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Stages of Attention


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April 2020 in Athens. Image – iStockphoto: Mehmet Uğur Özer

Fits and Starts

I’ve noticed that when looking back at the year since the first major outbreaks of the coronavirus, what stands out are leftovers of various stages of understanding and concern and response, stages of attention, many of them reflective of the earnest but evolving understanding of COVID-19 among scientists–and a stunned public. None of this is meant, by the way, to be funny. It’s not in the least funny, though at times it’s ironic. And it’s worth a few minutes of thought.

There were videos–for adults–about how to wash your hands, remember? Some had such special instructions as, “Don’t forget your thumbs.” The real test became how fast you could sing Happy Birthday to You.

And because we’d so carefully remembered our thumbs, you soon found people on social media urgently asking each other how best to moisturize their chapped hands amid all the washing.

There were staging areas recommended for groceries-arriving and groceries already wiped down.

There were shortages of all the wrong things, and the resulting fixations on finding those things, now long returned to their usual state of mundanity–even as peculiar shortages in local stores still pop up today. In this part of the world, there have been great store-management apologies for a paucity of … Grape Nuts. If you’re the one hoarding the cereal, come clean now.

Disposable gloves needed to be researched and considered for nitrile vs. vinyl vs. latex, or those traffic-cop white cotton models. And why did the dark blue ones look so schmick?

At a certain stage, trying to get a friend or family member or colleague to understand the term aerosolized may have taken up a lot of energy and focus. “It’s why that one-foot-by-two-feet piece of Plexiglas is not going to help except for direct spray,” you heard yourself gently explaining, “anymore than designating one part of the swimming pool for spitting will help, see? It’s in the air someone else exhales, see?”

And they didn’t see, many of them, because they simply couldn’t see. None of us can see transmission. You can’t see viral shedding, you can’t see an asymptomatic infection. If anything, the low-cost pulse oximeter has become a favored device of the era, not only because it’s a rather cool technology but also because it renders something, anything, visible. You put in your index finger. Red lights are beamed into that finger. And it tells you your blood-oxygen level, your “SpO2.” High-altitude climbers knew this.

But then, a fairly recent turn in general practice seems to be easing another use of bio-feedback. It might be voiced along the lines of, “Wait a minute. If they’re asymptomatic, they won’t have a fever. Fever is a symptom. Oh, yeah.” Followed by the beep of the infrared thermometer being turned off. And if someone’s nose isn’t covered by a face mask, has a tree fallen in the forest?

And What About Chapter Four Was So Hard?

In looking back over some content written a while ago, I’ve lately perceived a parallel here.

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Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

At the outset, I should add that the old advice to “just put the thing down for a while, leave it alone” is actually good. Once you’ve gone through a certain number of pairs of nitrile gloves or hard-won disinfectant wipes, you can see things you weren’t detecting earlier in the work.

The amount of time you spent researching the shipping protocols for aluminum sculptures from France, for example. Why was that so important? Oh, gosh. It wasn’t at all important. And that intense focus on shifting those settings in a kind of rhythmic rotation … not so much.

As I look at what has to be one of the most extensive ranges of face masks in the northern hemisphere–four different options hang near the front door for a delivery, alone–I know that the stages of attention given to each level of the pandemic’s assault and our best, changing understandings of its danger have not been “wrong” or “dumb” or even as naïve as they may feel now.

Today, public health specialists work to help even the vaccinated-fortunate understand that the B.1.1.7 variant is particularly potent and a new variant can occur every time the virus moves from one person to another. The danger isn’t over. But maybe we know better now that this, too, is a passing level of insight that we’ll supercede as more people are inoculated and the pathogen has fewer available hosts, fewer jumps it can make, finally being boxed in by immunization.

It’s important now, the focus is correct, the message is pressing.

And yet it will change again.

Like Chapter Four in that manuscript. Aluminum sculpture really was, once, part of learning what one book is about. And what’s learned may not be what’s expected.

Are there issues and points of narrative or characterization or plotting or technical background in your work that once consumed you and then became part of the collection of “former go-to masks” in that drawer? Did you know what a KN95 was at Chapter Seven? And does reviewing these stages of attention help you understand what you were trying to do all along–and what might happen if an unexpected variant arrives in Chapter Eight?

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About Porter Anderson

@Porter_Anderson is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives, the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com

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