An experiment in alternate history

Play along with me here: picture this “alternate history” and describe, if you can, where you and the country would be today….

Recall that throughout the summer and early fall of 2020, President Donald Trump reminded voters that he was pushing for a vaccine to fight COVID-19, that American companies were working overtime to create and test this vaccine, and that it would be available before the end of the year—if possible, even by election day. This is not alternate history—President Trump repeatedly said such things during the campaign.

But imagine, now, that when the voters were counted, President Trump defeated Candidate Biden and won reelection. Complaints and challenges come, of course, from Biden’s supporters. Allegations are raised that, in half a dozen states, ballots were set aside as irregular and suspicious and were not counted. Voices call for investigations, and many Democrats refuse to concede the election (including Candidate Biden himself). But the election results are certified. On January 20, 2021, Donald Trump takes the oath of office and begins his second term.

Imagine now that the vaccine is distributed in exactly the same way as it was in our real history. The number of bad reactions to the vaccine is identical. The course of the disease and its variant strains is identical. But President Trump continues to claim credit for production of the vaccine, and many people even refer to it as “the Trump vaccine.”

Many Americans take the vaccine, just as they did with Biden in the White House. Many Americans refuse the vaccine, just as they did with Biden in the White House. Many Americans hope for victory over COVID through the Trump vaccine; many Americans warn of the risk of an insufficiently tested medication mass produced and grumble about the connection of big government with big business—in this case, the pharmaceutical industry.

Does America’s mass media report the news about the vaccine in the same way? If it is “Trump’s vaccine,” do they continue to minimize and ignore bad reactions to the vaccine. If it is “Trump’s vaccine,” do they still minimize and ignore the medical professionals who speak words of caution about the vaccine. As new strains of the virus appear, and as vaccinated people still get sick, does America’s mass media continue to support the vaccine? Does it continue to blame the unvaccinated people for preventing victory over the virus through production and distribution of the vaccine?

Do “blue states” still have higher vaccination rates than “red states,” or do red state citizens enthusiastically receive Trump’s vaccine? If some Biden supporters remain openly reluctant to receive Trump’s vaccine, are they accused of opposing science and of being selfish, hating their neighbors, and otherwise being terrible people? Do Facebook and Google go out of their way to support Trump’s vaccine and to undermine opinions, reports, and other information that questions Trump’s vaccine? Is the appearance of new virus strains still a reason to get the vaccine, or do the new strains become evidence for the mass media that “Trump’s vaccine” has failed to protect Americans?

What about you? If Donald Trump was still President, if he was claiming responsibility for getting the vaccine developed and distributed, if he was urging all Americans to be vaccinated against COVID, would your feelings about the vaccine be different? Would you be more likely or less likely to receive the vaccine if it were Trump’s vaccine?

Would politicians and the mass media continue to claim that 97 % of the people hospitalized for COVID did not receive the vaccine, or would they question the accuracy of that statistic if President Trump repeated it? Maybe, given Trump’s use of that statistic, people would question its reliability. Maybe they would want to know who determined that statistic and what measurements they used. Does it refer to people in the hospital today, or on some other day? Who asked the patients about their vaccination status? Why hasn’t the statistic been updated since it was first quoted? Could it be that it includes all people hospitalized for COVID since the disease was first recognized, including the many who were hospitalized before the vaccine was available?

I know these are a lot of questions. But I have changed only one fact, putting Donald Trump back in the White House instead of Joe Biden. How many news facts and scientific determinations are revised by that one political change? Tell me what you think. J.

Highway Blues

Trooper Erick Sweetwater saw the young woman sitting at the side of the road, right where the callers had said she was seen. She was staring away from the road, at the expanse of juniper bushes and mesquite and red clay and sand that stretched several miles to the horizon. He pulled his car onto the gravel shoulder and stopped. Leaving the motor running (so the air conditioner would keep the car cool), he opened the door, stepped out, and closed it again. The young woman did not look at him—she continued to stare ahead of her.

Esme felt the hot sun baking her short black hair and her bare arms. Never before had she been left by a truck driver on the road between stops. Never before had she needed to be rescued by a police officer. This was her third summer traveling around the county, and up to now things had gone well. A mixture of anger, embarrassment, and anxiety enveloped her, preventing her from looking up at the trooper as he approached.

