Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

16 Mar 2020, 9:12 a.m.

Liminal Thoughts At An Inflection Point For The Pandemic

In January a writer I read started telling her readers to prepare for the pandemic. I am glad of the ways in which I followed her advice and I regret the ways in which I did not. Siderea noted that, during a pandemic, when big news starts happening, things start happening very fast, and we have arrived at that stage here in New York City. This week the schools close and the restaurants go to delivery/takeout-only.

So the "ring theory" of grief says: when dealing with grief, listen to and comfort the people closer to the center of the problem, those most deeply affected, and then complain or grieve outwards, so people less affected can comfort you. But it's pretty hard to work out who's least affected by COVID-19. Even if you are youngish, healthy, have very few risky health conditions, and don't particularly care about anyone who isn't in that category, you are probably affected by some of the ripple effects that come faster and faster each day: travel restrictions, event cancellations, the closing of schools and gathering places, work-from-home shifts, some supplies becoming far less available. There is no one I can vent to who is significantly less concerned than I am -- unless they have not yet worked out that they need to be concerned.

Leonard and I have some unavoidable errands we need to do this week that involve leaving the home and/or interacting with other people. I am looking forward to later this week when we can really hunker down and isolate. This experience has many items that are pretty similar to mine.

Not since the passage of the GDPR have I been reminded of how many websites/institutions have some kind of (sometimes tenuous) "relationship" with me. Every day I get many emails telling me about what they're doing.

Every day New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a press conference and the government provides a transcript and I find it informative and soothing to read it. My city is trying to do the right things to take care of me -- I need to write to them about doing better regarding reducing criminal justice interactions, but overall, I think the city is doing the right things -- and I'm reassured.

Several days ago I realized: if individuals and institutions actually step up and do social distancing, cancel large gatherings, etc., and reduce the scale of the catastrophe, then there will be people in the future who say "this was an overreaction". (Just as they did with Y2K.) I later found out this is called "the paradox of prevention."

Some things I am grateful for right now:

  • It's possible to do a lot of stuff online that used to require visiting someplace.
  • We stocked up somewhat in February and aren't in as bad a situation as we could be.
  • We are well-off enough that some unexpected expenses are easy for us to bear.
  • I have friends who have caught up with me over the phone in the last few days -- and a couple of neighborhood friends who, last night, came over to our place. We stood outside on the sidewalk and spoke to each other across a six-foot distance. It was really nice.
  • Leonard and I can both work from home -- and in fact have 10+ years experience, each, in doing so.
  • We have both made moderate improvements in our health in the last few years so we are better placed than we might be to deal with illness, heavy lifting, and stress.
  • Right now, I am ok and my family is ok.

Finally: on MetaFilter, lesbiassparrow wrote:


I just don't understand how in Canada every Canadian around me doesn't think it will really hit them and they don't personally need to worry

There is this moment in the Mahabharata called the yaksha-prashna* -- a riddle contest with a disguised god. Yudhisthira has to answer a bunch of questions to rescue his brothers from death. Stuff like:

What is heavier than a mountain?
What is faster than the wind?
What is bigger/heavier than the earth?
Mother [in that she is greater in her effects on our lives, in how much we love her, etc.].

And the final riddle is:

What is the most amazing thing in the universe?


Every day, we all see people around us fall ill, wither away, and die. And yet each of us, to ourselves, thinks: "I will live forever." That is the most amazing thing in the universe.

(He answers all the riddles successfully and saves his brothers -- and it turns out that the crane is actually his father, Yama, the god of duty and death, whom he is meeting for the first time.)

I read this in an Amar Chitra Katha comic book when I was a child and it has always stuck with me.... and it reverberates so powerfully now.

* In case I misremember any of this --- uh, oral tradition! Right, folklore, always changing....