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March Issue

Vol 30|No 4|March 2020


Technology in a time of plague

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

Back in July of 2018, before COVID-19 struck, I read “Pale Horse Pale Rider” — Katherine Anne Porter’s love story set in Denver during the Spanish Flu of 1918. I had no idea then, of course, that the Coronavirus would soon spread throughout the world with horrible consequences. I did not even know that the Spanish Flu was part of this story when I began turning the pages.

It is not a good story to read while the current plague is still upon us, as things do not end well, but some day when we are virus free and the reader is prepared to contrast one plague with another, the writing is brilliant and the reporting is astute.




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I am using Porter’s story to point out how communication technologies have changed in the century that has passed since her pandemic and how these have helped to ease some of the depressing effects of quarantine, lockdown and social distancing.

The two main characters in this story notice lots of funerals and they hear whispers about the plague descending on their city, but they proceed blithely with their romance, dancing, kissing and embracing in such a way that infection is almost assured. As the female character is too sick to get out of bed, her boyfriend goes shopping for her and then returns to climb into bed and hold her close. It is hard to think of anyone doing that today.

One hundred years ago, there was no bombardment of the populace by the media — no clear warnings about social distancing. One of the characters even works for a newspaper.

“Ignorance is bliss?” Not in this case.

Once the ambulance comes to take her away while her boyfriend is away doing some errands, there is no further contact between the lovers. She is isolated from the outside world until she begins to recover and is allowed visitors. There are no smart phones, no wifi, no Internet and no TVs for her to watch what is happening elsewhere. The level of isolation is extreme. 

While it is small consolation to those patients who suffer and die from COVID-19, their final days and hours may include chats with family and friends. For those who recover, it is even possible that these digital contacts may be part of what keeps them going when all seems lost. The body's ability to fight disease is a complex process influenced powerfully at times by emotions. A fighting spirit increases the chance of survival. A lagging spirit does the opposite.

The story of one man in Louisiana reported in The New York Times illustrates this reality -- "32 Days on a Ventilator: One Covid Patient’s Fight to Breathe Again" -- "Jim Bello, 49 and healthy, fell gravely ill, highlighting agonizing mysteries of the coronavirus. Doctors’ relentless effort to save him was a roller-coaster of devastating and triumphant twists."

During these 32 days, Jim's family stayed in touch with him as much as possible. During the first week, "Because visitors are largely prohibited in order to limit the virus’s spread, a nurse, Kerri Voelkel, put the family on speaker phone in Mr. Bello's room several times daily." But then his conditioned worsened and he was very close to death. The hospital decided to allow a visit by his wife who held his hand and encouraged him for three hours. Hospital staff later said they thought the personal visit may have been a turning point.

As Jim's condition started to improve, the family used FaceTime to communicate. The article provides some lovely photos illustrating these chats and his recovery.

One of my favorites is a video showing "As he was wheeled out of the I.C.U. to a regular floor, the medical staff, previously despondent about his case, lined the hospital hallway, erupting in applause. He waved." https://static01.nyt.com/images/2020/04/16/science/00VIRUS-ICU-jim/00VIRUS-ICU-jim-superJumbo.jpg


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