Non-dystopian Pandemic Response


Depressed by a world in which even our successes are often failures, I decided to write a series of short fictional pieces about a less dystopian response to the pandemic. It could be done. Writing these did not make me feel better, but they may give you useful ideas.

"So, you're an EMT?" the man asked as Maria took his temperature with the forehead thermometer.

"Uh, no. I normally work in catering, setting up and serving."

"Catering? Does that give you special experience with thermometers or something?"

"Well, the Health Department would like to think so, but mostly it's that catering is basically shut down for now."

"Can't you stay home and get the pay?"

Maria nodded, and thought for a moment. "I could," she replied, "but I'd rather be out helping people. This pays a little, plus life insurance, but I know my catering job will be there when parties finally happen again, so this seems like a better way to spend the time."

"Santa Claus with a thermometer?"

"Pretty much! Though I don't think you were exactly happy to see me."

"I don't want to get sick, and will miss going out for a while, but you brought me some nice things. Reassured me I can go back to work when this sorts out. That's better than it could be."

"Sorry it's not quite Christmas, but the entertainment package in these things is pretty sweet. I'm not sure there will ever be a one-stop shop for any movie, music, or book you want, for free, ever again. So... enjoy the two weeks?"

"Why don't they send us a real nurse? Or an EMT?"

"Because you're not sick, at least not yet. If you get sick, people who know how to deal with the sick will come see you. Unless that happens, you get someone like me - a caterer with forty hours of training on how to take care of the potentially sick."

"In that get-up, I thought you'd be someone more important."

"Sorry to disappoint you. Four hours of the training was about the get-up. But... here."

"What are these?"

"Coupons, for free contactless delivery service."

"For food?"

"Most people use them for food, but you can use them for anything from a store offering the service. A lot of people use them for books, and I knew a guy who used one to order bathroom tile...."

"Tile? Why do you look concerned? Did something go wrong with the delivery."

"Sorry. The delivery was fine, but it didn't work out so well. He, uh, got sick in the middle of the project."

"Oh. I'll be careful."

"School's closing next week."

"I heard. Are we okay?"

"We have some choices," said Maria. "Because of my job, childcare will be available immediately."

"What will that look like?"

"Well, kids, social distance... what could go wrong? But basically they're rearranging the care centers and parts of the schools to work with a quarter of the usual kids, in masks and then looking for new spaces where they can expand this to take more. Right now, I suspect everything possible will be outside, but that'll get harder as winter starts."

"They're not going to attempt to teach the kids?"

"The childcare folks aren't - they've got more than enough to do with supervision, food, testing, and endless hygiene. Teachers will be home or sometimes in the recording studios they're building."

"They're forming bands at a time like this?"

"All solo acts. The studios give them a place to record material for classes that's quiet, has support staff, and some kind of crazy ventilation. Everyone gets their own microphone."

"So when do the kids learn?"

"They're going to have some kind of welcome in the morning at the center, and then an online welcome with their usual teachers. The childcare folks provide structure and breaks, and the teachers and textbooks and supporting video provide the course content."

"Huh. Do you think that'll work?"

"Not as well as being in classes, but it's the best I can think of. It also lets the kids stuck in quarantine or staying at home get the same material at least."

"Okay. So you said something about choices?"

Maria paused. "We can send Daniel and Luisa to childcare, you can watch them here while you work, or I can quit the quarantine job to be here with you all."

"Do you want to quit?"

"No, and I don't have to. Let's go with the childcare option."

"We've got you covered."

"Are you sure? My boss will be so pissed. I can work remotely, but we're moving the office this week. Sewage is stopping me? Really?"

"Yes, it is, but for that kind of thing, we've got you covered. Here's a card with a case number and key number. Either you or your boss can call and the Agency can provide someone to cover for you on that."

"Okay... I was also supposed to help my brother move house this weekend

"Hmmm... that's harder. It's not a paying position?"

"He's my brother, so no. Maybe?"

"I have some discretion. Was it one day of moving or two?"

"I don't know."

"Here. This is a different card, with your case number, a different key, and a file number. We should be able to get someone there to help. We'll pay them - your brother doesn't have to. Up to two days."

"Wait. You're telling me that someone in this huge building who I don't even know has the virus, so I have to quarantine and get tested?"

Maria waited a moment.

"Yes. The sewage test came back positive. It might be just someone, or it might be a lot of people. We don't know."

"When can I get tested, then? And how quickly can I get out of quarantine?"

"The testing station is in the lobby today and tomorrow, but you should call for an appointment. We're trying to avoid having everyone show up at once. If your test is negative, you have to wait two days, and then you can go out again, unless there are more than 15 cases here. If there are more than that, it's two weeks after a second test."


"We try to at least make it comfortable. Joshua will bring up your supplies and free connection in a bit, and we'll have people dedicated to this building in the lobby, 24 hours a day while there's still quarantine here."

