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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Maybe if the pandemic had started in October we would have been more motivated to distance over the coming holidays. Inspired to flatten the curve, we might have resolved to stay isolated over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. But over the last nine months we’ve heard repeated warnings not to socialize over spring break, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Halloween. Remember the saying about the futility of repeating the same thing and expecting different results? By now we’ve each developed a response that we feel comfortable with and we’re unlikely to change it.

Some will stay strictly in their household; others will include a limited number of people in their holiday bubble; still others will have a larger group. Decisions go way beyond the group size, of course. We might modify the setting, the activities, the length of time, the greeting, the good-bye. Indoors or outdoors? To hug or not to hug? What about testing first? Should we invite Grandma? Where will she sit? The holiday complications have been stretched out of recognition. We want certainty. We want flexibility. We want the virus to just go away.

Countries are making decisions too, acknowledging the need for people to get together and relaxing holiday rules specifically for that purpose. For example:

  • The UK has lifted travel restrictions for the days between Dec. 23-27. In a concept of “Christmas bubbles,” people from three households can mix indoors and stay overnight during those five days in homes, at a place of worship, or in an outdoor public space or garden. There are more detailed rules, such as not going to a restaurant together or how many adult children can visit one household. The idea is being challenged, however, and may be made more restrictive in the next few days.
  • The Netherlands is under lockdown but each household is allowed three visitors from Dec. 24-26.
  • Belgium allows four people to gather outdoors, but only one guest can use the bathroom.
  • Germany begins a hard lockdown on Wednesday until Jan. 10, but from Dec. 24-26 allows 5 people to get together. Chancellor Merkel urges a week of self-isolation prior to the gathering.
  • France has an 8 PM – 6 AM curfew until mid-January except for Christmas Eve. Home gatherings are limited to 6 adults plus any number of children.
  • Spain allows travel to visit friends and family from Dec. 23 to Jan 6. Christmas and New Year’s social gatherings are limited to 10 people, including children.
  • Portugal has a 10-person gathering limit which will be suspended entirely for Christmas.
  • Quebec had initially approved Christmas gatherings of groups of ten over a four-day period, but with increasing cases has placed more limits and completely forbidden any gatherings in “red zones” where cases are increasing the most. (Elderly people living alone are allowed one visitor but they should be masked and distanced. Ouch. Sad.)
  • India is urging states to maintain high Covid protective standards during a season of many festivals.
  • Australia has two advantages: their case rate is under control and Christmas down under is a summer holiday. The holiday rules vary by state or territory. New South Wales, for example, allows people to have 20 visitors, not counting the household members who live there.

Two conclusions: (1) In spite of increasing cases, many countries recognize the need for people to get together and (2) prescribing the exact number of people (4, 10, 7.2 ?) is not an exact science. Nine months into the pandemic, having epidemiologists telling people over and over again not to see each other in person seems a sad and futile exercise. Before Thanksgiving they told us being tested before the gathering wouldn’t work. Why not just tell us the limitations? The long lines of cars showed how much people need to see each other as safely as they can.

A few weeks ago I was struck by a compassionate article in The Atlantic: “The Danger of Assuming That Family Time Is Dispensable: Americans who are desperate to see their loved ones need advice that goes beyond “Just say no.”” by Dr. Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist at Harvard. When it comes to human needs, “just say no” doesn’t work. We are social beings facing difficult decisions. It’s heartening to see an epidemiologist who understands that.

Today’s Notable Headlines

“Christmas Covid rules: Who are you allowed to see?” BBC News, Dec. 15, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/explainers-55056375

“COVID-19: What are Europe’s Christmas coronavirus rules?” Sky News, Dec. 15, 2020. https://news.sky.com/story/covid-19-what-are-europes-christmas-coronavirus-rules-12162445

“Belgium’s Covid Christmas rules: Only one guest can use the toilet,” The Brussels Times, Dec. 15, 2020. https://www.brusselstimes.com/news/belgium-all-news/143298/belgiums-covid-christmas-rules-only-one-guest-can-use-the-toilet-annelies-verlinden-garden-coronavirus-bathroom-close-contact-steven-van-gucht/

“Christmas during COVID-19: Don’t hug, avoid indoor gatherings, say experts amid fear of surge in cases,” Firstpost, Dec. 9, https://www.firstpost.com/india/christmas-in-covid-19-dont-hug-avoid-indoor-gatherings-suggest-experts-amid-fears-of-surge-in-cases-9095301.html

“Winter Holidays,” CDC, updated Dec. 11, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays/winter.html

“The Danger of Assuming That Family Time Is Dispensable,” The Atlantic, Dec. 9, 2020. Julia Marcus, Epidemiologist and Professor at Harvard Medical School. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/12/tis-the-season-for-shame-and-judgment/617335/

The cartoon: I lifted it off a Facebook post. Not sure where to attribute it. Possibly The New Yorker?

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic will be indelibly written on our memories just as the Great Depression or the Battle of Britain left their mark on past generations. It is my intention to journal the pandemic experience from three perspectives: as a retired medical technologist, a historian (Ph.D., 2014), and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary crisis.

You are on History’s Edge.

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