Vonda McIntyre: One year on

One year ago today, Vonda N McIntyre died. I miss her so much. To mark the first anniversary of her death, I want to persuade you to buy a copy of her first novel, The Exile Waiting—the first thing by her I ever read—which has just been republished by Handheld Press.

Book cover: blue image on a white background of what look like jellyfish with helical, DNA-like trailing tentacles. Title in blue,

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Handheld Press | Kobo

The new edition of The Exile Waiting also includes extras: a juicy Afterword by Una McCormack—the perfect tool for those wanting to teach this book—plus the very first republication of Vonda’s 1972 short story, “Cages,” in which she created the strange and terrible pseudosibs.

I found The Exile Waiting when I was 19, and fell in love with it. It was my introduction to feminist SF. Here’s what I wrote about this powerful, beautifully-realised book:

The impact of The Exile Waiting on science fiction was massive but, like an iceberg, largely hidden. Today, McIntyre’s concerns—power, identity, inequity, climate, and social justice—are at the forefront of humanist SF.

One focus of this marvellous novel is disability. Written in the early 70s, it largely anticipates the later theoretical work of disability studies. I can see ways to argue that without this novel, and its companion novel, Dreamsnake, then the accompanying wave of work by Le Guin, Russ, Charnas, and Butler, there could have been no cyberpunk. (There again, as Una McCormack points out in her afterword, Samuel R Delany has already done that.)* But part of that story begins with this book.

Here’s the publisher, Kate Macdonald, talking about the novel’s importance, how much she loves the book, and why she wanted to publish it.

You can read the first chapter at Seattle Review of Books. Please do. Then buy it. Then try to wrap your head around the fact that it’s 45 years old, and still so very relevant today. After that, go read all her other brilliant work.

Amazon US | Amazon UK | Handheld Press | Kobo

And after that console yourself with the fact that there is one last McIntyre novel still to read: Curve of the World, the beautiful, realistic-and-hopeful novel that you could, perhaps, call an alternate history but I prefer to think of a perhaps-it-really-was history. This fine novel, finished two weeks before Vonda died, is not yet published. But it’s out there, waiting…


*Samuel R Delany, ‘Some Real Mothers…: The SF Eye Interview, in Samuel L Delany, Silent Interview: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (Hanover NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 164-185, 177.

 

Ammonite—”Think Out Loud” bookclub



Cover image for audiobook, AMMONITE by Nicola Griffith, read by Gabra Zackman. A planet set in a starry sky, with an image of an ammonite superimposed on the planet, reflecting mountains, cloud, and snow. Title text and narrator name in white, author name in black.

Thanks to COVID-19 and subsequent stay-at-home orders resulting in a mostly locked-down US, a lot of people have been looking for something to read, and many of them have a new-found interest in global pandemics. There’s been a resurgence of interest in Ammonite, my first novel. Ammonite really is the little book that could. It started as a super low-price, low-quality mass market paperback that no one (except me) expected to do well. But it won a few awards, and was short-listed for several others, and over the years it’s been through a variety of editions—each with better cover, more glossy formats, added maps and glossaries, etc. And, now, finally, there’s an audiobook edition. And still, after 27 years in print, twice a year I get royalty cheques. This all pleases me very much. I’ts not just the money—though, yay! money! it’s good to get paid for what I do—it’s the continued thrill of seeing new people discover this book that meant so much to me so long ago. This is the book—the awards, the translations, the glowing reviews—that made it possible for me to be declared an Alien of Exceptional Ability by the US State Department, and granted a National Interest Waiver to live and work in this country. It was the advance for this book that formed the downpayment on our first house in Atlanta. I’ts not really an exaggeration to say this book changed my life. So for all those reasons, I am inordinately fond of this book.

So I’m pleased to tell you that Ammonite will be Oregon Public Radio’s bookclub pick later this month. I’ll be doing a 5-min segment on “Think Out Loud” on Friday, sometime between between 12:30 and 12:45, just to introduce the book. Then we all have a couple of weeks to read it. Then there’ll be another show, this time a forty-minute segment, for an interview with me followed by call-in questions. So if you fancy reading along with a few thousand Oregonians, get thee to a bookstore. Most libraries have it. And of course there’s that audio edition, just released last month.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Change or die. These are the only options available on the planet Jeep. Centuries earlier, a deadly virus shattered the original colony, killing the men and forever altering the few surviving women. Now, generations after the colony has lost touch with the rest of humanity, a company arrives to exploit Jeep—and its forces find themselves fighting for their lives. Terrified of spreading the virus, the company abandons its employees, leaving them afraid and isolated from the natives. In the face of this crisis, anthropologist Marghe Taishan arrives to test a new vaccine. As she risks death to uncover the women’s biological secret, she finds that she, too, is changing—and realizes that not only has she found a home on Jeep, but that she alone carries the seeds of its destruction…

Ammonite is an unforgettable novel that questions the very meanings of gender and humanity. As readers share in Marghe’s journey through an alien world, they too embark on a parallel journey of fascinating self-exploration.

If you want to know more about the book, go take a look at the Ammonite page, where you can find reviews, links to readings, links to previous bookclub discussions, and more.

COVID-19: Zones of control

I’m guessing just about everyone who is reading this is in self-isolation. For many of you it will be the first time. For me it’s not. I’ve had to do it before when I was on an immune-destroying chemotherapy regime for my MS. It took down my immune system more thoroughly than the doctors were expecting—so thoroughly that I had to have bone marrow rescue shots. Let me tell you, those are unpleasant: your marrow swells and your bones hurt. Also, it was so long ago that there were no video chat platforms, no Twitter, no streaming video, and very little home delivery of anything but pizza. So this is better. Admittedly, it will last way, way longer, but still: better.

Today I left the house for the first time in two or three weeks to go to a medical centre for a drug that must be given within a narrow timeframe, and can only be administered in a medical setting. They promised me the premises were ‘tightly screened’ and I’d be in no danger. I didn’t believe them—I’m very much in trust-but-verify mode—and went masked and gloved. I’m glad I did. The screening consisted of a woman saying, really fast—as people do when they’ve said exactly the same thing six hundred times already that day—Good morning we’re checking health and symptoms any fever cough headache no awesome here’s a sticker. She did not even really look at me and certainly did not check my temperature. In the building, no one but me was wearing a mask*. In the doctor’s rooms, no one was wearing mask or gloves. I didn’t see anyone use hand sanitiser while I was there. They took my insurance card in bare hands, handled it, then handed me a clipboard and pen assuring me it had all been wiped down. Clearly, they do not have the same understanding of transmissibility I do. When the needles came out, yes, there were gloves—but still no mask. I did not take off mask or gloves untilI could get home, then I washed my hands thoroughly. And I won’t be touching either my wallet or any of its cards for weeks, probably, by which time any viruses hanging out on the plastic will be long dead.