"Helping us out or keeping us in?"

Maria smiled. "Both."

Joshua knocked on the heavy steel door.

"Wellness check!"

He waited, then knocked again.

"Wellness check!"

Maria shook her head and called the super to open the door.

"I hope he left his extra locks open," she said, reading the notes on her phone. "He replied yesterday, and watched movies last night until 2, but there's been no activity for 11 hours. Had a negative test two days ago."

They checked each other's suits while they waited. All the seals were intact, and the fabric looked fine.

The masked super arrived, pulled up his keys, and unlocked the door. He pushed to make sure it would open, and it caught for a second. He pushed harder and it opened, and the super fled down the hall.

Joshua knocked. "Wellness check!"

They moved into the silence. An empty wineglass on the table sat on the kitchen table.

"Let's hope it's just that," said Maria.

"Wellness check!" called out Joshua again, turning on a light.

Maria walked toward a closed door off the livingroom, opened it, and peered in. Joshua heard snoring, and repeated, "wellness check!"

The man stirred, looked up, and cowered from the strangely suited figures.

"We're just here to..."

"I... feel awful," he finally said, remembering why they were there. "Achy, awful dreams, fever..."

"We'll get you help," said Maria. "We're not doctors, but we can get you looked at. Go back to bed for now."

They retreated from the room. Joshua turned to his phone.

"Could we get an investigating nurse up to 1132, please? We have a resident with aches and fever."

"We have a problem in the middle of our watch list. I don't know if people are afraid to ask for help, don't want to impose, or get hit too quickly by symptoms, but we have people suffering and dying at home. It keeps happening. We need to do a better job of providing them care in place."

"Do we need more investigative nurses?"

"We need a step between the investigative nurses and the check-ins, and hospital care. Handing out pulse oximeters has helped people monitor their own oxygen levels, but we need a way to have people on the scene and actively helping. Not just annoying people - a lot of people stop responding to our online check-ins after about three of them."

"Home health care is a lot harder now. The people who used to do it are super-busy, if they can practice at all."

"Is it time to set up field hospitals, and bring people there? That way we could at least centralize staffing and protective gear."

"Maybe. We're starting some of that anyway, but this would triple or quadruple the number of beds we need there."

"What level of monitoring are we looking for? Is it something we can do remotely, like more wristbands, or is it someone really on the scene observing and helping?"

"It... crosses those boundaries. We don't need to have people on the scene until we do, but we don't know when that will be, even with the passive monitoring systems we're handing out."

"How much training do the people on the scene need to have?"

"That also, probably, crosses boundaries. Definitely more than our quarantine monitors, more like our investigative nurses, but with more emphasis on patient care."

"You need this now?"

"Basically we need this two weeks ago."

"We're still in.... oh, come in."

Joshua wheeled the dolly into the apartment, and Maria followed.

"We don't need as much now - there are only three of us left."

"That's.... it's not entirely why we're here. We're sorry for your loss, Barbara, and sorry to show up right now, especially in these suits, but we have some questions."

"He died in the hospital. He never liked hospitals. We were supposed to be at the beach this week."

"I'm sorry."

They all sat down. Two girls poked their heads out of a doorway and ran to their mother.

"Why did you make her cry again? Why!"

Maria and Joshua slumped.

"We weren't trying," said Maria. "We just have to discuss some difficult things."

She handed a folder of forms to the sobbing mother.

"When you have time and energy, sometime in the next three days, we need to know what to do next. We'll leave you for now?"

They started to get up, when the woman shouted "he always wanted a wake! All of our friends together, drink and spirits flowing. And now... how?"

Maria turned back. "We can't do that now, unless everyone's already in quarantine together, and that's probably not going to work. A few people have... well, in cases where it was okay with everyone, had their loved ones cremated, and held on to the urn so they could have a wake or ceremony with friends later, when it's safe."

"We just don't know when," added Joshua quickly.

Barbara nodded, and waved for them to come back. The girls stayed beside her.

"We talked about a wake with visiting hours, but I don't think the visiting hours part is possible."

"Not... soon," replied Maria. "And we can't really, well, keep him."

Barbara thought for a moment and looked over the papers. "I think it will have to be cremation. I'll fill these out tonight?"

Maria nodded. "That would be great. Remember, none of this is on you. We have it covered. There are also pieces in there about an obituary, which we'll get published and make available online. We have a few options for online gatherings there, and options for later in-person gatherings. Again, on us."

"Tomorrow?" asked Joshua.

"Tomorrow," said Barbara.

Maria and Joshua nodded, and got up to leave. They were about to make another farewell, but the quiet crying and the voices of the girls comforting their mother suggested that they should just go.

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This page contains a single entry by Simon St.Laurent published on February 29, 2020 8:28 AM.

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