The Simpler Option

Growing up, my brother and I slept in twin beds in a shared bedroom, an arrangement that worked well for the most part.  But both of us suffered from seasonal allergies, he more than I, and as little boys, those caused a few summertime disagreements between us.

As we were trying to fall asleep, I’d often hear my brother sniffing repeatedly in a vain effort to stop his nose from running.  I’d try to block out the sound, even burying my head under my pillow, but to no avail.

“Blow your nose!” I’d hiss.  Another annoying sniff would be my answer.

“Stop sniffing or I’ll smack you!” I’d threaten after a few more minutes.  “Just blow your nose!”  Another sniff would invariably follow, and then a few more for good measure.  My brother was stubborn, if nothing else.

So in a rage, I’d bound out of bed and follow through on my promise.  He’d yell angrily and punch back, and we’d end up rolling and thrashing on his bed until my father arrived to administer a small rat-a-tat-tat on our backsides with the short, leather strap kept for such occasions.

These episodes always ended with my brother and me, both crying, back under the covers, and my  father warning us there better be no more fighting.  “And blow your nose!” he’d order my brother, handing him a tissue from the box on the table between our beds.  Chastened, my brother would do as he was told.

Falling asleep a while later, I’d wonder resentfully why he’d never comply when I told him the same thing.  So much anguish and pain would have been spared us both if he had chosen the simpler option.

“He’s so stupid!” I’d tell myself.  Things seemed simple when we were little boys.

But almost seventy years later, I find myself wondering the same thing about our population at large with respect to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s been afflicting us over and over and over again since late 2019. Viruses like these evolve their genetic codes over time through mutations or recombination during replication of their structure, and COVID-19 is no exception.

SARS-CoV-2 variations have been grouped by medical trackers into four broad categories: variants being monitored, variants of interest, variants of concern, and variants of high consequence.  The latest VOC lineages are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, with a newer one on the horizon, BA.2.75.  Epidemiologists, immunologists, and virologists tell us these variants demonstrate transmissibility increases; more severe disease manifestation, as evidenced by increased hospitalizations or deaths; a marked reduction in protection from antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination; and a reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines.

Sounds clear-cut to me—we’re becoming increasingly less-able to withstand the onslaught even as the viruses are mutating to avoid our defences.

Based on everything I’ve read from reputable sources—i.e. those whose mission is to present public health information based on evidence, as opposed to those who take a more relaxed approach based on political considerations—there are several practical measures we could be taking to mitigate the effects of the metamorphosing virus across the population.  Such measures require a degree of self-discipline and consideration for others, however—attributes that, so far, have been missing en masse.  Perhaps that’s why we have been singularly unsuccessful in reducing the disease to more a manageable endemic status.

Such simple mitigations have been grouped by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into three types: personal controls, administrative controls, and engineered controls.  The first type requires each of us to assume responsibility for our own health by obtaining vaccinations and keeping them up-to-date, masking when in large groups indoors, testing when symptoms appear, informing those with whom we may have been in contact when we test positive, and isolating for ten days once afflicted.

The second type includes such measures as government mandating of up-to-date vaccinations for people wishing to attend certain venues and activities where others gather, and mandating mask-wearing for those same venues and activities.  These measures do not force people to get vaccinated or wear a mask, but they do establish those actions as prerequisites for participation.  And that only serves to protect the general welfare, surely a primary objective for any elected government. 

Enacting minimum requirements for paid sick-leave among the work-force would be another example of how administrative measures could work to reduce the spread of the disease.  Also, a greater commitment to communicating information about such measures to the public, coupled with more effective methods of doing so, are surely measures any responsible government would want to implement.  No?

The third type, engineered controls, would include, among other things, improving ventilation in buildings where the public gathers; providing ample supplies of testing kits and masks to public agencies; maintaining and improving the supply chains that keep our economy running smoothly; and planning intelligently to forestall the inevitable rise of future pandemic diseases.

Which situation is worse, I wonder?  Is it one where an economy slows precipitously because small businesses have to shut down for want of customers objecting to vaccine and mask mandates?  Or is it one where an economy slows ruinously because too many customers, not to mention employees, of businesses, hospitals, and other essential services are absent due to sickness?

Both are bad, but the first less so, if the simple mitigations described earlier could be put in place to ensure a shorter period of deprivation for all of us.  We could take advantage of that option if enough of us would decide to adopt the preventive measures that will forestall an endless repetition of SARS-CoV-2 surges, one after the other ad infinitum.