So the thing I want to emphasise in this post is: Take responsibility for what’s in your control. It begins with your own personal hygiene and safety. Do not believe any individual, group, or institution about the precautions they have taken/are taking/will take. Assume everyone and everything is infected and behave accordingly. It’s the only way to be sure. (That and take off and nuke it from orbit…) But then there’s your friends and neighbours, your wider family, your local community… What can you do for them?

Before I talk about that, I want to take a 70,000′ view of where we are now.

Overview

Here’s where we are today, 22 March 2020, at 09:45 -7 UTC:

  • COVID-19 is in 189 countries and territories and, worldwide, there are 321,278 confirmed cases, of whom 13,699 have died. That’s an overall case fatality rate (CFR) of 4.26%. Of the current active cases 95% are ‘mild’ and 5% are critical. Of the closed cases, 88% were discharged as recovered, and 12% died.
  • In the USA, we have 29,214 cases of whom 349 have died. That’s an overall CFR of 1.19%. But we’re very early in the epidemic, so our active cases are 98% mild and 2% critical. And of the closed cases only 34% have been discharged as cured while 66% died.
  • In Washington State, we have 1,793 total confirmed cases and 94 dead. CFR = 5.24%. I don’t have figures for active cases. (Based on Chinese data, about 15% of confirmed cases require hospitalisation and 5% need critical care in an ICU. In New York, though, it’s estimated that 18% of all their cases require hospitalisation. And WA has put out an urgent call for retired medical professionals, and those from other states, to come help out.) But of the closed cases, 16.5% discharged as recovered and 83.5% as dead.
  • In King County, we have 934 cases with 74 dead. CFR = 7.92%. No numbers for either status of active cases or the number discharged as recovered. Having said that, KingCounty has only tested 23,000 people so far. And the county has made it clear that tests are in such short supply you cannot get tested unless you are in the highest risk group and have ‘concerning’ symptoms. (My interpretation: you practically have to be in acute respiratory distress before they’ll look at you. Things are already bad here. King and Snohomish counties between them have only 4,900 staffed hospital beds, and only 940 of those are critical care. And of those, many are already full of people sick from things other than COVID-19. King County is building field hospitals; Governor Jay Inslee has asked the military to send one of its hospital ships to Seattle so we can access the hundred or so ICU beds. And state medical workers are openly discussing triage. Basically, if you’re old and/or have a preexisting condition, you’ll get ‘comfort’ care, that is, no intubation for you—they’ll save the ventilators for younger, healthy, more-like-to-survive folks.

I’ve been following this pandemic—taking notes, doing calculations, reading the studies—since early January. About 10 days ago I licked my pencil, got out my envelope, and did some basic arithmetic. I estimated that if nothing changed, by the first week of April the US would have 3.5 million confirmed cases. Today, despite all the lockdowns, self-isolation, social distancing, and sheltering in place, we are well ahead of that curve. I’d estimated that by 3pm this afternoon we would have 27,456. We have 29,214—and everywhere, in every single region, there are not enough tests to go around. How many cases are there really, today? If I had to guess I’d say 150,000.

Latest reviews of Chinese data suggest an overall CFR of 1.4%. But China has a younger population and, frankly, I believe those who were diagnosed got more focused and organised care because an authoritarian system can act faster when it’s not worried about what its voting citizens think because, y’know, they don’t vote. But what’s great about their healthcare is their public health policies and organisation. Though if you really want a notion of how this pandemic should have been handled right from the beginning, take a look at South Korea. I’ve been following South Korea since the virus first appeared there. They took a stringent—some might say draconian—approach to containment and suppression right from the beginning; they poured effort in public health: tracing and contacting those who might have been exposed, then monitoring them. And it has worked. As a result, they only have 8897 infections and a CFR of 1.17%. That percentage is going up as fewer new cases offset the increasing number of deaths, but I’d be surprised if it went over 1.4% So for a younger population with a government willing to make hard choices to flatten the curve to prevent health system overwhelm, let’s say the CFR will be less than 1.5%. [ETA: I’ve changed my mind. S. Korea’s CFR is creeping up too steadily, too relentlessly. I hope it ends up at less than 2%…].

Sadly, that’s not most of the world. Perhaps a better idea of what’s in store for us in the US could be gained by looking at Europe. In Italy they are running at a CFR of 9.00%. In the UK they are running at a CFR of 4.86%. And these, like those of South Korea, are increasing relentlessly. If you look at the rate at which people in China, Italy, the UK and US were being infected at various stages of their outbreak, you’ll see that the steepest curve of all in this early stage is the US. Steeper than Italy. Steeper than the UK. So what will our CFR be? I don’t know. Compared to Italy and the UK we have a younger population and we have more hospital beds per capita. But we have much less testing, and we started to isolate infected populations much more slowly. Plus we have a fool in charge. The hope for the US lies in its regional government: here in Washington, for example, Governor Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, have consistently made choices based on both science and human compassion. Will our CFR be as bad as Italy? I don’t think so. Will it be worse than China. Yes, I believe it will.

So what does that mean for what’s coming? Nothing good. Do not expect the world to just go back to normal in six to eight weeks. In fact, when the worst passes—and I think it will take at least a year—we’ll be reemerging from our self-isolation into a new normal.

The new normal?

The US economy is not powered by the megacorps; it’s not powered by the military or the government; it’s not even powered by small business. The US economy is powered by the consumer. When we have nothing to spend, the economy suffers. On Thursday, the White House strongly recommended that states not mention specific unemployment figures. Just say, ‘Increasing numbers,’ or ‘More than usual.’ Don’t give exact numbers because we don’t want to frighten the voters. Those numbers are going to be truly horrendous, worse than anything we’ve ever seen. Steve Mnuchin, at Treasury, warned Congress that the unemployment rate could hit 20%. It could. It could also be worse. But given the swift and extraordinary congressional response—which, amazingly, is doing some of the right things—we might all get through this anyway. But it’ll be pretty chaotic along the way.

