Reflections on Two Weeks in “Self-Quarantine”

For the kids’ school break during the last week of February, my family and I made the retrospectively unfortunate choice to ski in the remote Japanese Alps outside of Nagano.

Three days before our return to Amsterdam, we received independent word from both my employer and the boys’ school that our respective presence was unwelcome at the office or on campus for the coming fortnight.

My teenage boys were barely able to disguise their delight. I wasn’t as convinced.

Now 12 days in, I’ve had a few reflections and insights.

Indiscriminate discrimination sucks.

No shit, right? It took me 50-odd years as a privileged white male to actually experience it. I don’t want to mansplain this, but the lightbulb went on as even our closest social circle began treating us as outcasts. Untouchables. Lepers. Sweet sympathy, but with a telltale sneer of condescension.

We had the dreaded “cheese touch”.

Frustratingly, objective data doesn’t land. The fact that our visit to Japan (at 5.1 cases per million as of March 12) tags us as risky if not negligent by our social circle, while families who visited more “on-piste” destinations such as Switzerland (75 cases per million) or Norway (119 cases per million) still hasn’t merited commensurate community consciousness tells you all you need to know about what discrimination feels like.

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From the Wayback Machine: Snapshot taken March 12, 2020 https://web.archive.org/web/20200312041117/https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

I’m a hypocrite.

I identify as a social liberal who prides himself as thinking he prioritizes the best interests of the group over individual rights. Yet, I’ve found myself fighting feelings to defend my individualism even in the face of communal social pressures to protect the interest of the group.

Example? While my employer and school have justifiably taken measures to protect the safety of their communities by enforcing protections, I’ve resisted going further by banning myself from other public spaces. Who says I can’t go to my neighborhood gym? Or shop at my local grocery store.

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The poker Dads trolling yours truly.

I did, however, agree to pass on playing in our monthly friendly neighborhood poker game amongst school Dads. Secondarily because of the risk I could be a contagion, but primarily because it would have been foolish to risk being fingered as the cause of what will be an inevitable outbreak in the community.

The difference? When I’ve felt anonymous I’ve taken more liberties, while when my behaviors are are more visible, I’ve been appropriately cautious.

Hmmm.

I’ve long accused conservatives of over-valuing individual rights over the interests of the community. Yet, I find myself acting hypocritically in protecting my own freedoms while putting others at even a marginal incremental risk.

I observe myself being a hypocrite. And, I hate hypocrisy.

It doesn’t always pay to be diligent.

People are freaking about South Korea’s rate of coronavirus. With over 7,850 reported cases (as of March 12), only China, Italy and Iran have more cases. So, clearly it’s a hot spot right?

On March 10, the New York Times reported that while the United States has conducted a total of 8,500 tests to date in total, South Korea is conducting and reporting numbers based on 10,000 tests per day since late February.

No wonder their number of reported cases is so much higher. True, there is a hot spot there. But, they are doing the work and being transparent about the results. And, subsequently getting punished for it. Most worldwide health advisors are telling people to be on highest alert for risk coming from South Korea, while no such restrictions or warnings are made about places like the United States where testing is limited only to those with symptoms plus additional exposure risk factors.

In looking a bit deeper, independent data shows that the fatality rate in South Korea is 0.8% while in the US it is over 3 times higher at 2.8%. This is not a numerator problem. It’s a denominator problem. The world judges risk based on the number of cases, not the number of deaths.

This is a perverse incentive.

South Korea is not doing itself any favors on the world stage by being so diligent. Meanwhile, countries with leaders like Donald Trump continue to downplay numbers by encouraging the curbing of testing — inherently increasing actual risk while leaving the perceived risk to the diligent countries who are knocking on doors and taking nose swabs.

Game theory tells America not to NOT test its citizens (protect the almighty economy!) in the short run, even if it means putting the global economy and community at a much higher risk for the long-run.

Makes you think.

It feels good to live in a country with basic healthcare.

I live in the Netherlands. The Dutch are very casual people. Nothing gets them too riled up. Other than Germans. But living in Holland means everyone has access to healthcare. It means that for anyone who is sick, health services are available. It also means that a national health crisis can more easily be averted — to the benefit of not only the less fortunate, but especially to the benefit of the most fortunate.

Compare this to America where conservative wealthy interests don’t believe that health care is a basic human right. In the case of a pandemic, this works pretty badly for everyone (especially the rich), as there are no social defenses to protect the spread when the bulk of society has no means or ability to get checked out or treated. Instead, they ignore symptoms, and hope for the best. Hope, I’ve been told before, is NOT a strategy.

This lack of universal health care is likely to play out very badly in the US with respect to containing the spread. My dream would be that such human suffering isn’t for naught, and comes with the dividend of finally awakening American voters that universal health care is in everyone’s best interest, even hard-core libertarians and Ayn Rand disciples.

Self-quarantine with my teenagers is a delight.

Over the two weeks, our respective perspectives have reversed. My sons are going stir-crazy, and I’m settling in. I’m loving the co-working environment we’ve created. It feels like a dorm room. Yes, we battle for wifi bandwidth for our respective video calls. Today my eldest made himself instant ramen (lovingly hauled back from Japan) while I conducted calls with colleagues from Delhi, and my younger son dialed into school for his Mandarin class. It was cozy.

It has been a strange couple of weeks. And yet, the world somehow feels simpler all at once, as stock markets crumble and air-travel gets canceled. I predict I will look back at this moment in time with a sense of wonder and even nostalgia — assuming this is not the beginning of Armageddon.

Just don’t sign me up for two more weeks, please.

Brad Porteus tends to take three times longer than he needs to to make his point, adding tangental side-bar stories as he goes. If his meandering style doesn’t drive you completely mad, there is a lot more where that came from. Check here on Medium or the complete set on porteus.com.

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American in Amsterdam.

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