It’s unfortunate that too many of us, like my stubborn brother so many years ago, will not follow the simpler option.  The long-term consequences of their intransigence will be far worse for our collective well-being than the short-term pain inflicted by that leather strap on our tender buttocks was for my brother and me.

The Sneezer

My father was a prodigious sneezer.  As children, my siblings and I would delight in watching his frantic scramble for the handkerchief he invariably carried in his back pocket, seeing his face scrunch up in anticipation of the looming explosion, hearing the violent expulsion of air from his lungs.

Getting at the handkerchief was often problematic, especially when he was seated.  Without warning, he’d burst from his chair, sometimes spilling to the floor any of us children unlucky enough to have been sitting on his lap.  Pawing frantically at his pocket, turning away from anyone present, he’d pull the white cloth out, shake it quickly, and plant it firmly across his mouth.  Once in a while he was late getting it in place, which would elicit frustrated mutterings between sneezes.

We thought this routine was especially funny when carried out at church, in the middle of another long sermon.  Or while he was on the phone.

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During his fumblings for the handkerchief, he’d squeeze his eyes tightly shut, wrinkle his slightly bent nose, and tilt his head backwards, looking for all the world as if he was beseeching the heavens to spare him.  His Adam’s apple, never particularly noticeable at other times, would bob up and down with his every stifled gasp.

And the noise!  Depending on the severity of the sneezes, or how quickly they came upon him, the noise could be loud trumpeting, loud wheezing, even loud hissing.  Always loud.  We were never disappointed in the range of noises he could muster.

A-roo-pha-a-!  A-roo-pha-a!  we might hear.  Or A-ree-cha-a-a!  A-ree-cha-a-a!  Sometimes A-chintz-ish!  A-chintz-ish!  There seemed no end to the variety of forms his sneezes could take.  But always, they were six times repeated before he seemed able to stop.  I think we first learned to count by marking my father’s sneezes.

My mother, always proper, would roll her eyes, frown, and sometimes admonish him for his attention-seeking ways.  That’s how she regarded them.  Genteel people, she maintained, would sneeze into their handkerchiefs so quietly as not to disturb those around them.  And they would never draw attention to themselves in so garish or boorish a manner.

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At her words, my father would nod agreement and point a finger randomly at her as he completed each cycle of sneezes.  But he never changed.  Not once as I grew up did I hear a gentle sneeze from him.  No discreet Ker-choo!  No soft A-choo!

He’s gone now, of course, and I’m older by far than he was when I first began to marvel at his sneezes.  Over the years, I’ve become quite aware of the power of genetic coding as I’ve lived with my own daughters—and my wife—bemusedly berating me for my own sneezing habits.  I believe, at least in this one small way, I am my father reincarnate.

Allergy season is a disaster for me, and every season seems to boast one or more allergens that trigger my sneeze reflex.  Remembering my father’s sneezing, I’ve striven mightily to conform to my mother’s admonitions to him.

But honestly, have you ever tried to suppress a sneeze?  Successfully?  If you can, you’re among the blessed of the world.  I marvel when I see someone turn their face into their sleeve and emit a barely audible Mmm-ffft!  They behave as if that simple act is nothing.

When I try, my eyes begin to water, my breath comes in short gasps, and I can’t continue talking, so preoccupied am I with the tickle in my nostrils that just won’t go away.  And it’s always to no avail, anyway.  I’ve even tried clamping my hand over my mouth, only to have the eruption through my nose.  That’s not pleasant, handkerchief or not!

To my chagrin, I’ve discovered that my grandchildren may have inherited the sneezing curse.  I watched one of the girls recently, doing as she’s been taught, sneezing into the crook of her elbow rather than into her hand.  I thought this a much healthier way of proceeding until I saw her wipe the residue off her sleeve with…you guessed it, her hand!

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And my grandson—what a sneezer he was as an infant.  I even wrote a poem for him, so taken was I with his prowess.  It was entitled Ebenezer Sneezer, and he laughs at it still.

But alas, it’s still I who commands the attention of all around me when I have to sneeze.  Although I remember my father fondly for so many reasons—his sense of humour, his kindness, his pride in his ever-growing family— his sneezing proclivities bedevil me to this day.

You may laugh at my concern, thinking it trivial, but it’s the only thing in my life where I can truly say, “It’s nothing to sneeze at!”

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