To begin with, it won’t fall evenly. Here in Washington, new claims filed for accommodation and food services workers saw a 597.3% increase; educational services, a 569.5% increase; and arts, entertainment and recreation a 255.8% increase. And these are figures from the week that ended a week ago—in other words, about two weeks behind. “This week, every day, the new claims we are receiving are at the level of the peak weeks during the 2008/2009 recession,” Employment Security Department commissioner Suzan LeVine told the Seattle Times. Every single day was worse than peak weeks during the Great Recession. And since then, the situation in Washington has nose-dived. So many people have signed on, or are trying to sign on, for unemployment benefits that the system is failing. Unemployment rates in Washington in 2010, at the height of the Great Recession, hit 10%. The Depression was thought to have reached a peak between 20-25% unemployment (records then were not as accurate). I believe this could be worse—for a while, until the world adjusts its mindset.

Certainly, if this had happened 20 years ago when I was going through my first self-isolation, I wouldn’t be talking about a possible Depression I’d be quite, quite convinced that we were looking at something close to a civilisation-ending event. But so much has changed since then. For one, many of us can work from home; we have more sophisticated delivery systems; we can communicate very handily via various online platforms. In eighteen months, when we have a vaccine and have done all those gold-standard anonymised drug comparison studies and know for sure what works, and have ramped up production of same, it will be safe to fly again. Safe to go on holiday. Safe to eat out, go on a date, go to a convention, to a movie, a play, a reading, an art show, a classroom, a yoga studio, a sports event… But not for at least a year, probably longer. But let’s be optimistic and say a year.

A year. No one knows how to model the economy grinding to a halt for a whole year. If they do, they’re keeping quiet about it—and I can only assume it’s because the answers are unthinkable.

What this means is that the world simply can’t stop for a whole year. We’re going to have to try what they’re trying in China right now: selective and cautious reopening of some industry. Will the virus flare again? Until we have a vaccine, yes. But if it could be kept to small, manageable flares that won’t overwhelm the health system—and if the CFR does in fact prove to be 1.4% or less—then it becomes a trolly problem: individual lives vs. the greater good. I’m glad that’s not a decision within my control.

Everything I’ve said so far is predicated on an effective, affordable vaccine to be widely available within eighteen months. How likely is this? Ten years ago I would have said: Not likely. Now I think it’s entirely possible. Apart from the strides made in a vast numbers of processes that go into vaccine production, over the last fifteen years there have been starts make on vaccines made for other coronaviruses—like the ones that cause MERS and SARS. When those epidemics were contained, the plans for those viruses were shelved. But the SARS virus, in particular, might be a good preliminary candidate. (The virus that causes COVID-19 is called SARS-CoV-2 because it is so genetically similar to the virus that causes SARS.) The world is pouring resources at this problem, and whatever else you want to say about the human race, when we all focus on the same goal, that goal tends to be achieved. So yes, 18 months seems reasonable. And on my ore optimistic days, I think 12-15 months is not impossible. Which mean by summer of 2021 we’ll begin our new normal, whatever it turns out to be.

Zones of Control

But that’s a long way off. So what can we do now? What’s in our control?

My main worry right now—beyond Hey, I might die and People I love might die—is the election. Here in Washington State voting has been postal-only for a while, and you don’t even have to pay for a stamp. For those of you who live in states without postal voting, I’d consider agitating the local Powers That Be to work on that ASAP. Even if everyone committed to it whole-heartedly, and right now, it still might not happen. But if we don’t start right now, it definitely will not. So imagine what no election or a contested election might mean—imagine it for yourself because I don’t have the heart for it right now.

I really want the election to go ahead, and I really want so see all three branches under Democratic control. America has a terrible record of isolationism and xenophobia when it feels threatened (and even when it doesn’t). And COVD-19 is going to be the worst thing that’s hit this continent since white people first brought smallpox and other genocidal infections to these shores, and then turned genocide into policy. A lot of people will retreat to their America First rhetoric—at exactly the time when the human race needs to work together. Pandemics are global problems requiring global cooperation and global solutions. So, yes, let’s make sure we can all vote for a better government.

As individuals, though, there’s also a lot we can do: for ourselves and our immediate family unit, that is, those who live under the same roof; for our slightly wider community, that is, our neighbourhood—the people in the surrounding streets, the small local businesses we used to frequent, the independent contractors we have employed: window cleaners, yard workers, personal tutors, house cleaners, massage therapists, handywo/men; and, of course, for our wider community of friends and family who might live on the other side of the city, state, country, or ocean.

Ourselves and immediate family unit

Here I’m operating under two assumptions:

  1. That it’s smart to adjust your own oxygen mask first. You can’t help others if you don’t first help yourself.
  2. I’ve been reading all the research, everything I can get my hands on. Some of it is preliminary and not yet backed by rigorous testing. It’s based on anecdata—but a lot of it. I’m assuming that most readers are willing to trust to start with but then verify before acting on anything I suggest. This works for me, as I frankly don’t have the time, patience, or inclination to provide references for everything I say here. So I’m assuming you will do your own digging. Search engines are our friend.

Observe stringent hygiene and social distancing behaviour
With those caveats in mind, here’s what I am doing and/or advising my loved ones to do (even though, sadly, many of them just can’t/won’t/don’t believe me, think I’m being extreme, and so refuse to listen). A lot of this stuff is tedious, time-consuming, and might seem to be the product of an obsessive, anal retentive mind. Nonetheless, I believe they will improve your chances of staying safe.

