Alaska in the pandemic spring

To grab some much-needed fresh spring air, I walked solo for several miles through a less-traveled patch of woods in Campbell Tract. The sun felt good as I meandered in 26 degrees, clad in heavy-duty ice cleats fastened to Asolo boots, a long jacket, gloves and a big, warm hat.

I shared the trail on an early April day with one runner who sped by me in shorts and a T-shirt — no hat. We exchanged a brief, socially-distanced smile, he running blissfully, as if it were a June morning, and me, looking like I was trekking to Coldfoot.

During break-up, year after year, the calendar says “spring,” but sometimes, it has to be willed into existence. City parking lots are still bordered with snow berms. Backyards are slowly melting into slush pools. Migrating raptors — red-tailed hawks (Harlan’s hawks, in particular), northern harriers, golden eagles — aren’t yet here in big numbers.

There are no daffodil clusters reaching skyward. We have to settle for the joys of seeing asphalt again.

On all these fronts, it’s a normal spring.

Except, of course, it isn’t. COVID-19 makes this spring like none other of our lifetimes.

We can’t sanitize the truth about what’s been happening. The global economy is being decimated. The travel industry and service sectors, devastated. Small businesses everywhere, shuttered.

COVID-19 demonstrates how deluded we’ve been about the real capacity of our health care system to react quickly and equitably in a time of a national health emergency. The system’s underlying structure and medical supply chains are wobbling badly, in need of serious attention from everyone.

As America’s economy further unravels, the extreme financial insecurity and emotional stress hits close to home.

My single nephew, age 30, works full-time in the catering department at a Sheraton Hotel on a Florida beach. As an hourly worker, he’s been furloughed indefinitely without wages or tips. His savings will tide him over for three months, tops.

After losing part of one lung to cancer, my divorced and partner-less sister is classified as very high-risk. She started a new job at a small property and casualty insurance company in Louisville, Kentucky only a few months ago. Like millions, she’s switched to working alone from home, something she’s not done before.

But when I check in with her, she tells me how difficult of an adjustment it’s been to not go anywhere except the grocery store. Without easy access to wide, open spaces, parks, squares, or greenbelts without crowds, she’s feeling imprisoned in her one-bedroom apartment.

COVID-19 is teaching hard lessons about the body politic. The virus has exposed how other existing pre-conditions — those of a political and social nature — have also caused unnecessary delays, hardships, fears and deaths from the pandemic’s outset.

As for White House leadership, President Donald Trump is far from meeting any gold standard. Disinformation tactics and partisan politics circumvented the ability to develop and implement a well-thought-out national plan. Throwing presidential tantrums in front of hardworking journalists at press conferences didn’t put a frightened and confused citizenry at ease.

Lately, and thankfully, the White House has deployed a more solemn tone. But is anybody really turning to the non-medical team at the White House for facts and consolation?

Now is the time to remind yourself why you live in Alaska, and how much we have to be grateful for as we fight the COVID-19 war.

We have top-notch public servants, teachers, doctors, nurses, health care workers and other essential personnel — in the post offices, at the airport, in Prudhoe Bay, and in Fred Meyers, Walmart and Carrs, unpacking romaine lettuce and asparagus every day — who are doing their jobs well and beyond the call of duty.

The majority of us are not locked-down in poor public housing projects or in high-rises without balconies in densely-packed cities. We have places to go outside while maintaining recommended physical separation. People are able to walk their dogs, push baby strollers, and ride fat-tire bikes on the snow-covered Tony Knowles Coastal Trail or on neighborhood back streets not explored before.

We can even choose to disappear into the still-winter wilderness, if so inclined.

Our go-go-go lifestyles have been greatly curtailed, or maybe altered forever in ways it’s impossible to speculate about. We may be shaken up for a good long while and unable to travel, except to drive (or use a snowmachine) to the next closest town — without ever getting out of the car.

