It almost feels like a rehearsal for a play. Everyone playing their parts, flubbing their lines and tripping over the props as they try to get the timing and delivery right. And yet, as we all know, this is a real pandemic.
So much has happened! The world has changed in just a few weeks. Let me say first off, that Bill and I are fine. And everyone I know is fine. Because we live in the countryside and are in good health, we are probably quite safe. I have always kept a fairly well-stocked pantry and freezer, and I have a garden which I will plant today with fresh salad seeds. Unless the fickle finger of fate decrees that we take a leading part in this play, we should be fine for the foreseeable.
Census in the Time of Corona
In December, before all this pandemic came down in the US, I had applied to work for the US 2020 Census. The census is used to apportion federal funding, electoral votes, and for redistricting congressional districts. The information gathered is vital to making sure we have emergency response resources appropriate for the numbers of people living in each locality, etc. It is kept confidential for 72 years, after which the information is made available for genealogical research. We’ll all be dead by then, pandemic or no pandemic.
The job would get me out & about and I could make a bit of money while I was at it. I was “onboarded”, fingerprinted for a background check, and my picture was taken for my census badge. This all took place in a rather depressing meeting room in a hotel in downtown Bremerton. Everything seemed very ad hoc, and I was not overwhelmed by the efficiency of the process.
And then I heard nothing for a very long time.
Out of the blue on February 27th, I was called in to start training the following week. One day of in-class training, and then 17.5 hours of online training, and then one more day of in-class training. And then we’d be live, canvassing with our badges and laptops.
Meanwhile…Back at the Pandemic
On the 29th of February, Washington State announced the first death from the novel coronavirus in the US. Still, what’s 1 person in 300,000,000? By March 5th, when we had our first class at the Poulsbo Fire Department, the death toll from coronavirus had grown to 12 in the state, and Vice President Mike Pence flew in to confer with Governor Jay Inslee about the growing epidemic. (Afterwards, Trump called our Governor a “snake”, but we all have far worse names for Cheeto. so no biggee. Such is the tenor of discourse nowadays. You have to wipe it off your shoe.)
At our March 5th training, the subject of Covid-19 was not really brought up. One of the trainers said, in his opinion, it was all being hyped by the media.
Possibly. Possibly not.
We all wanted to work. We all wanted to do a good job. We were formally sworn in to uphold the Constitution and everything. Our specific job as “census enumerators”, was to go to our assigned blocks and update the address lists and maps on our Census issued laptops, and leave a 2020 census questionnaire. We had to try to make contact with someone living at each address to ask if there were any additional living quarters around back or verify information whenever possible.
As we spent the next several days doing our online training at home, the news kept getting exponentially more dire. More infections, more deaths. More and more events were getting canceled or postponed. We were most of us in our 50s, 60s and even 70s — the prime demographic for succumbing to the virus.
When we went in for our last day of in-class training, the day after the WHO categorized Covid-19 as a pandemic, a few of us asked if there was any new guidance regarding doing this work during the epidemic. “Just the usual commonsense precautions,” said the trainers, “wash your hands a lot and use sanitizer.”
Adjusting to the New Reality, But Keeping On
However, the next day, we all received an email with new guidelines from the US Census Bureau: “Do not attempt to make contact at structures. All cases are to be conducted by observation. Look for indications of additional living quarters.” Also: “When possible avoid contact with high-touch surfaces in public places – elevator buttons, door handles, doorknobs, tables, and handrails.” Plus the usual wash your hands a lot, use sanitizer and stay 6ft away from people.
My supervisor asked if we had any questions about the new guidelines. I wrote that I didn’t have any questions about them, but I did question the wisdom of sending out a bunch of possible Hector the Vectors to methodically go house to house at this time, not to mention possibly exposing ourselves to infection. (There was more, but that was the gist.) I did say I would go out for the first day and see how it felt.
He was very sympathetic and several of the other census enumerators in our group reached out to me to thank me for expressing their concerns.
My First Solo Census Canvass
On March 15, a bright, chilly, hellaciously windy day, I set out on my first solo census canvass. The blocks that had been assigned to me by the computer algorithm were not far. I set about doing the work of Update-Leave. The problem was that some addresses are just weird and you need to talk to the resident to clarify what is the real physical address. People were all polite, helpful and patient.
But when I’m putting the corrected address on the form and handing it to the person or when I slip it in the plastic bag to hang on the doorknob, I think: am I myself asymptomatic and actually contagious and have I just infected this nice young man?
I continued on to another area where I have to go into retail businesses to ask if there are any living quarters upstairs, and I wonder, did I just pick up the virus from this doorknob, and will I then pass it on and later come down with a vicious fever myself? I am in fine health, but I am almost 62.
I have to knock on a door because I have to add some apartments that were not listed and I need to know the correct address. A young woman answers the door with her baby daughter in her arms. She is very helpful and friendly. Should I say, “Thank you for your help, and here’s a timebomb for you and your daughter”??
Of course there was nowhere to wash hands and no sanitizer in the stores anyway.
I finished my assignments and except for the fact of these extraordinary times, I would enjoy this job. But I thought and thought, and I just could not square “hunker down”, “social distancing”, “global pandemic”, “healthcare facilities overload” with going door to door handing out questionnaires. Each time we go out, we are creating possibilities of infection.
By the 15th of March, there were 772 known cases, and 42 deaths in the State of Washington.
I resigned the next day.
Just Ahead of the Curve
My immediate supervisor wanted me to just mark myself as “unavailable” so that I could stay on the rolls for the next phase of the census. However, his supervisor overruled him, saying, if I wouldn’t go out, I was done and so I turned in the laptop and other stuff that morning.
About 48 hours later, the Census Board halted field operations. What can I say? I’ve always been ahead of the curve. I really felt a sense of relief when I knew that my cohort would not be going out there to every nook and cranny of the Olympic Peninsula distributing microbes unknowingly.
My supervisor called several days later to see if I would be interested in working the next phase of the census, whenever it starts. Sure, as long as we’ve turned the tide on this virus. Nobody knows when that will be, of course. This is all such uncharted territory.
Which Brings Us Back Again to the Pandemic
Each day new strictures on activities and commerce. Each day, more cases and deaths. As of today, in Washington State, there are 2,469 known cases, and 123 deaths. For me, things aren’t that different from a normal day in my woods, except that Bill is home on a weekday.
But for most everyone who is in the workforce, if they’re on hourly wages or own their own business, or they can’t work from home, they’re dealing with very big challenges. Do what you can for them. Buy gift certificates to tide businesses over. Tip heavily when you get take-out.
There used to be a British expression after the world wars “to have had a good war”, meaning to have got through the war without too many losses and having made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves during the war.
We are all pretty much in lockdown, just waiting for the virus to die out, wherever we are on the planet. Who knows how this will all pan out?
Until then, I wish you all a “Bon Pandémique!” May we all have a good pandemic. Stay home, wash your hands, and we’ll meet up for tea after it’s all over.