    • Do not let anyone at all into the house. If you absolutely have to—like you have a plumbing emergency—wear a mask; make the visitor wear a mask and use hand sanitiser before they even ring your doorbell; afterwards, glove up and wipe down every single thing they touched with hydrogen peroxide wipes, or spray surfaced they touched with a weak bleach-and-water solution, then wash your hands, then wipe everything down again. (ETA: the CDC guidelines suggest 4 teaspoons of bleach per quart of water. But as a single cupful—half a pint—of solution is enough to clean most surfaces, and as it should really be mixed fresh every day, I’d suggest using one teaspoon and one cup of water. And, having said that, there’s an argument to be made for using a less fierce concentration, because all the bleach, all the time, is frankly not that great for your lungs. The CDC concentration works out to somewhere between 500-800 ppm, and I think there are arguments to be made for 50-200 ppm—one teaspoon per quart. Better yet, consider old-fashioned dishsoap. Soap is amazingly effective against viruses—like SARS-CoV-2—that are enveloped in a lipid membrane. So if you find the stronger solution bothersome, consider the weaker one. But, again, do remember I’m not the expert here; I’ve just been thinking about this a lot, and talking to friends who are medical professionals. Talk to your trusted medical professional and make a decision that’s right for  you.)
    • When you absolutely have to leave the house, double-glove and wear a mask. Here’s a fun New York magazine article that might help you wrap your head around the necessity for both. Ignore all that crap about how masks make no difference; of course they do; it’s just that health care professionals need them more, there’s a shortage, and so word was put about to prevent panic buying. It didn’t work, of course, and now people are confused. Don’t be confused: if you have a mask, wear it. You don’t need an endless supply, because they’re reusable. Ditto gloves. (Here’s a handy diagram of how long SARS-CoV-2 remains viable on various surfaces.) If you’re an organised person, with cubbyholes for various things, empty them, label them with days of the week, and when you come in from some unavoidable outside appointment, put gloves and mask in the cubbyhole labelled with the appropriate day, and don’t touch them again for 48 hours. (ETA: Or just bake them in the oven at 70ºC for 30 minutes. Or steam them for 3 minutes in a rice cooker or other pressure cooker.)
    • Also before you leave the house, moisturise your face. Seriously: you’re much more likely to itch if your skin is dry. If you moisturise, you’re a little less likely to touch your face.
    • When you get deliveries, if they’re non-perishable items, simply don’t touch the boxes for three days; every speck of virus in or on the package will be dead by the time you get to it.
    • If you can’t wait, glove up, wipe everything down, open the box, wipe every item, throw away the wipe, wash hands thoroughly, then wipe down everything you might have touched after gloving up the first time.
    • At all times stay 3 metres/10 feet from anyone who does not share your living space. Yes, most people say 6 feet. And perhaps that’s true if you’re only thinking of breathing in the droplets someone’s coughed out. But I’m thinking stuff landing on your clothes. I’m thinking of runners and cyclists expelling air with greater than usual force. Also, I use a wheelchair: imagine flight trajectories. Farther away is better.
    • Imagine anything anyone has touched is covered in bright red paint. If you brush it with your sleeve, then take your jacket off, it’s now on your hands. Whatever you touch will be contaminated.
    • Carefully consider the kind of sex you have. You don’t just have to worry about kissing: the virus has been isolated from both urine and faeces. No one yet studied other bodily fluids but I’d recommend lots of showers using lots of soap.

Be zealous about your physical health
Much of this stuff comes from my understanding of various metabolic processes that I’ve gained from thinking and reading about MS for twenty years. They make sense to me. Many doctors disagree with my thinking—but not all. So whether or not you follow any of this advice is entirely up to you. I am not a physician; this is not medical advice. If some of this stuff is totally new to you, do consider the possibility of allergies and other contraindications. (Some people, for example, have unpleasant retinal consequences with hydroxychloroquine/Plaquenil at high doses. And those who take meds for type II diabetes should avoid it.)

    • Increase your exercise
    • Stop smoking
    • Reduce alcohol—and stop drinking altogether if you’re infected
    • Consider nutraceuticals to reduce HbA1c, for example purified anthocyanins such as elderberry supplements

If you test positive:

      • take acetaminophen/paracetamol for fever and aches rather than ibuprofen/aspirin/nap
      • do not fry or grill on high heat: oil smoke will irritate the fuck out of your lungs
      • eat foods low in carbs and high in iron
      • stop drinking completely
      • eat your anthocyanins in any way you can (except for the wine, of course)
      • if you happen to have just filled a prescription for hydroxychloroquine, take those pills. There’s a lot of anecdata from China and Italy about this heme polymerase inhibitor reducing illness duration and severity. I’ll stop short of suggesting that everyone else should ask your primary care physician to write you a prescription right now, just in case, because there are in fact populations of people—those with lupus, with rheumatoid arthritis, and, y’know, actual malaria—who really need the drug and whose conditions have been proven to benefit from taking it and who are beginning to find it difficult to fill their prescriptions. But once the supply ramps up, and it will, it’s worth giving it a go. But do, please, remember allergies and other contraindications.
    • Preserve your emotional and psychological well-being
      I’m a writer. I’m disabled. I’ve spent a lot of time with no one but myself for company. The way I stay fairly even-keeled is a mix of structure, self-indulgence, and maintaining contact with the outside world. Staying fit in mind and body is all about self-care. My routine has not changed much in the last 6 weeks, except for three things: no more visits to pubs, coffee shops, and restaurants (sigh); more video chats (yay!); and an hour a day reading and thinking about COVID-19.

      • For me, the most important thing is structure: I go to bed and get up at my usual time. Eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, ditto. Start work at the usual time. Take breaks to play with the cats. Take breaks to feed the cats. Take breaks to rescue the cats and/or rescue household items from the cats (yes, I’ll do another Kitten Report soon). I finish work at roughly the same time every evening, at which point Kelley and I settle down with a glass of wine and discuss our day. Even though we’re both under the same roof 24×7, there’s always a surprising amount to discuss. We try to make sure that this hour is purely about and for us: it’s not a time to make lists or plans, but to just talk, just be sweeties. Then we have dinner, then watch an hour or less of TV. When we go to bed we do not check email, or get on Twitter, or watch our screens.
      • Do things to make yourself happy. For me, this is a mix of good food, good wine, good conversation, physical contact, and being outside under the trees. There’s more, of course, and if you really want to know what matters to me, read the Dozen daily delights. You could do worse than try it out. What makes me unhappy and stressed is hours and hours on Twitter or watching the news. If I need to check out, I read comfort books (see Good books for hard times).
      • Exercise! This is the part I’m currently finding the hardest. I can’t get to the gym, and zooming about at the park is only possible for me when it’s been dry for a while and the paths are (sort of) accessible. I’ve had a basic indoor exercise routine for years, but for various reasons, late last year that began to break down, and I’m just trying to restart it. Like any good habit, it takes much, much longer to set it than to break it—exactly the opposite for bad habits, tuh. But exercise is amazingly important for both your physical and mental health. So, yeah, I’m working on it.
      • Reaching out remotely to family and friends. This is another thing I’m sometimes not very good at. Many of my people are in different time zones, and I make a mental note to call/email/message someone only to remember about it when it’s either too late or too early. Again, this is something I’m working on. But as with exercise, I’m always happier for having done it.
      • Forgive yourself. You will have days when you forget to do something, or just can’t bear to do what you think you should. There will be days when you just don’t want to get out of bed. On those days, give in. Curl up with two bars of chocolate and a pot of tea. Watch crap TV. Weep self-indulgently. Write bad poetry and listen to sad songs. Then get up next day, get outside under the trees, call a friend, do some exercise; you’ll feel better.

      What it all boils down to is self-care. Look after yourself!

      Our immediate community

      This blog post is getting very long, so I’ll make this section short and general rather than specific.

