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The 99 Cent Things 7 min read

The 99 Cent Things

COVID-19's outbreak has reoriented modern life. What happens when the givens in our lives, the things we take for granted, are affected?

By Cary Littlejohn

Social distancing and a stay-at-home order have us locked down in the house, and when I turn to entertainment, sometimes I’m a bit overwhelmed by the amount of things I’ve yet to watch. Instead of forcing myself to settle in with a new show that’s got multiple seasons and compelling characters and plots, I just go with the audiovisual equivalent of comfort food. Since I first watched through all the seasons of The West Wing on boxed DVD sets in college, it has been a go-to option when I want a distraction but am throwing up my hands from indecision on a new show.

The ongoing coronavirus crisis reminded me of a relatively minor subplot in an episode entitled “The Women of Qumar”(Season 3, Ep. 8). Like episodes about the inner workings of the White House should, there are often numerous overlapping storylines in a given day on the show. It recreates the chaos and wide-ranging scope of something as epic as running a country, and it’s an incredible testament to the writing on the show. In this particular episode, the subplot that comes to mind is about a potential outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in a herd of cattle that was accidentally given banned feed. In this quaint time of the show before the Internet really took off [(late 90s-early 2000s), Mad Cow Disease was often in our real-life news, so one of the biggest issues the president and his team on the show faced was whether to tell the public that one cow showed a presumptive positive for the disease; a man tells the president’s Chief of Staff that over 12,000 cows (out of roughly 45 million) had been tested and no others had showed a positive result. But the worst case scenario is envisioned to be a declared “national emergency and a Class-One recall.”

The president was concerned with the earth-shaking ramifications of such an outbreak (or, more accurately, even the news of a potential outbreak):

The second we say positive, beef futures collapse, and we lose 3.6 billion in beef exports. Fast food is deserted, supermarkets pull beef, it’s panic - I want to talk to some more people, but in the meantime, we wait.

The part that I remember and think of often is when the president is talking to his director of communications, Toby Ziegler. Played to perfection by the lovely Richard Schiff, Toby delivers this line:

’Cause we’re not talking about sushi, it’s hamburgers. I’m not kidding around, it’s… these things. The everyday things. The everyday American things. The 99 cent things that, when you suddenly have to be afraid of them, strike at the center of our equilibrium.
character: toby ziegler | Tumblr

The lines, the somewhat tired and exasperated way Schiff delivers them, and the sentiment behind them have lodged in my brain from my very first viewing of the episode. It feels like a summation for the current coronavirus crisis, where people muse on social media about what it will be like to return to public life and shake hands again, now that we’ve seen what damage such an innocuous act can cause. In the show, the fear is product-induced; it’s hamburgers, the everyday American things, the 99 cent things, as Toby says. Today, the fear is people-and-exposure-induced, but the effects of that fear are felt in the everyday things, the 99 cent things, like masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper.

What Happens If Workers Cutting Up the Nation’s Meat Get Sick? | ProPublica
The Government Must Pay People To Stay Home | The Washington Post

N95 Respirators

For a pandemic that got its beginning in China and during which the most powerful man in the world resorted to racist, xenophobic finger-pointing by calling it the “Chinese virus,” it seems only fitting that the very mask that healthcare workers rely on is the descendant of a mask created in China to treat an “apocalyptic” plague that broke out in Manchuria in 1910. Russia and China engaged in a “scientific arms race” with geopolitical bragging rights and sovereignty over Manchuria hanging in the balance. A relatively unknown Chinese doctor, Lien-teh Wu, made a small but vital discovery: the plague was not transmitted by fleas, like the bubonic plague, but rather it passed from person to person through the air. In response, he fashioned a mask, and decades later, his concept was updated for industrial purposes.

So in the 1970s, the Bureau of Mines and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health teamed up on creating the first criteria for what they called “single use respirators.” The first single-use N95 “dust” respirator as we know it was developed by 3M, according to the company, and approved on May 25, 1972. Instead of fiberglass, the company repurposed a technology it had developed for making stiffer gift ribbons into a filter, by taking a melted polymer and air-blasted it into layers of tiny fibers.