Trooper Sweetwater walked carefully toward the young woman, his boots crunching the gravel. He sensed her discomfort. He could see that she was physically unharmed, but he knew that no one chose to sit at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere on a hot July afternoon. The situation required him to be calm, cool, and professional. “May I help you, Ma’am?” were his first words, as his eyes took in her gray backpack, her thin red blanket rolled into a bundle, her white t-shirt, her jeans, and her sandals.

“I suppose so,” she mumbled dimly. “I guess I’ll need a ride back to the Mart.” The Mart was on the north side of town, twenty miles down the road. It consisted of a gas station, two fast food restaurants, and a convenience store; a small motel stood next door. The Mart was a convenient stop for drivers of every kind of vehicle, the last stop of its kind for more than fifty miles along the highway.

“I’ll be happy to take you there,” Trooper Sweetwater assured her, “but first I’ll have to see some identification,” he added apologetically. Sighing, Esme stood and pulled a driver’s license from the pocket of her jeans. “Esmerelda A. Nye,” Erick read silently from the license. He noted her address and hometown and her birthdate, and he glanced between the license and its owner to verify that the photograph matched her face. Still holding the license, he pulled out his notebook and a pen. “What brings you out here to the middle of nowhere?” he inquired curiously.

Esme sighed. Hitchhiking was not illegal, but it was strongly discouraged. Her form of hitchhiking did not involve thumbing for a ride next to the road. Instead, she met drivers—mostly truck drivers, pilots of the big eighteen-wheel trucks carrying food and clothing and furniture and people’s possessions from place to place—and asked them for rides. They were already on the road, traveling from place to place, and they were being paid for their work. Some were forbidden from taking on passengers, but most were not. A few were quick to assure her that they would be happy for her company and expected no additional pay or favors for their trouble. Those that suggested otherwise, she carefully avoided. A lot of drivers were happy for company on their journeys. Some offered her lengthy monologues while they drove, sharing with her their opinions, their perceptions, their views of life and the universe and everything. Others drew her into conversation, as willing to learn about her as to instruct her. A small number drove in silence, not caring to speak or to hear from her. Almost all of them took her from one point to another, and then she was able to find another willing driver at the next point. Never before had she been thrown out of a truck in the middle of nowhere.

But how could Esme explain this way of life to a Trooper and expect him to understand? Esme assumed that she did not fit into the neat categories of travelers of which the Trooper would approve. Deciding to limit her account to the briefest version possible, Esme stated simply, “I accepted a ride from a truck driver. Then we had a disagreement, and he made me get out of his truck. That’s how I got here.”

Erick raised his eyebrows and wrote a brief note on his notepad. “You had a disagreement?” he clarified, and Esme nodded. Although his mind was filled with questions, Erick did not want to stand in the hot sun, and he did not want to force Esmerelda to do so either. Quickly, he made up his mind how to proceed.

Handing the license back to Esme, he gestured toward his car. “Grab your stuff and get in,” he invited. He opened the front passenger door—not the rear doors, that would label her a criminal or a prisoner, but the front door, indicating that she was his equal, possibly even a partner. Esme could not, of course, be his partner, not being a uniformed officer of the law, but Erick was not going to treat her as if she had done something wrong.

Esme picked up her backpack and blanket and climbed into the car. Erick closed the door, got in behind the wheel, and circled back onto the road. For a moment, they drove in silence. Then, quietly and gently, Erick asked her, “What was the disagreement about?”

Esme shrugged. “Politics,” she said. Did anyone ever talk about anything that couldn’t be wrapped up in the word “politics”? Most of the drivers she had met thought along the conservative side of the political spectrum. They admired President Trump and had disdain for President Biden. Some thought that Biden, or his associates, had stolen the election from Trump; others weren’t sure. Some described Biden as a willing partner of evil; others considered him feeble—under the control of the bad guys without himself being genuinely bad. Talk about anything, though—the weather, the condition of the roads, the price of gasoline, law enforcement, people looking for jobs, people not looking for jobs, health and wellness—soon the conversation turned to politics. In politics, at least the way most people described politics to Esme, there were only two sides: one was right and the other was wrong. One side was going to save America from all its problems, and the other was out to destroy America.