      • Neighbours. Our closest and best neighbour just moved—and I mean two days ago—but this cul-de-sac is pretty tightly knit. We have each others contact info and do reach out to check in and see how others are doing. Email is fine, but at some point consider a group walk around the neighbourhood with dogs and kids—making sure everyone stays the right distance apart. After that, consider Zoom or Google Hangout or FaceTime happy hour: kicking back with a drink and just chatting. Here’s where you’ll find out if someone has extra masks/gloves, hand-sani, toilet roll, milk or whatever, and if someone else needs same. Here’s where you can help each other. I’ve heard of some neighbourhoods in Seattle turning their Little Free Libraries into Little Free Pantries.
      • Local business. Do you have a couple of favourite restaurants? Get food delivered from them (and tip very well—what might in other times be obscenely well), buy gift certificates—for yourself or others—so that when things reopen, the small business might still be there for you to patronise. Do you have a local bookstore that you love? Order books from them online—even audio books; again, buy gift certificates. Ditto hair salons.
      • Contractors and gig workers. Do you usually have yard work? Massage? Someone clean your house? A handywo/man who does odd jobs? Consider sending them money if you can afford it; or buy gift certificates if they offer them.
      • Nonprofits. Arts nonprofits are seriously hurting right now because many have had to cancel their big fundraisers. Send them money. Pet shelters are desperate for foster care for their four-footed charges. If you can, offer to take a couple of cats or dogs for a while.
      • Local medical and retail workers. Hospitals and some medical offices have to stay open. Remember the doctors, nurses, admin workers and technicians are human beings, not miracle workers. Be kind, try to be reasonable when they can’t give you what you want immediately, for example a test, or a prescription for hydroxychloroquine. This is doubly true for people who work in supermarkets and pharmacies: they are overworked, underpaid, and super stressed. They are exposed all the time to people who might be infected and contagious. They are being yelled at by frightened customers who are panicking about their food/toilet roll/chocolate supply. So if you can’t find what you want on the shelf, take a breath. You’ll live—maybe your neighbour has extra. No one will starve. And we never have any idea what another is going through. Do you want to be the arsehole who yelled at a young woman who was doing her best to find you what you need, while at the same times she’s fretting about her two-year-old, about her aged mother, about how she’s going to pay her rent now that her girlfriend’s been fired from her food service job? No, you don’t want to be that person.
      Conclusion

      No one knows where we’re heading or what it’ll be like when we get there. So be kind. Be patient. Be cheerful. Don’t let yourself be ruled by fear. Choose love and compassion. Forgive yourself and others. Stay connected to others. Take your joy where you can. Try to assume good intent. If you feel bad, be kind to yourself. And remember that some people out there will be in a bad way, mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially. If you can spare anything extra—money, kindness, patience, a mask, the benefit of the doubt, a moment to listen—you might brighten one small corner of the world. Do your best to be a fine human being. And we might all get through this.


      *I had a handful of N95 masks left over from the horrible wildfire summer of 2018 so I didn’t need to buy any—we keep two in my car, two in Kelley’s car, and two for the house. [ETA: We’ve now given some away, so now we’re down to the bare minimum, which makes me extremely uncomfortable. But is my comfort worth someone’s life? No.] We also already had a box of nitrile gloves. But I ordered some thin, washable gloves, too.

Good books for hard times

Today some of us are already in in semi-isolation. Soon almost of us will be. So here’s a list of books to immerse yourself because there’s no point stressing over what you can’t control. These are the books I turn to when I’m ill, or tired, or stressed. They are not the latest and greatest; they are not hip and cool. They are comfort reads. I hope they comfort you, too.

The ones at the top of the list are the ones I especially recommend. They’re full of action, set largely outside in natural landscape, and bursting with joy and bravery even when the odds are stacked against the characters. The people in these books always eventually do the right thing, and, importantly, triumph at the end. Some of these I’ve written about before, so have included a paragraph, or notes, from previous thoughts.

Others are funny, or cathartic, or simply reassuring: Yes, there are people like us living in the nooks and crannies of the world; we will survive because we have always survived.

All these books are old favourites, tried and true; read and reread—the key word, though, is old. So I’d love to get suggestions for more recent books. If you have particular favourites that you turn to when in need of comfort and/or escape, please share in the comments. We are going to need all the help we can get in the next three months.

The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart.
A potent and atmospheric entry in the Matter of Britain—Uther, Merlin, Arthur and the fight of Light and civilization vs. Dark and barbarism. It is heady stuff: menhirs looming from the mist, the scent of woad and wet wool, and moonlight gleaming on chased hilts and chainmail as noble warriors gather to stoop down on invaders like wolves from the fold. So far, so Dark Ages. But unusually for the genre, women are not rape toys—in fact they are largely absent, leaving 10-year-old me to imagine myself in the hero’s saddle. And the hero is not a warrior but Merlin. What I really loved about this book, though, is how Stewart immerses us in nature. We feel it, smell it, and hear it; it seeps into our bones and infuses us with a sense of immanence and wild magic…

Master and Commander (Aubrey/Maturin novels), by Patrick O’Brian.
The books about which I currently think, “Now if I could do this I could call myself a writer!” If you intend to read these, please start at the beginning with Master and Commander. I love these books, all 20 volumes. Each is a chapter in a single, flowing narrative. The first 13 are, in my opinion, without parallelThis is Jane Austen on a ship of war, with the humanity, joy and pathos of Shakespeare — and brilliantly written. I have read them perhaps 20 times. I will read them many more.The shining center of these books is the friendship between Jack and Stephen. They are opposites: extroverted, one-of-the-lads Jack and introverted, shrewish Stephen. Jack is a fool on land but brilliant at sea; Stephen is an idiot child at sea, while on land he is a subtle and dangerous spy, natural scientist and polyglot. But they both love music — and, at one point, the same woman, which comes very close to breaking their friendship.

• The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley.
The Blue Sword might be one of McKinley’s first novels but it shows all the trademarks of her later work: that absolute gift for making this imagined time and place feel as real as dirt, for showing people both ordinary and special, and for putting the reader right there in that particular time and place. I admit to flinching a little now at the implied class/caste issues, and the way McKinley doesn’t quite escape the gender event horizon (though it’s an admirable attempt), but for an early novel it’s very fine. It’s a serious story about finding one’s place in the world and learning to belong, issues very much of interest to many of us, of any age. Her later novels such as The Outlaws of Sherwood and Spindle’s End are also very fine.

Hawk of May, by Gillian Bradshaw.
This is delicious Arthurian fantasy which feels totally queer but, well, isn’t. It’s just that the protagonist, Gwalchmai, who is very much Othered, finally finds a place to belong. There are two other books in the series, both worth reading though neither, in my opinion, so glorious as this first one.

Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
This is one of the best novels I know. It’s not perfect. I admit that in the first hundred pages or so the prose wobbles—and occasionally lurches—here and there, enough to make the blue pencil in my head twitch and to make me turn away to allow a decent pause for the prose to collect itself. But it improves, and later passages can be very fine. And, oh dear me, yes, he could have lost quite a few chunks of song. And, no, he doesn’t do women fully—he doesn’t do them horribly, he just doesn’t do them enough—but all writers have their weak spots. His storytelling, however, is without peer. Tolkien’s arcs—for Frodo, and Sam, and Aragorn—are graceful and strong, elegant as Chinese cabinetry: pared down to the essential, perfectly balanced. The result is a story so compelling that, at age eleven, I read the entire book in one two-day marathon. It was also the first novel about which I remember thinking, “Now if I could do this...”

Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault (pen name of Mary Challons).
In my opinion this is her best book. Alexander and Hephaestion’s relationship felt familiar and thrilling. I read this book and thought, “If I could write a book as good as this one day, I’ll know I haven’t wasted my life.” There are two others in the series about Alexander but I didn’t ike them very much.

The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper.
This is the second in a five-book series for children (which is also called The Dark is Rising). The others are okay, but this is the masterpiece. Cooper does a magnificent job of putting us right there. This is another of those novels steeped in the wild magic of landscape.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s first novel, and, in my opinion, her best—unselfconscious, committed, touching, funny, and full of Northern English dykeness, which I’d never seen written about at book-length before. It’s a fictionalised autobiography; if you want to read the raw version, take a look at Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal, her memoir, which is most definitely not a comfort read. You can read my opinion here.

The Watchtower, Elizabeth A. Lynn.
Fantasy, but no magic, unless you call love and aikido magic; I think this book influenced the way I write about bodies in the real world; it certainly paved the way for me to learn aikido a few years later. This is the first in a three-book series but this one is the best.

The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner
Again, fantasy but no magic. And girls with swords who kiss each other. What could be better? Part of Kushner’s Riverside series, but this one stands on its own quite nicely.

Moll Cutpurse, by Ellen Galford.
This is pure fun—lesbian picaresque before Tipping the Velvet. The story of Moll Cutpurse—rogue, dyke, slapstick humourist in the sixteenth century: there’s love, gypsies, theatre, plague, and lots of high jinks—and nicely written throughout.

Patience and Sarah (The Two of Us) by Isabel Miller (pen name of Alma Routsong).
This is a lovely romance between two women set in 19th C. America, full of hardship and love and stubbornness. I wept shamelessly (in a cathartic way) thoughout the last chapter.

(Extra)Ordinary People, by Joanna Russ.
A collection of short science fiction, including what to me is probably the most fun hey-gender-is-a-game story ever, “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman,” which is my favourite piece by Russ: fast-moving, thrilling, and sly. It’s set on a clipper ship sailing from England to the U.S. in the late 19th century, narrated by a—well, I’ll have to say “woman,” because if you follow the textual clues that’s what makes most sense, biologically speaking at least. Though s/he could, just possibly, be an alien. And of course the point of the story is to deconstruct the notion of gender’s pernicious binary, throw out the Either/Or and replace it with Neither/Nor and a sprinkle of Yes/And. The narrator does not identify as gendered at all but, Wittig-like, insists that among their people there are no men and no women: if all refuse gender, there’s no need to perform it. So, It’s about a woman with a young charge—who is definitely a girl, or more precisely a young woman, but in any case most certainly not a lady, oh no—who are traveling as father and daughter. Though, oh dear me, their relationship is not filial. At all. So, It’s about a woman and girl on a transatlantic crossing who use gender performance to stay safe. Not safe from bad men. Safe from the dull-eyed herd, each plodding behind the placid beastie ahead. Our protagonists, you see, are telepaths. And Russ has a tremendously fine time fucking with everyone’s gendered heads as she ratchets up the stakes. So, It’s sharp, witty, genderqueer science fiction. But we are talking about Russ, so that’s not all it is. It’s pulp adventure fiction, with sex and gunplay and gambling, money and reversals and danger. Also a parody of Victorian porn. And, literally, a comedy of manners. Exhilarating stuff.

Sappho—trans. Mary Barnard.
In my early twenties I was reading a lot of novels but writing only lyrics: songs for the band I fronted. When the band faded away, as all bands do, I found I didn’t want to stop writing. So I wrote poetry; I wrote nonfiction. Something began to gather in the back of my brain but I couldn’t access it. Then I found Mary Barnard’s translation of Sappho. Sappho’s bold, vertiginous leaps shocked me awake and open the dam in my head. I wrote 30,000 words of a novel in five days. This, I realised. This is what I will do with my life. But, like Stewart’s, it was Sappho’s language of the the natural world, specifically using that language to talk about the body, that lit something in me. Her lyrics are fresh and astonishing. As Barnard herself says in her footnote, some of her words feel invented in that moment for that line alone. She was writing more than 2,500 years ago, yet her works speaks directly to us even today. So many of what we consider literary clichés were her original imagery: silver moon, rosy-fingered and rosy-armed dawns and moonrise, turning pale, being tongue-tied. She shaped our understanding of what it is to be human.

Asterix the Gaul, by Goscinny and Uderzo—trans. by Anthea Bell.
Bell does a brilliant job of translation (though sometimes I read the French—hey, it’s a comic, it’s not hard). Full of puns and history and the triumph of the small against the mighty. There are many, many volumes in this story and I recommend them all.

Six of One, by Rita Mae Brown
This, I think, is Brown’s best novel—funny (like Florence King, but without the nastiness) and mature, with a plot, and acknowledgement that not all dykes are the same. Rubyfruit Jungle, her first novel, is the ur-coming out story for women, and when I read it I loved it, and laughed until I cried. But my guess is those coming to Rubyfruit Jungle for the first time now might find it a little too familiar, because everyone copied her.

Walk to the End of the World, and Motherlines, by Suzy Mckee Charnas.
Walk to the End of the World commits to an implacable sci-fi logic of post-apocalyptic gender war. It’s not exactly a comfort read for me, but it’s a necessary precursor to Motherlines. So: The world is largely arid and inhospitable, with small isolated populations clinging on here and there. In one region men hate women, and fuck them not for pleasure but to make babies. Women are domesticated animals: bred as both beasts of burden, and food. We follow the story of one pregnant slave, Alldera, and her eventual escape. We have no idea what she’s escaping to, if anything, and if she’s walking into certain death in the desert, it seems like a reasonable choice because Walk to the End of the World makes The Handmaid’s Tale feel like a tidy little bedtime story. Like “Cold Equations,” a story that shocked a generation of science fiction readers with the relentlessness of physics, it does not flinch from its premise. It will give you nightmares, and those nightmares have teeth. But Alldera does escape, to the world of Motherlines, a world of all women who breed their own domestic animal: not fellow humans, but horses. This is a much less terrifying book but it, too, looks right into the face of brutal choices and doesn’t blink. It was the first book I read with no men in it at all, and refutes essentialism effortlessly. For a new writer it is a marvellous introduction to, and almost perfect exemplar of, show-don’t-tell: a master class disguised as feminist legend that never was.

