Plague

Written by
Michael Wells

Plague

The Stark Realities of Life, and Death

Written by
Michael Wells

Plague

The Stark Realities of Life, and Death

Written by
Michael Wells
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QUESTION
Sometimes life gives us moments of crystal-clear perspective.

A few years ago when I was first introduced to Stoicism, I was intrigued by one of the tenets, known as memento mori.

"Remember death"

If you’re unfamiliar with it, memento mori translates to “remember death”. It entreats Stoics to maintain perspective on life, by remembering that it will end someday. 

Those who forget this will probably spend a lot of wasted time, pursuing meaningless things.

They’ll hold on to grudges that add no value to their lives. They’ll lack motivation to pursue big dreams in life.

Those who lose this perspective will probably undervalue the most beautiful things in life as well... because they imagine they’ll last forever.

But the truth is, everything changes, and nothing lasts.

A personal exploration

As I considered these ideas, I became determined to understand these realities more deeply. 

It happens that I live near a very old cemetery, tucked away between Auckland’s central business district and the motorways. From the road, it appears massive, and immeasurably ancient. It looks much older than Auckland itself, and it sits there, a feature of the landscape ignored by most. 

No one goes there, but it has many stories to tell.

Now, I’m not a fan of cemeteries. I don’t enjoy thinking about death. If I could, I would choose to live forever - I have far too many great things to do with my life.

I felt all kinds of discomfort at the idea of wandering among old graves, contemplating my mortality... so instinctively I knew that putting myself in that uncomfortable place was exactly what I needed to do.

Because comfort zones suck.

So, one afternoon, I grabbed my notebook and a thermos of coffee, and headed into those dark woods to learn what I could about life.

A moment of clear perspective

As I wandered uncomfortably into this cemetery, I noticed my mind shift. 

I was not thinking about what was laying beneath the soil, but to the lives of the people who are now resting there. Here were perhaps 1,000 people, 1,000 interesting lives full of interesting stories to tell.

I read many of the gravestones to learn what I could about them. Who they were, when they lived, maybe even how they died.

I was very surprised to discover that many of the gravestones contained not one person, but two or three, and quite frequently, entire families of as many as 10 people that had been buried in succession. I don't know if this was done for economic reasons, or to conserve space, but it was the culture at the time. 

Each monument revealed a list of names and dates, and sometimes ages. At first, as I read all of this, the numbers weren't making any sense. I did some math to puzzle out what I was seeing.

Why so many names? Why so many dates? Why are they so close to each other?

Most of these people I encountered there had lived in the late 1800s to early 1900s, and I was shocked to discover that their lives were full of death. 

You could easily piece together story after story of families who had as many as seven children, and had lost most of them by the time they were teens.  

Maybe one of them went on to adulthood.

Some died as infants, many as young as three. Others lived to 6 or 7. You had brothers, you had sisters, parents, children, husbands and wives. All buried together, all with birth and death dates that suggested tragically brief lives. 

It read like a horror story.

Just 100 years ago, this was what life was like. In the time of our great grandparents, this was considered normal.

That’s mind-boggling.

It’s worth noting that this particular cemetery is in New Zealand, one of the safest places on the planet. No snakes, virtually no dangerous wild animals at all. No world wars occurred on NZ soil. No famines. Not even any plagues that I know of.

And yet, so much death.

So, of course, I researched a bit. I concluded that those lives were lost to the typical illnesses of the era. 

"Typhoid and other bacterial infections were common, along with diphtheria, measles, whooping cough (pertussis), scarlet fever and tuberculosis. Infant mortality rates were high and medical treatments were often ineffective.

"Respiratory infections caused many deaths, mostly attributed to bronchitis or pneumonia. Tuberculosis was a constant killer from this period – an endemic epidemic – until the 1950s."

100 years ago was a time of man v. disease... and by all accounts, disease was winning.

The New Plague

It seems fitting somehow we're in a place now where we're confronted with another round of plagues a century later. 

But this situation is different- and we are approaching it differently. Our science and technology have improved. Our understanding of infectious diseases and how to mitigate their spread has improved. Our ability to communicate with each other has improved. 

And vaccines have improved tremendously since then.

They are now well-developed and widely available. No more cutting your arm and smearing anthrax on it to develop immunity. We've worked out the science and the delivery of all this medical knowledge, to make our lives better, and longer.

Yay humans. We're pretty incredible, when we work together.

And the impact of these technologies is huge.

If you consider the mortality rates of 100 years ago, what would have happened if vaccines had never been developed? How many more would have died young, and led short, tragic lives?

What's the chance you would have even been born?

When I contemplate what life was like just a century ago, I consider us very fortunate that we're not seeing the catastrophic loss of life that those markers tell. 

We’re Not Used to This

It sobers me to think that this is the reality of life. 

No matter what form of life we’re talking about, plagues are a threat. It doesn’t matter if you’re a human, or a cat... a plant or an insect. 

If you’re alive, you’ve probably at some point encountered a war of the species.

For humans, there aren't too many other species that can harm us on a massive scale. In the animal kingdom, such wars are a fact of life. Honey bees are warring against wasps. Ants warring against mites. There are all sorts of epic battles.

For humans, in our living memory, our only real threat has been ourselves.

We’re simply not used to this.

I think we’ve lost some perspective. We’ve been at the top of the food chain for as long as we can remember, and we’ve gotten lazy.

