Year of Hell

One of my favorite episodes of the TV series “Star Trek: Voyager” is called “Year of Hell.” It’s too complicated to explain for the purposes of this column, but the gist is the USS Voyager gets caught up in a temporal incursion, half the crew is killed or taken hostage, and the ship is nearly destroyed. Time and time again. For a year.

Sounds like 2020 on planet Earth.

Image by jonathang1995 from Pixabay

I glance at the calendar and see it’s March 18. Only March 18. This Year of Hell, which feels like three years of hell, is barely three months old.

Yesterday I went to the grocery store, as I always do on Tuesday mornings. Not to stock up for the hunkering down, just to buy what we need for the week’s meals.

I was not prepared for what I saw.

In my previous life, I managed a retail store. I’ve seen empty shelves and panicked shoppers. I’ve seen the look of desperate fear on Dec. 24, when (usually male) shoppers realize they’ve waited too long and Christmas — at least for them and theirs — is ruined.

Yesterday I saw shelves pillaged like I’d never seen in all my years of retail. I saw a completely empty egg case, save two cracked eggs sitting askew on a rack. Even the really expensive organic, free-range specialty eggs from chickens that live in gilded houses and lay on diamond-encrusted nests and get weekly manicures — gone.

Milk — gone. Meats and cheeses — gone. Bread, rice, pasta, cereals — all gone. In California’s Central Valley, the breadbasket of the nation and the world, I was surrounded by empty grocery shelves.

Except lasagna. Even in a pandemic, no one’s got the time or the fortitude to make lasagna. At some point I’m sure we’ll get hungry enough to muster the will to do so, but it’s early in this outbreak and my county’s still letting its children go to school (until tomorrow) and the mall’s open so we’re not there yet.

What I did find at the grocery store yesterday morning, though, broke my heart. It was early, just before 7, the time I always go because I usually have the store to myself and I love that. But yesterday the store was crowded with mostly elderly shoppers. They pushed around empty carts and sighed every time they turned into a new aisle that was just as barren as the one before.

I encountered one woman several times, and each time the panic on her face grew deeper. The last time I saw her, in the produce aisle, she said to me or to God or to no one in particular:

“Onions. How can they be out of onions?”

I wondered the same thing. But they were. And probably still are. She returned her empty cart and left the store.

Few of them left the store with anything close to what they’ll need to live and — judging from the three other stores I went to in a vain attempt to find eggs — they won’t have better luck elsewhere. Many of them, because of their age and in some cases clear and obvious underlying health issues, took a huge risk coming to the store at all and they left with nothing. And my heart ached for them.

In times like this and because I’m an American, I look to place blame. I’m told there’s plenty of food in the supply chain, which seems to indicate the stores are at fault since their shelves are empty. And while I did see what the former retail manager in me viewed as a fair amount of redundancy at the cash registers in lieu of stocking shelves, I’m not comfortable blaming people who have spent the last week being hammered by hoarders and assholes resurrecting their Y2K survival plans and probably spreading the virus.

So hoarders and assholes, take your share of blame and shove it wherever you’ve put the 33,000 rolls of toilet paper you just had to have to get you through the pandemic. But you don’t get all the blame.

We got to this point, the panic and shelter-in-place point, because for three months our fearless leaders knew the novel coronavirus COVID-19 would eventually reach our shores and they did nothing about it.

And by nothing, I mean President Donald J. Trump and his ilk first proclaimed it a hoax, then something manufactured by the Chinese to bring down the United States, then nothing to worry about, then something we’ve got well under control, then (this week) something that’s very serious and oh by the way we don’t have enough respirators or test kits or hospital beds and we should probably practice social distancing until the whole thing clears up.

Which was followed by one of the ilk, in a facepalm-inducing bit of mixed messaging, telling people to go to bars and restaurants and have a good time. I won’t name names, because he has a penchant for filing defamation suits against journalists who write things about him — true things about him — that he doesn’t like, but the damage that flippant statement alone may produce could rival any that stems from weeks (months) of inaction by the party in power.

The Year of Hell. What we’re living through does feel like a temporal incursion — an alternate reality, a timeline where we don’t belong. And anyone who’s watched any amount of “Star Trek” knows temporal incursions are best avoided because they’re nearly impossible to escape without ruining everything.

I don’t know what fate lies before us, as a nation, as a world. There are glimmers of hope in China and South Korea, where the virus is releasing its stranglehold and life is slowly returning to normal. People are going back to work, stores are opening, factories are firing back up.

But they are weeks if not months ahead of us, and they were proactive in getting a handle on the virus early on. And while many governors and mayors are taking steps, done waiting for a federal response that — if it comes at all — may be too little and too late – we’re still letting Floridians sunbathe half-naked on very crowded beaches and our malls are still open because we’re a free society, and sheltering in place doesn’t appeal to our sense of freedom.

Or our hubris.

To end her Year of Hell, Voyager’s captain had to take down the vessel responsible for the temporal incursion, theorizing that doing so would end the incursion. But she was out of weapons, out of allies, out of time. So she rammed the vessel. She destroyed Voyager to restore the timeline.

Let’s hope we’re ready to do something as big to restore ours and end our Year of Hell.

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