The Exile Waiting and Dreamsnake, by Vonda N. McIntyre.
Her first novel, The Exile Waiting, is what saved science fiction for me, plus it had disabled characters, working class and underclass characters, and lots of women. This and her second novel, Dreamsnake, showed me real SF could have girls in and not be about romance. Beautifully written and full of McIntyre’s trademark compassion for the downtrodden. I could and should say a lot more about these wonderful novels but frankly whenever I try to write about Vonda and her work, I weep. She’s been dead almost a year, and I still miss her too much to talk about her.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler
A time travel book for all those women (and queer folk, and people of colour) who look at their elders and think: I wouldn’t have knuckled under like you did! Why didn’t you fight back?? Butler shows that people in every time often do the best they can in the circumstances—probably better than you or I could—and it’s a miracle they survive, never mind conquer. History is never the inevitable, magisterial story we’ve been told; history is contingent upon circumstance, and the circumstance here is structural oppression. I was fascinated by Butler’s nicely calibrated Othering. Dana suffers; her life as a slave is brutal—but not too brutal. Clearly Butler understood the nature of narrative empathy: put the reader inside your character and the character inside your reader, make them feel what they feel and learn what they learn, but don’t make it too hard, because if you do, the reader will put the book down and walk away, or at least barrier themselves up emotionally. Butler knew you can’t change the world unless you change the reader, and you can’t change the reader unless she stays open to your fiction’s great power of empathy.

Hothead Paisan, by Diane DiMassa.
Okay, I admit I haven’t reread this one for a long time so I don’t know how it holds up. But I remember it as angry, funny, true, frightening, wicked, delicious comic book about a dyke—and her cat, Chicken—who has a caffeine-fuelled rage against the world.

• The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel.
This is an omnibus of the comic strip covering decades of dyke life. If you read it, you’ll end up with a very clear notion of the history of a certain kind of lesbian community in the US and—with slight differences—UK. If you are a dyke contemporary of Bechdel’s, you’ve probably, like me, read it all, strip by strip every week in the queer weeklies, but if you haven’t, you’ll laugh yourselves sick with recognition.

• Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters.
Victorian lesbian pickpockets and con artists trying to outsmart and out-naïve each other, with lots of burning desire and reversals baked in. Enormous fun. Tipping the Velvet, Waters’ first novel, is also worth a read, though for me it works less well because it follows the classic coming-out structure created by Rita Mae Brown and since followed by Lisa Alther and others. So the story arc feels a bit worn. But Fingersmith? Fabulous!

The perfect audio for International Women’s Day

Cover image for audiobook, AMMONITE by Nicola Griffith, read by Gabra Zackman. A planet set in a starry sky, with an image of an ammonite superimposed on the planet, reflecting mountains, cloud, and snow. Title text and narrator name in white, author name in black.

You can self-isolate and celebrate International Women’s Day and feel smug and timely by listening to Ammonite, a novel about a world of women created by a viral pandemic—and the women of Jeep would have had no problem electing Elizabeth Warren president, just saying. Read by Gabra Zackman, who does an awesome job. Listen to a sample here:

Available from these fine retailers:

Libro.fm | Audible | Kobo

COVID-19: Numbers game

Cases pass 101,000 in 97 countries; one economist suggests “we should prepare for a short-term but severe global recession,” and right here in King County we have 11 people dead (which is more than in Beijing) and 58 confirmed cases. Which makes for a King County Case Fatality Rate (CFR) of 18.97%. This is not a useful number. More on that in a bit. Given that Seattle and surrounds are now in the bullseye of this epidemic, County officials have released what seems to me to be very reasonable advice. In terms of prevention, along with the usual sanitation and social-distancing advice, it boils down to:

  • Cancel all events of more than 10 people
  • people 60 and over: stay at home
  • people with underlying health issues: stay at home
  • people who are immunocompromised: stay at home
  • loved one of any of the above? stay at home
  • employers: tell your people to work from home
  • schools: stay open unless you have confirmed cases
  • Everyone: have plenty of the things you’ll need at hand in case you need to self-quarantine for a couple of weeks

Overall takeaway: don’t panic, but do prepare. Here in King County we’re taking this seriously. The University of Washington has closed their campuses and moved classes online. Amazon and Microsoft have told their workforces to stay at home where possible, and to cancel travel. The highways around here are like something from the 70s: open and unjammed. No one here is treating this as a joke or a drill.

So now let’s look a bit more closely at that eyebrow-raising CFR in King County. Has the virus mutated? No. There are two main reasons for it being so high right now:

  1. Genetic tests show that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been circulating here undetected for about a month. In that time only a handful of people have been tested. It’s probable that there are a couple of thousand people right here in Seattle who already have COVID-19, but the only ones coming to our attention are the seriously ill ones. Survival among those seriously affected depends upon swift supportive treatment—so if you don’t know you’re sick, you’re not getting treated in time; you’re more likely to die.
  2. The densest cluster of cases is at a care home for the old and medically fragile: exactly the demographic who are most at risk of fatal consequences.

Let’s look at that last one—age and other factors that have an impact on mortality rates. The following info is sourced here and based on a report in the Chinese Journal of Epidemiology that followed 72,314 confirmed, suspected and asymptomatic cases in China until February 11.

Probability of dying of COVID-19 by age:
80+      14.8%
70-79    8.0%
60-69    3.6%
50-59    1.3%
40-49    0.4%
30-39    0.2%
20-29    0.2%
10-19    0.2%
0-9        no fatalities

Probability of dying of COVID-19 by sex:
male    2.8%
female 1.7%

Probability of dying of COVID-19 by comorbidity:
cardiovascular disease         10.5
Type 2 diabetes                      7.3
chronic respiratory disease   6.3
hypertension                          6.0
cancer                                      5.6
none                                        0.9

So if you’re an old man with a bad heart and lungs, well, you really don’t want to get this thing.

Now let’s look at testing rates per million of population (on March 2) and how that correlates with apparent fatality rates.

