Before the road trip: A reflection on our COVID-19 lives

The summer in Houston is pretty oppressive with high humidity and temperatures staying in the mid- high 30’s C for months on end. So with such a long school break it’s no surprise that many people take a holiday away from Houston. Well of course this year is vastly different.

I finished the school year teaching summer school online for about three weeks.  Rob has not been back in the office since we returned from Australia at the beginning of March. I have been teaching from home since mid-March. We have set up offices in different parts of the house, upgraded our internet and enjoyed having lunch together. The downside of this of course is that you are always at work. However, we are really the lucky ones; so many people are out of work and struggling to stay afloat.

We felt very cocooned in our lovely estate and even though the news each day was horrible we were able to stay at home except for grocery shopping. Rob became very skilled at making cocktails (quarantinies!)

The online shopping world is amazing here, you can order almost anything, except disinfectant wipes and disinfectant household spray. We gave online grocery orders a try but found it a bit of a pain. I think, if possible, choosing your own fruit, meat and veggies is better. It is quite remarkable how many “personal shoppers’ – the people who drag around a big trolley to fill online orders, there are in the supermarket now. Toilet paper and paper towel were in short supply for while in the supermarkets and yeast is yet to make a comeback at our grocery store. Apparently, everyone is making sourdough!

Dust storms made sunset fabulous.

To go out to the supermarket we put on our masks and gloves. In the early days when we did not know as much about the virus, we also wore goggles and wiped down all of our groceries before putting them away. Our local supermarket is rather good at social distancing and now everyone has a mask on. Once we are back in the car we use our hand sanitizer and back home wash hands etc. after putting the groceries away. Being a virus, corona-virus needs to reproduce in a host to survive but it can stay on surfaces for a while. We are now being told that we do not need to wipe down all of our groceries. Most of our purchases will be in the fridge or staying in the pantry for a day or two before being handled again.

With the summer break underway and kids out of school there was a major concern about how to ensure they are getting fed. The USA seems to have a fabulous system of feeding the children of poor families through the school canteen. School breakfast and lunch are the main meals in a normal week for these children. Many schools continued to provide lunches for their students; food bank lines queue around the block wherever they are available. People are generous and feel a strong sense of social responsibility for efforts like food banks. Like many countries the unemployment offices (like Centrelink) seemed to be taken by surprise and took a little while to gear up. The politics of handouts and income support has been dominating headlines here for months; and it goes on.

Exercise at home became the thing and although the gym has reopened here, I don’t feel like it is the best place to be. My gym now requires masks in the gym at all times. Still, there is a lot of sweating and heavy breathing going on and running with a mask on does not really appeal to me. Anyway, for a number of reasons, we bought a bike for me. This was an interesting COVID influenced experience. Rob is the expert, so I let him decide. As we were looking online, we realized that bikes were fairly hard to come by. Everyone is rediscovering their childhood enjoyment of riding. There are fewer cars on the road so it is a bit safer too. Fortunately, I needed a small version of whatever we bought, so I did have a few to choose from. Our first purchase (not first choice) turned out to have a major gear problem so was returned to the shop after about two weeks. Rob decide I needed a Trek, so he started to hunt one down online for me. He finally found one in Portland Oregon, about as far away from Houston as you can get and still be in the USA. The problem was that we were supposed to pick it up instore, as Trek is a US brand, and so suppliers cannot infringe on another supplier’s market. However, as there was basically nowhere else in the country that had one of these bikes in stock Rob managed to have it delivered to us. Its fabulous fun to ride and I have even progressed to proper riding clips and shoes (purple to match my helmet). There is an endless supply of accessories available for bike riding, but I have resisted so far, apart from one set of riding knicks. I understand now why people wear the knicks, the padding is really more comfortable than regular leggings.

Sometimes we just ride around the estate, or if we want a more challenging (for me) ride, there is a flood mitigation wall just outside the boundaries of our estate that goes all the way around the reservoir near us. We usually see deer in the bushland around the reservoir and lots of birds. There are also LOTS of mozzies. After we have ridden along the wall, we can follow the road down to a large reserve called Bear Creek Park. The park is also within the reservoir area, so is covered by water after any heavy rain. Even so it is an area well used by the locals. There are a couple of baseball fields and many soccer fields, a long walking/running track around the outside and lots of BBQ’s and picnic areas. You just have to have a serious amount of mosquito repellent.