We begin to assume our superiority, and our invincibility. 

That's a great fantasy, but it's dangerous as a belief. We're not invincible. Once in awhile, nature likes to remind us that we're just its plaything.

Add a dash of loneliness

As I write this, Auckland has been in level 3 & 4 lockdowns since August, 

A lot of people are understandably struggling with that. I thoroughly enjoy my own company, and it’s tough even for me.

No gym.

No coffee with friends.

No dance classes.

#!$%#!$%!

I fully understand the whole “lockdown fatigue” thing, and I understand the emotional challenges of loneliness.

On the one hand, we're mammals, and we’re not designed to be alone. Isolate us, and we feel pain. Solitary confinement is considered to be one of the most effective methods of torture.

Sometimes, the pain of loneliness exceeds our good-sense for our health and safety. It warps our risk-reward calculation, and people begin to take dangerous risks-

Even if those risks could potentially harm others. 

It gets personal

It happens that my flatmate decided that he couldn't get COVID. 

He assumed that none of his friends had COVID, and so he decided to sneak them in all through level four lockdown.

This didn’t go unnoticed. The landlord and I confronted him almost daily, demanding that if he was going to violate lockdown law and see people, he at least could not bring them into the apartment building, where he was putting everyone at risk.

He promised to stop, but he continued anyway.

About 3 days ago, he collapsed outside of the building suddenly. Passed out. Ambulance, hazmat suits the whole deal.

2 days ago, he was notified that he is COVID positive. He’s been in and out of ICU, really struggling with it.

Meanwhile MIQ is trying to find a space for him, once he’s stable enough to send to quarantine- but they're overwhelmed and at maximum capacity too.

I understand he had to be resuscitated last night. 

It’s a truly tough time for this guy, and I am deeply saddened by that. I would never wish his situation on anyone. Despite his irresponsibility towards his neighbors, I know he never intended to harm anyone.

He just couldn't deal with the loneliness, and convinced himself it was okay.

More than one victim

And our apartment floor is now fully locked down. 

I'm not allowed to go outside, even for a solo walk. Our building is on red-alert. Everyone’s getting swabbed and waiting for results. We’re all getting calls from the Ministry of Health daily to check for symptoms.

I hope his girlfriend and his mates that he kept bringing over have gotten tested too.

I got my DAY 1 swab today and I'm awaiting the results. I will go for my DAY 5 swab next week. And I'll hope for the best while remaining prepared for whatever may happen.

Memento mori.
Remember death, and you will cherish life more.

Meanwhile, life as usual, 

I have lots of work to do. And a bit of writing it seems.

Some personal thoughts

To all of you out there that I see filling the sidewalks and the beaches... to everyone who has stopped wearing masks because the weather is nice... 

I want to say this. 

You may think that you're safe bending the rules a little bit, and you may think that it doesn't affect others. But I want you to reconsider.

Violating lockdown is no different from drunk driving.

You think you will be okay.

You think no one will get hurt.

You think you're in control and that nothing bad can happen. 

You think wrong. 

Your desire to be social, to be around people, to be free, to not wear a mask... these desires are strong. When you see other people doing these things, you want to do them too.

These perspectives create a reality-distortion-field that will warp your thinking, and the consequences can be tremendous.

Just like drunk driving, the decisions you make now can directly affect your health, your future, your life and the lives of the people around you. 

Don't do it.

You have the right to choose the risks you take. I believe that you should have the right to choose for your own life. 

But don't assume that others are OK with you risking their lives too.

It’s easy to be smart here

Lock down, mask up, and vaccinate.

  1. Respect the lockdown protocol, 100%. For you, and for others. You may not like it, but it won’t kill you. Disrespecting it just might. 
  2. Get vaccinated. I hate needles way more than most. Yes there’s a story there, I’ll write it sometime. You might hate needles too. Get vaccinated anyway. The vaccine doesn’t protect you 100%, but it greatly increases your chances of survival, and that means that cemetery won’t need to grow much more. It also means you're less likely to get infected, and less likely to infect others. Get past your reservations, and get it done.
  3. Wear a mask & respect social distancing. Even after you’ve been vaccinated, you can still be a carrier- and you wearing a mask is more about protecting others, than protecting yourself. Respect the lives around you. Mask up.

Afterword

There's a reason our kids are living to adulthood these days. There's a reason we don't see bubonic plagues- even though our cities are FAR more populated.

Vaccines, cleanliness, knowledge, education, and communication are what have kept us on top as a species, and allowed us to succeed thus far.

Chances are, if those technologies had never existed, you never would have been born.

Don't throw that all away.

See you on the other side.

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First published on 
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October 22, 2021

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      Updates

      23-Oct - Most of the building has completed their DAY 1 swab and we have all come back negative. We're celebrating about that and hopeful that the DAY 5 swabs will be clean too. We'll see next week.

      24-Oct - Ministry of Health is awesome. Given the problem they are facing, they're doing an amazing job of communicating & coordinating resources between those infected, and the close contacts who are at-risk. Besides the daily check-ins, they've made it clear that they'll arrange anything we need... food, shelter, medical, or just someone to talk to. These people have their act together. Bravo.

      28-Oct - We've been cleared! Our DAY 5 swab test results have returned negative, and the Ministry of Health has released us from self-quarantine.

      I'm back to level 3, and incredibly appreciative of a good long walk. The fact that it happens to be raining doesn't bother me a damn bit.