The Accident Of Birth
I was in India last year and I was struck by how important the accident of birth was to who I am. Why was I there taking pictures of the people instead of the other way around? It’s similar to the question asked by Jared Diamond in “Guns Germs and Steel.” In Diamond’s book, he asked why Pizarro conquered the Incas, instead of it being the other way around.
I know that I am generalizing about both India and the United States, and for that I apologize, but generally the United States is cleaner, quieter, richer; overall, it is a place where I prefer to live. Whatever our deficiencies, and there are many, we have a social safety net and do not know the level of deep poverty that I saw in India.
But that brings me to the coronavirus and what is happening today. My kids and I have been sheltering in place for more than two weeks now. We are in a good size home in Marin, California. We are warm and safe. We have a strong support network led by my wife who tutors the kids and gives us structure and all support necessary to thrive under difficult circumstances. We have more than adequate food in the house and we order in from a number of different restaurants whenever we want to. I still have a job. I am able to work remotely and I get a paycheck. My kids, much to their chagrin, are attending school remotely and have access to tutors and a mother who is a teacher. For entertainment, there is Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and On Demand, not to mention TV, books, backgammon and other distractions. We walk our dog Lucy several times a day and we work out in the backyard with gym equipment that we bought before the lock-down.
If, God forbid, we get sick, we have very good health insurance. There are good hospitals nearby which so far have not been overrun. As of April 3rd there had been only 131 reported cases and a total of six deaths in all of Marin. With social distancing being enforced for the last two weeks, we may have escaped the worst of the pandemic.
Bottom line is that we are damned lucky. Really damned lucky. I do take some credit for our circumstances. I work hard and have built up a very good law practice. But then, I was given a great education by my parents, a loan to help start my practice, as well as the other benefits of growing up in the upper middle class milieu.
I do not consider myself morally superior or more deserving than others. I am cognizant that the whole idea of being able to shelter in place assumes that there is a place for one to shelter. I know that my kids and I can practice social distancing because we live in a house with only the three of us and we all have separate bedrooms. I am aware that there is food to buy at the grocery store because other people are putting themselves at risk to man the supply chains that provide the food. It is not lost on me that my law practice will survive because it is the type of business that we can operate remotely, as compared to the restaurants and gyms we used to frequent which cannot.
I know that even taking into account the many problems with our public health system, there are many countries with no system whatsoever. No safety net. No government with the means to spend trillions of dollars to prop up the economy. No factories to turn on a dime to make ventilators and personal protective gear. A political and social infrastructure that is fragile and not robust enough to survive incompetents who may be in charge.
I do not know why I have been so blessed. However, it is important that I and my kids know that we have been blessed with luck. It is important that we do not believe, even for one second, that we have been blessed out of some moral superiority or because we are more deserving; that we do not look at those less fortunate as less deserving; or that we forget about those who have made our social distancing possible and more palatable.
In the end, it’s just an accident of birth. To paraphrase the late comedian Molly Ivins, we shouldn’t forget that we were born on third base and that we did not hit a triple.