We’ve learned to disinfect with abandon. Entrepreneurial creativity has been unleashed with virtual offerings of yoga, gardening seminars and free online concerts. Arts organizations like the Anchorage Symphony and the museum present an array of online lectures, musical offerings and podcast programming — not for escape, but to remain human.

For some important historical perspective, the 1918 flu pandemic was highly lethal. The contagion arrived in Seattle two months before the end of World War I.

Dr. Beverly Beeton, historian and author, has studied the 1918 influenza.

“The virus came north to Alaska via steamship around mid-October 1918,” she said.

In her many public lectures, Beeton (former UAA Provost) points out there were no tests, no medications and no effective vaccines for the 1918 flu.

Medical help in the U.S. was in short supply because many doctors and nurses had gone to support the war effort in Europe. “Nurses or other caretakers could wipe your brow and butt, and keep you warm and comfortable, but that’s about all they could do for the sick,” Beeton said.

The largest age group affected was 19- to 40-year-olds. In those years, a person aged 50 was considered an “old” person.

When the flu was transmitted to Alaska, it decimated Native villages such as Brevig, 60 miles north of Nome, where 72 out of 80 people died in a week. In a grim historical fact, the territorial government paid gold miners to blast through the permafrost to dig communal graves, according to Beeton.

In one gut-wrenching moment after another, Native children were abruptly orphaned. For survival, and out of deep compassion, new family units were formed and blended to take in the orphans, and to take care for one another. Still, large numbers of Native children ended up in orphanages.

Alaska had fairly sophisticated communications back in those days. Most got next-day news reports, thanks to the telegraph system, Beeton said.

“Alaskans were informed about what was happening in London, New York and Washington, D.C. through excellent community newspapers with editors who thought well, wrote well, and talked well.” Many Alaska newspapers around 1918 were one man/woman bands where the sole proprietor did it all — edit and report, maybe with someone who set type and printed.

Americans are figuring out how to best sanely manage our drastically changed home, work and social lives. We feel the special responsibility and need to keep children of all ages safe, happy and tenderly cared for.

How psychologically scarred will we become if COVID-19 rages on? In the aftermath of the human wreckage, will there be any permanent shifts in perspective about what it means to be a just and caring society? In the Land of Plenty, we have more who are vulnerable than we have honestly acknowledged. Will free enterprise help solve the direst problems? Does more “intentional living” mean less conspicuous consumption, more self-reliance, more do-it-yourself projects?

This week, I came across a post from a psychologist who provided a list of 25 mental health tips for sheltering-at-home:

Some of the commonsense recommendations included: stay hydrated and eat nutritious meals; notice the good in the world; find an expressive art; find construction and meaning in destruction; and find lightness and humor in each day.

The suggestion to use humor is a good one. In my all-too-quiet hermitage by the parkway, I’m trying — laughing out loud, alone and frequently, with my morning coffee.

No doubt, this is a strange, surreal April. Over the next few stressful weeks, it’s a good time for introspection. To reflect on this far-flung state we call home.

Though spring season arrives much later than in the Lower 48, the northern landscape will soon be superabundantly alive, bursting with millions of shorebirds, pairs of migrating trumpeter swans, and more salmon-hungry bears than in any other part of the world. In Anchorage’s Government Hill neighborhood, a profusion of old lilac shrubs will once again bloom. Their intoxicating fragrance will be so sweet and strong, you can catch a whiff of lilac scent simply by driving through the neighborhood with your car windows open. Unless the moose get to them first.

From Utqiagvik to Ketchikan, we can possibly reduce our COVID-19 anxiety by recalling that Alaska has always held tremendous healing powers. Though hard to articulate, we know this to be true. As a beauty-making place, its spiritual assets are beyond measure.

No matter what season, Alaska’s land and all its living things, visible and non-visible, provide rare moments of serenity in this mad world.

At a time when people are desperate for a robin’s tweet, we are privileged to be cloistered here, together.

Kathleen Tarr, a longtime Alaskan, is the author of “We Are All Poets Here.” She is a frequent contributor to the Anchorage Daily News and serves on the board of the Alaska Humanities Forum.

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