Italy,
current CFR = 4.25%
tests per million: 386

South Korea
current CFR = 0.65%
tests per million: 2,138

If you look at those numbers it seems if you get the virus in Italy you’re seven times more likely to die that if you get it in South Korea. But South Korea, with their free, drive-through testing stations are catching a much more representative sample of those infected. Their data is better. If they have better data, does this mean the mortality rate for COVID-19 is lower than we thought? No. It means many people in South Korea are in the early stages of infection. Expect that number to go up. But it might not go as high as we fear because the earlier you catch this illness and offer supportive treatment, the less likely the patient is to die—assuming you have enough hospital beds and enough equipment like ventilators.

Which is where I get to the depressing stuff. Countries like the UK have been doing a brilliant job of testing—but the NHS is already operating at capacity andm in some cases, over-capacity. The UK has an extremely low beds-per-population ratio, and their ICUs are operating at over 20% beyond recommended rates. A sudden influx of cases will break the system; people will die. There will be triage.

And here in the US, as of March 1, the number of tests performed per million was…1. Yes, one. One test for every million residents. So how many people in the early stages do you think we’re catching? And how many people are not coming forward because they can’t afford to see a doctor? And how many are still going into work because they have no paid time off? Many peoiple in this  country believe they live in with the best healthcare in the world. And this could be true for those individuals who have money. But a pandemic is all about public health, and at the federal level this country’s health system is pitiful.

All I can say is, I am grateful for Washington State, for King County, and for the University of Washington. They declared a state of emergency, ignored the FHA, and started in-state testing. UW Virology came up with its own test and has the capacity to do 1,000 tests a day, and to ramp up that number very fast. Legislators are working on making sure there’s no out of pocket expense for testing. Yes, right now the apparent CFR is hair-raising, but because of our fine local systems, expect that number to not just fall but plummet in the next week or two. In this kind of event, I’m very very glad to be living in this city, in this county, in this state.

  • Note 3.07.20, 13.06 -8 UTC: I corrected the King County numbers to reflect end-of-day Friday info. Those numbers are now worse: 15 dead and 71 confirmed cases, for a new CFR of 21.12%

COVID-19: Now what?

US cases have now hit 99, with 6 dead and at least 7 more in serious/critical condition. The deaths occurred in Washington state, 5 of them right here in King County. Washington State is currently treating 21 patients; Seattle and surrounds are a new epicentre of disease. Virus isolated from a recent US case, a person infected via unknown transmission, is genetically identical to the strain brought to the US by the first diagnosed case, right here. In other words, cryptic transmission has been occurring in the Puget Sound region for six weeks. A relatively conservative guess might mean over 1,000 people right here in Seattle already have the virus.

If you’re young and/or healthy, the odds are you’ll be fine; your risk of death is low—ten or twenty times higher than with seasonal flu, sure, but still low. I am a high-risk subject. I have now moved in abundance-of-caution mode.

Here’s how I’ll be managing, at least for the next couple of weeks and/or until we get a clearer understanding of the situation.

  • No mass gatherings. I have just cancelled an appearance at the King County Library System’s Literary Lions Gala on Saturday because they expect at least 750 guests. Most of these people will be well-heeled, well-travelled folk; I would bet a reasonable sum several will have been exposed to the virus, and possibly infected—and therefore contagious. Also, I have a nagging cough—probably just allergies (it happens every year) but I can’t imagine guests at my table feeling comfortable in the presence of a hacking, spluttering person right now.
  • If I do go out, it’ll be for unavoidable legal and/or medical appointments. I’ll wear gloves but not a mask. I will not touch doorknobs. I will wipe down hard surfaces such as table tops and chair arms with wipes containing bleach, hydrogen peroxide, or alcohol. I’ll sanitise my hands with gel containing at least 60% alcohol.
  • Anytime I leave the house I’ll wear gloves, blue ones preferably, so I can’t help seeing them and being reminded not to touch my face. (We all do it, all the time, mostly without noticing.)
  • No hugging, no kissing. Fist or elbow bumps, and lots of hand-washing and hand sanitising. And no leaning in too close to someone.
  • Keep hand sanitiser on the table just inside the front door. Anyone who enters our house sanitises their hands immediately. No excuses, not, “Just let me put this down first,” or “I just washed my hands,” but immediately. No sanitisation, no visit. Actually, now I come to think of it, we need to get a table on the porch so people can sanitise their hands before they even ring the doorbell.
  • No touching without gloves of hard smooth objects brought to the house: cans, bottles, Tupperware, shiny books, etc. Wearing gloves, wipe the container with bleach solution, hydrogen peroxide or alcohol. Wipe gloves. Throw away gloves. Wash hands.
  • We already have masks, gloves, wipes, and gel in the house so next on the buying agenda is dry goods. It’s entirely possible there will be some kind of community isolation procedures to follow. This isn’t apocalypse prepping, it’s just sensible precautions: the less I have to venture out, the lower my exposure will be.
  • Not order pizza, even when exhausted. Fast food workers have a terrible hygiene record, not because they’re bad people but because they’re poorly paid with zero job security. They can’t afford to go the doctor, and they can’t afford time off. A lot of them will get sick, and work while they’re sick.

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Do I really think these precautions are necessary? Yes, I do.

  • Since my last update 10 days ago, the number of deaths outside China has jumped from 17 to 174 and the total number of case from under 2,000 to more than 10,000.
  • The official number of cases here in Washington State is 21 but I suspect the true number approaches 1500.
  • The virus has been isolated in urine and faeces; we don’t know for sure but it’s likely human waste can be a route of transmission.
  • There been some discussion of the possibility of the virus being biphasic—like Ebola. You get infected, you get better, you test as negative and are released into the wild…and some time later you’re back, with new symptoms, and testing positive. At this stage, Ebola patients are infectious again. With COVID-19? Who knows.
  • Beneficial immunity, if any, will, even in the most severe cases—and therefore strongest immune response—will be temporary because that’s how coronaviruses work. Best case scenario? Almost a year, like MERS. Pessimistically, less than 6 weeks, like a common cold.
  • Governor Jay Inslee has declared a state of emergency. King County is buying a motel to isolate cases. And various individual schools and school districts here in Western Washington are closing.
  • Right now, in Italy, a western European country whose doctors and equipment are as good as those here in the US, the case fatality rate is 2%, and 49% of their active cases are hospitalised. 9% of their cases are in the ICU. This is not flu.

These are not high drama precautions; they’re just sensible. We don’t expect to get T-boned every time we drive through an intersection, but we fasten our seatbelts and we look both ways. That’s all this is: common sense.

So, yes, I’m hunkering down. I expect I’ll get a lot of work done.