Last week I spoke of my focus on the farm while the rest of the world seemed focused on the novel coronavirus pandemic. This week, I must admit that the pandemic has gotten my attention too.
Two friends told me about the contingency plans where they work (in one case, a school, in another a major international agency) to close and require them to telecommute. Another friend touched me by giving me a box of alcohol-soaked wipes to clean my hands after I’ve been doing possibly risky things like hanging onto subway poles. It was ironic that my friend delivered this gift in a crowded Village bistro in which nobody was the recommended six feet away from anyone else, but there we were nevertheless talking about all the ways we should minimize risk by distancing ourselves from other people.
The pervasive anxiety we feel when confronted with a risk we don’t understand is something I’ve been through before. I am reminded of the early 1980’s and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, when I required to wear protective masks, gloves and gowns when visiting clients in the hospital to supervise a will signing or prepare for an insurance dispute. In those first months nobody knew exactly how the disease was transmitted. We eventually learned that those precautions were not really necessary; the virus could not be spread by casual contact. Nonetheless, people with AIDS were stigmatized, excluded from school and work, and were sometimes quarantined. When they were sickest they were unnecessarily deprived of meaningful touch and human contact, making their deaths all the more horrific.
The death rate from AIDS in the earliest days was at least ten times higher than that of the estimates for coronavirus. But the virulence of the coronavirus makes for high anxiety despite the relatively lower death rate. It is hard not to worry when in the space of three months the virus has spread from a market in Wuhan, China, to numerous fellow passengers on cruise ships on the Pacific to family members, friends and fellow congregants of a member of a synagogue, Young Israel of New Rochelle, New York. “Community transmission” through simply being together seems the only good way to explain large clusters of infection on almost every continent in such a short time.
For those at particularly high risk, such as people my age and those with serious underlying health conditions, it is small comfort that over time the epidemic is likely to get less threatening. Sure, as in many viral epidemics, human immunity may develop in response to the novel challenge, and the virus itself may mutate to a less harmful form. Given adequate resources, epidemiologists will come to understand the mechanisms of spread and how to combat it and doctors will learn more effective treatments. Drug companies will develop effective vaccines. Yet too many people will suffer severe illness and die while that knowledge is being developed. We will all suffer the consequences of a disrupted economy. And for a time we simply will not know how much precaution is too much.
As was evident early in the AIDS epidemic, the line between rational measures to protect people and excessive measures unduly informed by prejudice and fear is an easy one to cross. Because food is already such a focus of people’s concerns regarding health, it is bound to be focus of transmission fears. We’ll see adoption of both well founded protective measures and others that are based on irrational prejudice.
Among the well-founded measures, there may be changes to the Chinese food distribution system that as currently structured contributes to starting these epidemics. Often, viral epidemics are triggered when a virus jumps from one species, where it lives without devastating the host, to another. Flu viruses are thought to start in birds (often chickens), which then jump to pigs and then to humans. Coronaviruses are thought to start mostly in bats, but then jump to intermediary species like snakes, civets and pangolins (a type of anteater) en route to humans. The species to species jump may become more common as human settlement intrudes more on previously isolated habitats. The mutations in these viruses that take our systems by surprise may develop when bodily fluids of different species of animals mix together. This mixing apparently happens easily in the so-called “wet markets” in China where different species of live animals are kept in cages on top of each other, until they are purchased by consumers for slaughter. The Wuhan wet market where the COVID-19 virus was first identified in humans has been closed. Other wet markets may follow.
On the other hand, there was this report from New Rochelle in the New York Times. A customer called to order delivery of a sushi dinner from a local restaurant. The customer’s only specification: that the food not have been handled by any Asian people. It is the kind of outrageous, ill-informed self-protective measure that recalls all the worst ostracism of gay people in the early days of AIDS
As producers and purveyors of food, we at Turkana Farms have no idea what public health measures will ultimately affect us as the epidemic proceeds. Continued food production is presumably a necessity on the order of emergency service workers, medical personnel, delivery people and other performers of essential services. Farmers cannot telecommute; but small scale farmers like us are in a sense lucky in that we already work from home. Small farms may have a useful role to play in keeping folks fed if industrial food production settings are disrupted. I thought there might be guidelines as to what precautions should be taken and best practices to follow to minimize transmission, but a check of the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and of the Centers for Agricultural Safety and Health (part of the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health) revealed no specific guidelines for agriculture as yet. I wonder if the hollowing out of so many federal agencies under the Trump administration has slowed that kind of specific response.
Much as we all crave action to control what could be a pandemic of catastrophic proportions, history instructs that we may have to expend a lot of effort fighting irrational, prejudiced overreaction along the way.
WHAT’S NEW THIS WEEK:
The ground is soft enough after sustained warm weather to start digging horseradish root. A sure harbinger of spring, $3/lb
WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK
Tiny hot matchbox peppers, $5.00 a string, dried and quite decorative.
Fresh dug horseradish root, $3/lb.
EGGS: $5/doz, $3/doz (fun size)
MEATS: We keep some on hand, but it helps to order ahead in case we need to retrieve from our stash in the big commercial freezer. See below.
GEESE: One remaining, about 8.5 lbs. $10/lb.
ROASTING CHICKENS – Nice fat Freedom Rangers, frozen, largish (4 to 7 lbs, a few smaller), $6/lb.
LAMB: Whole or Half $7/b (hanging weight), Riblets $8/lb, small and larger leg roasts $14/lb, Ground lamb $7/lb, small loin chops, $14/lb.
PORK: Loin pork chops, $12/lb (2 to a pack, btwn 1 and 1.5 lbs),
Spare ribs and country ribs $7/lb
baby back ribs $8/lb
fresh ham roasts (2 to 3 lbs), $12/lb
smoked bacon, $12/lb
Email us your order at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Regular pickup times are Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., other days by arrangement. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call at 518-537-3815 or email.