Although she did not feel strongly about any of these topics, Esme found that she agreed with the right-leaning truckers she had met. At least she was able to smile and nod and keep things friendly; when a driver asked her opinion, she was able to say the same things other drivers had been saying to her. How was she to know that a driver who looked like all the other drivers, and who sounded at first like all the other drivers, was going to have opinions on the far side of the road? How was she to know that this left-learning liberal truck driver was going to kick her out of her cab merely because they disagreed about something as minor as politics.

“Politics,” repeated the trooper. He obviously wanted more information than that one word from her. In fact, as a trooper, Erick also had an opinion about politics. He had met college girls who outwardly resembled Esme—girls who talked about defunding the police and abolishing the death penalty and legalizing all kinds of drugs and generally being a lot nicer to criminals than to their victims. He hoped that this Esmerelda was not going to be that kind of radical. But, he reminded himself, she was a person in need like other persons in need. His job was to protect and to serve.

“Yeah, politics,” Esme reiterated. Then, to keep the trooper from digging, she gave him more information. “We started off talking about the price of food at the Mart and how it’s going up, and why there aren’t enough truckers working these days to get food and other things where they need to be. Then we jumped to masks and vaccinations and the whole virus conspiracy….”

“You think the virus is a conspiracy?” Erick interrupted her. “You think somebody invented the story?”

Esme shook her head. “No,” she clarified, “I know the virus is real. And I know some people have died from it. But most of the people who get sick from it get better. The way to stop it wasn’t shutting down the economy, or making everyone wear masks, or making everyone get shots that not everyone trusts. They’re using fear to control people, and when they get away with it because of the virus, they’ll keep on using other things to keep people afraid.”

Trooper Sweetwater wanted to ask Esmerelda who she had in mind when she talked about “they” and “them.” He wondered if she had anyone particular in mind, or if she was just casting blame onto some shadowy entity hiding somewhere in the country. But a more important line of inquiry pushed that question out of importance. “So I gather you haven’t gotten the vaccine?” he asked.

Esme shook her head. “Nope,” she said.

“And you’re not wearing a mask,” the trooper continued.

“Nope,” she said again. Then she added, “Look, I got sick from the virus last year. I had a fever and was in bed for three days. Then I got better. I’ve got natural immunity—I don’t need any shot to protect me from the virus. And I’m not going to be able to spread it to anyone else.”

Trooper Sweetwater frowned. “That hasn’t been proven, you know,” he commented.

“That’s only because they don’t to prove it. They don’t even want to study it. They don’t want to know. When people test positive for the virus, they don’t even ask, ‘Have you had this before?’ If they asked, they would know that being sick once protects people better than getting the shots. It works that way with other sicknesses—stands to reason it works the same with this one. But they don’t want to know; it would shoot down their entire play for power.”

By now they had almost returned to the Mart. Erick would not have thrown Esmerelda out of his vehicle twenty miles out of town, but he was uncomfortable knowing that she hadn’t received the vaccine and wasn’t wearing a mask.” Making a quick guess, he said to her, “That’s really why the trucker made you get on, isn’t it?—because you admitted that you haven’t had the shots, and you refused to wear a mask.”

Esme nodded. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “That’s it.” But, in her mind, she added, “but it’s all politics, any way you cut it. If he’d been like the other drivers, if he thought the way they think, he wouldn’t have cared about the mask, or the shot.”

The trooper pulled his car into the parking lot of the Mart. “You can grab your stuff and get out here,” he told her. “And, the next time you ask someone for a ride, maybe you’d better find out how they feel about vaccinations and masks before the two of you hit the road.” Esme took her backpack and blanket and left the car. As she walked away, Trooper Sweetwater reached for his glove compartment. Pulling out a spray bottle of sanitizer, he began to clean the passenger seat and the dashboard of his car.

Esme crossed the hot parking lot, heading for the front doors of the Mart. She felt as if other people were staring at her as she walked. She thought she even heard one person whisper, “That’s her!” But how could any of these people know anything about her? The trooper hadn’t sent out any message about her, at not least while she was in the car with him.

Convinced that she was imagining things, maybe even getting a little paranoid, Esme decided to buy herself a burger and a Coke before looking for another ride. Or maybe she would get a milkshake. And Esme also thought that she might take the trooper’s advice and sound out her driver’s feelings about masks before the two of them pulled out onto the highway.

COVID report

For the past several days I have been home, diagnosed with covid, quarantined and barred from interacting face to face with the public. (But they haven’t banned me from the Internet yet!)