We settled into a nice pattern of working, eating and exercising. Church is on zoom and even after work drinks are on zoom. There is a prediction of isolation weight gain of about 15 pounds (about 7 kg) so we are trying to keep an eye on that. The community feel is tangible here. A young family in our cul-de-sac put on a concert in front of their garage on Sunday evenings and families from around bring their deck chairs and sit round their driveways to listen to the concert. It’s been quite pleasant. We felt a long way away from the chaos happening in New York and California.

Then, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and a new movement rose up to distracte the press and politicians. It was amazing how quickly the protests spread and how diverse the individuals protesting were. It was also remarkable how quickly surface changes started to happen. Then, once again, it became something that was divided along political lines, just like COVID. Black Americans make up only 13% of the population here in the USA. That is still around 40 million people. But in 2016 black American households had a median wealth of around $17,100 compared to white non-Hispanic households’ median wealth of about $171,000*. I seriously doubt there has been much of an improvement in the recent 4 years. Similar accusations can be made of other countries such as Australia but nevertheless there is a big inequity problem here. There seems to be a hope for real change among the population. (I know… its and election year, sigh).  *

In light of this, I had a closer look at our current housing situation. There are very few black people living in the estate where we live. There are many people from all over the world who live here for work in the Oil and Gas sector, but the vast majority would be white people. Houston is a really interesting city. A study by the Kinder Institute at Rice University in Houston says “As of 2010, Houston metropolitan area is the most racially/ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the nation, narrowly surpassing the New York metropolitan area”. So you might expect that there would be significant ethnic and racially based problems in this city. Harris county, where Houston is situated is a huge county, the second largest in the US with a population of around 4.7 million people. In 2019 the county’s total population is 31 percent white, 42 percent Hispanic, 19 percent black and 8 percent Asian. This diversity is also leading to lower levels of ethnic segregation. This may have contributed to why Houston did not have the problems of some US cities. Whatever the reason it was good to see things remain mostly calm.

gives me goose bumps

It seems we were so distracted by these protests that we took our eyes off the pandemic and it surged ahead. Things seemed to be going well in Texas COVID-wise but as the summer holidays got into full swing so did the infection rate. Texas became a hot spot. Fortunately, Houston is well equipped with hospitals but still things looked pretty bad and still are. One of the most disappointing things is watching the whole horror story become a political issue. States that had mandated mask wearing tended to be democratic states and those that did not make it a rules tended to be republican states. The story seemed to go…. The president wasn’t wearing a mask and said it was not necessary so why should I bother believing scientists and doctors with years of university training and decades of real infectious disease containment (rather than a guy who has made his living in property development). It just seems so ridiculous. I was at the dermatologist yesterday having my yearly skin check and she was saying that she has patients saying to her that COVID was just a hoax, or worse; was released by the government to control the people (plandemic)! Or that there was already a cure, but big pharma was not releasing it to the public. It always amazes me how people are so keen to believe conspiracy theories. The USA is a big place with every kind of opinion, but it still makes me take a pause. Even the small population in Australia has its fair share of conspiracy theorists. Part of the problem, I think, is that people do not understand how science works. In science you make observations and develop hypothesis about those observations. When you test the hypothesis, you can use the outcome to develop a better understanding of the disease. So, you change your hypothesis (or the way you think the virus will respond) and test that and so on. That is how you get to know the disease. I think people thought that the science should know everything about this disease immediately. If they had been able to do that, this would not be a novel disease but a known one!

I was due to start school the first week of August but now with the growing problem in Houston (and Texas generally) we are not going back to school until September 8. I am not sure how I feel about it at the moment. I would be happy to keep teaching online for a while, but it does not really make for a good learning experience for my students or their parents, who still cannot go back to work. I am a bit concerned about being exposed to the virus and hope that anyone who is showing symptoms is not sent to school. I have really small classes (only about 8 students per class) but I also have an exceedingly small room to teach in. My students are also special education learners so there are varying degrees of understanding when it comes to social distancing and masks etc. We will just have to wait and see. Hopefully, things will settle down and then next year they may have a vaccine ready for us all.

Some of the better things to come out of this year are “Bin Isolation” on Facebook, some excellent comedy associated with corona virus, a new appreciation for the work of those involved in medical systems, some wonderful displays of community, like the singing in Italy and the cheering for healthcare workers etc., realizing that holidaying in your home country is also a great thing to do……but best of all was that the planet got a chance to take a breath. Pictures of clear skies over Delhi and China and lower than expected CO2 levels across the world have shown us that we can let the Earth take a breath. Lets hope the next time it does not involve a pandemic.

Against this backdrop we decided to take a road trip……

I hope you are all safe.

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