Read the entire history of the N95 (and what makes it so effective) here:

The N95 mask: The untold origin story | Fast Company

Hand Sanitizer

I’m old enough to remember a world before hand sanitizer sat on every reception desk and was kept in every mom’s purse. I remember the novelty of it, and while I can’t remember the first time I felt its cold, gooey essence magically disappear under the friction of furiously rubbed-together hands, I remember its arrival. I remember it by its absence; when every household seemed to incorporate it into the must-buy of a shopping list, mine never did. My mom recently said as much to me: “I never had hand sanitizer at my house. Know why? Because I use soap.” Coronavirus put hand sanitizer in the news, when we, as humans desperate to feel in control of the uncontrollable, sought it out as a last line of defense, seemingly to the exclusion of my mom’s tried-and-true staple: soap. She saw it back home, and we saw it here: Store shelves of hand sanitizer emptied out, while the section right next to them – full of bars of soap – remained untouched, like the vegan food section of a supermarket during a spate of panic buying.

So what’s the story with this all-powerful goop? Well, as this informative piece from Vanity Fair makes clear, the FDA hasn’t actually ruled hand sanitizer as “generally recognized as safe and effective” (GRASE), i.e., “does what it’s supposed to do.” Which is crazy when you think of it, as the article questions, “though you have to wonder how long it should take before a product as widely used as Purell can be conclusively declared GRASE, or, I suppose, non-GRASE.” But have no fear, as the CDC has ruled that, while not a substitute for soap and water, it truly can be a last line of defense.

Interesting, the provenance of hand sanitizer is not clearly known. As the article states:

If you search around the internet, you’ll find claims that hand sanitizer of this sort—an alcohol gel—was invented in 1966, by a Bakersfield, California, student nurse named Lupe Hernandez. The origin of this claim appears to be a  2012 article in The Guardian; all other mentions of Lupe Hernandez came after that article and provide no other information. Facts about Lupe Hernandez are nonexistent: no patent under that name was filed, nor was any hand-sanitizer-related patent under any other name for a decade on either side. Laura Barton, the author of that Guardian article, told me she didn’t recall where that story came from. “I would offer to check my notebooks, but they’re in storage in the U.K., and I’m currently stranded in Greece,” she wrote in an email. It’s certainly possible that an invention by a Latinx nurse—Lupe’s gender varies depending on the article—was simply ignored by a white medical power structure. If that’s the case, the ignorance has been very thorough; I spent many hours trying to find a single mention of Lupe Hernandez prior to 2012 and came up empty.

Read more here:

Purell: The Surprising—And Surprisingly Contentious—History of Hand Sanitizer | Vanity Fair

Toilet Paper

I was struck by the impressive and competent response to the pandemic by H-E-B, a Texas-based regional supermarket chain. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so impressive to me, as it makes complete sense that supermarkets, of all places, should have an emergency preparedness plan. But, by comparison, H-E-B’s response and preparedness puts the U.S. government’s response to shame. So maybe my amazement at H-E-B is actually just disappointment at a demonstration of what’s possible. The roots for its emergency plan go back to 2005, and H-E-B reacted much more quickly to the news of COVID-19 in China, updating its plan in anticipation of what was coming. In many ways, this Texas Monthly piece is an uplifting look at how business – as a complex organization, as an employer, as a staple of a community – could and should operate.

Justen Noakes: What we really started seeing first was runs on N95 masks. I think people were sending the masks back home to their families, and it started exponentially increasing at that point, particularly around cleaning supplies, disinfectant, things of that nature. But I don’t think anybody saw the toilet paper rush coming.

Craig Boyan: We did not see runs on toilet paper as one of the first things to go out of stock. That was something we still kind of have a hard time understanding.

Read more about the fine folks at H-E-B here:

Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic | Texas Monthly

Further Bathroom Reading Material

Toilet paper hoarding amid coronavirus | The Washington Post
The Toilet Paper Had Armed Guards, and Other Coronavirus Stories | The New York Times
Idaho’s big toilet-paper factory essential amid coronavirus | Idaho Statesman

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