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Living Like a Refugee in the Age of Coronavirus
By Leah Mueller
Americans are notoriously stupid, especially when it comes to health care.
When I’m feeling charitable, I chalk it up to the US being such a young country. A mere adolescent, puffing up our chest to look tough. We’re younger than the European countries, and less sophisticated. So we’ll need at least two hundred more years to catch up.
But lately I haven’t felt charitable. I can’t remember when I last gave the US credit for anything. Probably during the 90s. Seattle was a boom town even then. It made sense to aspire to the middle-class, especially since my kids were young. I owned a small house on the north end of Tacoma, had two cars, planted rows of flowers in the front yard. 90s photos show me tanned, wearing a sundress, sitting on the floor beside my children amidst a pile of birthday presents.
To look at us, you’d swear we were doing pretty well. This was an illusion, as I had recently returned to college and was busy racking up tens of thousands in student loan debt. I didn’t have health care, but my kids did, thanks to the largesse of the state of Washington. I finally graduated, at age 41, with an ever-increasing mountain of debt. Somehow, my family remained physically healthy—which, in retrospect, seems like a miracle.
Now my son is 30, the age I was when I gave birth to him. He and his wife live in the UK. Despite Brexit, the two of them have access to excellent single payer health care, paid sick leave from their jobs, and other benefits. Once they decide to have children, my daughter-in-law will be granted six months leave from her job, with full pay, thanks to the British government. If she wants six more months, she can take them and receive 50 percent of her usual salary.
My 24-year-old daughter lives in Portland, attends community college, and works at a day care center. She receives no benefits, makes too much money to qualify for subsidized health care, and has to buy her own insurance.
At least, this was her precarious situation until the Covid-19 crisis hit the planet. She’ll be released from her job on March 25, with no social safety net whatsoever. The day care center will close, perhaps forever. She hopes her landlord will give everyone a break and allow her to float in place for a few months without paying rent.
My daughter pays her own tuition to avoid being stuck with student loans. I worry a lot about her, since she has emotional health issues. Her boyfriend is a sweetheart and gives her support. A working social saftey net would be even more reassuring, but we can’t have nice things in America.
If I really was the normal, middle-class parent I appeared to be in those 90s photos, I’d be able to help her more. But my husband Russ and I have troubles of our own. After years of living without adequate health care, he was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer. We recently sold our sole investment, a small vacation condo near the Canadian border. Good thing the sale closed two weeks ago. If the place was still on the market now, we’d be sunk. No one buys property when the economy suddenly plunges into a tailspin.
As the coronavirus hit, we bought a small pink house in Bisbee, Arizona, paid off the outstanding balance on our 5-year-old Toyota, and made plans for our southern exodus. Meanwhile, the news kept getting worse and worse. Washington state, the epicenter of the pandemic, continues to rack up scores of new infectious cases every day. I can’t keep up with them anymore.
As I sit at my desk in my soon-to-be ex-domicile, surrounded by boxes, I feel overwhelmed by helplessness and anxiety. My throat hurts a little, but it could be dust or allergies. My eyes water, but I don’t dare touch them. Every couple of hours, I take my temperature, but it’s normal. Thank God for small favors, right? Or whoever. I doubt if a deity has anything to do with this bullshit.
In two days, my husband and I will hit the road in our Toyota. A hired moving van will haul our cardboard boxes, my beloved desk and chair, and our few remaining pieces of furniture to Arizona. Since I’m not Neil Cassady, my husband and I must stay in a few motels along the route.
Normally, the prospect would fill me with anticipation, not dread. But these are plague days. We will breathe air that belonged to someone else the night before. We’ll need to touch countless doorknobs, faucet handles and light switches. These seemingly innocuous surfaces are breeding grounds for germs, and possible infection.
Still, armed with a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a dimming faith in my invincibility, Russ and I will put the Pacific Northwest behind us and move to a county that has only one reported coronavirus case. We sure as hell don’t want to be the folks who bring Covid-19 to Bisbee from Washington state. Of course, we’d prefer not to have the disease ourselves. Especially my husband, with his compromised immune system.
Last week, we tried to get tested for the virus. Russ and I both filled out an online form that asked if we had coughs or fevers. Perhaps we should have lied, so we could have scored a place in the long drive-through line in front of the Tacoma Dome. But we told the truth, and the form said we didn’t qualify for a test. Go away, the Wizard will not see you today. Bring him the witch’s broom, and maybe he’ll relent.
Meanwhile, the Democrat and Republican overlords duke it out and try to decide what sort of scraps they’ll deign to toss our way. They can’t reach an agreement, but that’s nothing new. Restaurants are closed for sit-down business, while folks pressure Inslee to issue a shelter-in-place order. Those Amazon computer professionals will need to hunker down in their $2,000 a month apodments. No more avocado toast or craft cocktails. What will they do all day? It won’t be pretty.
The working class will suffer even more, as usual. They’re the folks on the frontlines, breathing everyone’s bacteria. The ones ringing up grocery orders, pulling pallets of toilet paper from semis and setting them down in front of customers who fall upon the contents like starving jackals. Someone should thank these warriors for their service. I always do, whenever I screw up my courage and enter a grocery store.
Anyway, it’s late, and I have to get up early tomorrow morning. 48 hours until I can get the hell out of Dodge. This is what it means to be a 61-year-old woman in America. Heaven help us all. How could our luck have gotten so bad?
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