:

Former vice president Joe Biden was standing on the tarmac Monday chatting with reporters at New Castle County Airport before boarding his campaign plane for Miami. Biden was wearing a mask and so were the journalists, but the plane’s engine was whirring and as he was answering questions about whether he would participate in the upcoming scheduled debate, he began to drift from socially distanced range into normal speaking range. And so, with no fanfare but unmistakable firmness, Jill Biden approached her husband from behind, reminded him of proper spacing and physically moved him several paces back.

Biden apologized for his spatial indiscretion and then carried on with his thoughts about the importance of following the science in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

President Trump, of course, has had his own problems with COVID-19. It now appears that at the event announcing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, a number of people became infected with the virus. The event was conducted partly outdoors, and partly indoors, and many of the attendees were not wearing masks.

The White House apparently depended on a rapid COVID test for everyone, but the rapid response test can miss infections in people who are contagious. Now dozens of people in the White House, Congress, and the military are infected.

No one can say when the president was last tested before he developed symptoms. It appears that he did a mask-free fundraising event in New Jersey after he knew he had been exposed to the virus.

He certainly was infectious when he took a limo ride in front of supporters near his hospital room at Walter Reed Hospital, sharing the air in the car with Secret Service agents. And now that he is back in the White House, any of the other people there — both staff and household service people — are potentially at risk. The first thing he did upon returning — while obviously struggling to breathe — was to take off his mask.

Look, it’s a pain in the ass to deal with this infectious disease. You know it and I know it. All of us are making difficult choices and managing with it. Our choices are necessary to keep ourselves, our children, and our parents safe.

I’d expect at least as much empathy from the leader or our country. He’s sick and I’m sure that’s a big concern, both for himself and for his country. But do you go to the office when you have the flu? Why is he interacting in person with other people?

From his massive and crowded rallies to his visits to fundraisers to the infections in the White House to his limousine ride, three things are clear.

First, Trump has been a lot more careless with this thing than many of the rest of us have. He gambled with other people’s health, and lost.

Second, he wasn’t even able to keep the people around him safe, let alone the rest of the country.

And finally, based on his decisions, he really doesn’t appear to give a crap about anyone who might be infected.

I’d like a little more concern from my leader. Wouldn’t you?

Feel free to post comments about salient parts of the debate. However, I will delete comments that insult or demean me, other commenters, or groups, or state supposed facts without evidence. Vacuous cheerleading and catcalling is also prohibited; this is not a sporting event. No one persuades anyone by creating a hostile environment.

For the origin of the Rationalist Papers, see this. All Rationalist Papers posts available here.

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  1. This is one of the best written things I’ve read in months… You touched on things near and dear to many… We’re in our 70’s and have begun to eat in restaurants we trust but still mostly do take out when not cooking at home…This disease scares us also, but we’re the old ones in the family now…I had a visit from my youngest granddaughter the other day, she’s 21 but we hadn’t seen her in person for 6 months…It was extremely refreshing and I can identify completely with your situation… Have a safe trip and be well and thank you again for this article.

    1. Great article explaining the fear for the 80s plus.

      I always voted at the polls on election day. The advertisements motivated me to ask for a mail-in vote. When it arrived I found that I needed a signer to my ballot to show that I had filled it out without others influencing my selections. Since I live alone and no-one in the banks, bars, restaurants, I had no one to sign. To get my flu shot at the clinic, I brought along the voting material. Upon early arrival, I asked a group of five behind the counter if they would witness my vote. NO, NO, NO, NO, each stated as they were afraid of the “Voter Fraud” sparked by the President of the USA. Now some of his supporters, have been caught planning to kidnap and kill the Democrat Governor of Michigan. And again, Trump says stand by. They say the group planned to start a civil war and was gathering to weapons to do so. Do you sill want everyone to be allowed to carry a gun?

  2. I’m so glad that you did everything that you could do to make this trip to see your parents. We did the same over the summer and spent a glorious month connecting with my aged mother (90) who is homebound for the last couple of years and had been deathly ill in December/January. It was wonderful to see her well and in good spirits and still able to live in her own house … your parents I know will be overjoyed to see you and I am sure your trip will be wonderful as well.

  3. First, Trump has been a lot more careless with this thing than many of the rest of us have. He gambled with other people’s health and lost.
    Second, he wasn’t even able to keep the people around him safe, let alone the rest of the country.
    And finally, based on his decisions, he really doesn’t appear to give a crap about anyone who might be infected.
    I’d like a little more concern from my leader. Wouldn’t you?

    You bet, but Trump was also careless with his casino operations and his dad’s money as he never had to work for either. Keeping others safe is of no concern to a spoiled brat that is in the middle of a temper tantrum that is recurrent. With Trump, this lack of supervision at his early years due to his mother’s illness has left him in a permanent temper tantrum.