I repeatedly considered how much of my covid story I wanted to tell online. I am not alone—several family members are also affected—and when one of them mentioned all of us on Facebook, I (for one) was not pleased with the breach of privacy.

Let me just say, then, that several of us in the same family had the same symptoms around the same time. Some tested positive for covid. A couple tested negative. It’s possible that their test happened late enough that they had already recovered. None of us has a severe case. One of us was fully vaccinated, but that person tested positive and had the same symptoms, to the same degree, as the rest of us.

I started the month of May with a painful ear infection. I went to one of those streetside Urgent Care facilities, was diagnosed with an outer ear infection (sometimes called swimmer’s ear) and was given antibiotic drops to put in the ear. The pain went away, but I continued to feel as if the ear was blocked—a sense of fullness in that ear, and hearing loss in that ear. As a result, when I began to feel lightheaded and dizzy, with a loss of ability to concentrate, I thought the infection might have traveled to the inner ear. I was sick enough to call in sick for church on Sunday the 23rd and to call in sick for work on Monday the 24th. Since I also had a low fever that Sunday night, I thought it would be good to visit another Urgent Care facility on Monday. After a long wait, I was examined and was told that I had no ear infection, that my symptoms were probably due to TMJ—a disorder of the jaw joint that has nothing to do with infectious disease. With that diagnosis, I was sent home. They had not bothered to test me for covid.

Meanwhile, another family member with similar symptoms ended up at the emergency room because of low blood pressure. That was probably due to dehydration due to lack of appetite. But this family member also had pneumonia and had a rash from poison ivy. The hospital decided to run several tests (including checking for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever) and threw the covid test in as an afterthought. A positive result to that covid test brought me and others in for testing, and (as I say) I was one of the family members whose results came back as positive.

In other words, our several cases nearly went undetected and unreported. They could easily have been dismissed as seasonal allergies, ear infection, or a bad cold that made life hard for a few days and then left again. In fact, I have not felt terribly sick throughout this covid experience. I have been sicker before. I had shingles a few years ago, and that was ten times as bad. The biggest inconveniences from this covid experience have been the enforced quarantine at home and the long phone conversations with medical-data-gatherers who needed to interview each of us at length about when we got sick and where we had been and who else had been near us for any length of time.

My worst days of illnesses preceded my official diagnosis. In fact, the day after I was diagnosed with covid, I went out and mowed the lawn. Mowing usually takes an hour. Because I broke the job into segments and rested between segments, this mowing session lasted about two hours. But I haven’t been able to mow on schedule this spring because of all the rain, and I wanted to get the job done before the next rain and before the weather got hot. So Tuesday afternoon, while recovering from covid, I mowed.

Now that I have covid, I think I am entitled to an opinion about how the virus crisis has been handled over the past year-and-a-half. My opinion is this: those of us who were sick should be quarantined during the course of the illness. Vulnerable members of the population should be restricted for their own safety. Shutting down entire cities and countries was wrong. Trying to make everyone wear masks was wrong. Our governments, our news sources, and our opinion makers have exaggerated the importance of this sickness, and their overreaction has caused more harm than most of us were risking by living our normal lives during these past months.

Of course, I know that some people have died. I know that some have struggled with complications from the sickness. I am not belittling those facts. But we have paid too great a price for the overreaction to covid compared to the effects of the disease itself. I would rather have endured these same symptoms a year earlier and lived a normal life since—no mask requirements, no daily updates on how terrible this disease is, no concerted effort to change the way people vote so more votes could be funneled into the choice that a few activists preferred.

I already feel better, although I will not be allowed back at work for a few more days. Because I have not had the vaccination shots, I will be required to wear a mask at work for the foreseeable future, even though my endurance of the disease should provide a minimum of ninety days of immunity (and vaccination shots are not recommended for those of us who just had covid). Rules are rules, when they make sense and when they don’t. And I’m sure I will face some complaints from coworkers who feel that I put them at risk by not getting vaccinated when it was possible and by coming to work when I was in less than perfect health, even though I thought I had an ear infection and did not realize I had covid.

I am often one of the last people to do what everyone else has done. I was still using dial-up Internet service when everyone else had cable connections. I was still watching VHS tapes when everyone else had graduated from DVDs and was streaming. I may be one of the last to catch covid. I hope so; that could mean that this long national nightmare is over and that life will be allowed, finally, to return to normal. J.