If you’ve been following me for any length of time you know I try to keep my online spaces free of partisan or political drama and rarely, if ever, comment on world events. I have opinions just like everyone else, and I have subjects I’m passionate about, and there any number of topics I’m fascinated by and would love to discuss or share links to.
But in these hyper-polarized, hyper-sensitive times it seems impossible for any subject—no matter how innocuous or universal—to escape the gravitational pull of opposing world views. Being human, it’s natural for us to grow defensive, close ranks, and become tribal when we feel under attack and in today’s environment that sense of being under attack is everywhere. Even just linking to the “wrong” news source can be enough to trigger that simmering rage.
The way I see it, there’s already enough pain and hurt in the world and most of us could benefit from a little more kindness and acceptance and ways to revel in what we have in common rather than focusing on what divides us. So, in my meager attempts to adopt the principle of “first do no harm” to my own everyday life, I’ve pretty much chosen to opt out of the noise altogether.
I mention all of this now because I’m about to break that silence to talk about COVID-19 and it’s important to me that you understand what a big deal that is for me. I’m hoping that by understanding where I’m coming from with this, if anything I say does trigger a defensive response that you’ll be able to see past it. What I’m asking here is that you step into my quiet bubble for a moment—step in away from the roaring tumult—away from the fear, the anger, the hair-trigger reactions and the blame, and walk with me as I share with you what I know about COVID-19 from a place of kindness and love.
To be clear, I am not a medical professional or an epidemiologist or an expert on viruses of any kind. What I am is a news junkie and an avid researcher who is passionate about and fascinated by an eclectic mix of issues who, as it so happens, has done a considerable amount of research on viral pandemics long before it became a topic of heated daily discussion.
I also wanted to mention that this post is going out to thousands of readers. It’s impossible for me to personalize it to each individual’s knowledge base. I’m aware that many—maybe even most—have been following the situation and have already formed strong opinions of their own. If that’s you, then please understand none of this is intended to change your mind or convince you I know more than you or that my views are right. I am writing this because I know there are also those who are overwhelmed or who have received conflicting information, and those who are scared, and I see so much misinformation going around—even among some of my close friends—that I feel a moral obligation to go against my own principles to write this. So here we go.
Coronavirus Basics: When reports of a new coronavirus first began leaking and experts began sounding the alarm, it wasn’t long after that one particular image began making the rounds through my various social media feeds. It’s possible you’ve seen it too: the back side of a can of Lysol Disinfecting Spray—more specifically the list of pathogens the spray was effective against—and on that list circled in big bold yellow was coronavirus. The text with the image said something along the lines of if coronavirus is so new, how come it’s been listed for years?
So let’s start there.
Coronavirus refers to a large family of viruses with similar characteristics and they’ve been around for a very long time. What is new—to humans at least—is the virus responsible for COVID-19. This strain was first discovered in humans in Wuhan China in fall of 2019 and is often referred to as a “novel coronavirus.”
A novel coronavirus is a coronavirus that hasn’t previously been found in people. This means that, unlike more familiar coronaviruses, no human has existing immunity to it.
Not every coronavirus is dangerous to humans. A number of coronaviruses cause only mild infections in humans, much like the common cold. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), a coronavirus discovered in 2002, and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) a coronavirus discovered in in 2012 are examples of deadlier strains.
Where Did COVID-19 Come From? It is inevitable—like a law of nature—that any time there is an outbreak of a previously unknown deadly pathogen, theories about it being a lab created bioweapon will follow. Sometimes those theories are started and seeded by State actors. For example, in LIARS’ LEGACY I briefly touched on how the USSR created a rash of forged documents that made it look like HIV was a CIA created virus, and then they set those forgeries loose in academia and sat back as the idea caught and took on a whole life of its own.
In the case of COVID-19, there are those who believe it’s a bioweapon accidentally escaped/ purposely released from Wuhan’s Level 4 biocontainment lab, and an equal number who believe it’s a bioweapon accidentally escaped/ purposely released by the United States government.
Personally, I believe that right now it doesn’t even matter. We all have a limited amount of mental and emotional energy and for those who are already overwhelmed by all the information flying at them, seeing stuff like this in their newsfeeds and hearing it in conversations from friends and family just adds to the sense of confusion and not knowing what to believe, which leads to a sense of fatalism and inaction.
In the hope that we can take this off the table until things have settled down a bit, I’m going to add my two cents: By no means am I implying that all rumors about bioweapons are facially untrue. It’s undisputed that bioweapons programs have existed and likely do exist today. But coronaviruses are zoonotic, which means they’re transmitted between animals and humans, and this would not be the first coronavirus to naturally mutate or show up out of nowhere (see SARS and MERS above) or to jump from animal vector to human. Additionally, COVID-19 shares 97% of its genetic material with an existing coronavirus (meaning that if it was engineered it would have been small tweaks no different from natural mutation) and, from a practical standpoint, would be the shittiest weaponized virus ever designed because it doesn’t do the things a good bioweapon is designed to do: spread like measles and kill like Marburg.
Is COVID-19 Actually a Big Deal? Yes and no. The answer, of course, depends on your frame of reference, and your frame of reference is going to depend on your world view and your news sources.
As plainly as possible: There is a lot about this virus that experts don’t yet know. For example, they are not yet certain about all avenues of transmission. Nor have they been able to measure an exact rate of spread (technically known as the R0 number.) Nor do they know the exact mortality rate.
We also don’t yet know what kind of long term affects we’re looking at. We don’t know if immunity acquired through infection is lasting. We don’t know if there will be long term side effects—for example, ongoing inflammatory issues or auto immune issues—nor do we know if patients relapse or if they’re subject to reinfection.
This is the first time medical personnel have had to deal with what this virus does to the human body and it is spreading quickly into very different environments with different levels of resources. As such the numbers are in flux and are guaranteed to change as more data becomes available.
There has also been a wide variance in available testing. When, for example, the only people being tested are those who are really sick, and when a certain percentage of those really sick people die, it gives the virus the appearance of a very high mortality rate. We now know that quite a number of those who are infected with COVID-19 exhibit only minor symptoms but until testing increases enough to be able to catch those stealth cases, the numbers won’t be able to give us a fully accurate picture of what we’re up against. That said, we do know enough to be confident about some things:
First and foremost, COVID-19 is not—and I cannot stress this enough—not just a bad flu.
· Yes, it is true that thousands more people die from the flu every year than have died from COVID-19 (so far).
· It is also true that those most at risk of complications from the flu are also most at risk of complications from COVID-19.
· And true that children and young people typically show few to no symptoms.
· And true that for some adults, COVID-19 symptoms will be light enough to be mistaken for the common cold, and that those who do experience the more difficult “flu-like” symptoms will be able to treat themselves at home just as they would with the flu.
· It’s also true that a high number of those infected with COVID-19 will never have to go to the hospital for treatment and that of those who do require hospitalization for COVID-19, roughly 97% get through the experience alive.
Data to date as provided by the World Health Organizations suggests 80% of COVID-19 infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infection requiring oxygen, and only 5% are critical infections, requiring ventilation.
If we focus only on those specific details, then COVID-19 seems like no big deal and the measures being undertaken to stop its spread will feel like overkill.
But here’s the other half that explains why there’s such a collective urgency to stop community spread:
· Because COVID-19 is a new coronavirus, nobody has immunity to it.
· This means that everyone who comes in contact with it is going to get it.
· The older you are, the higher your risk of requiring medical intervention to survive.
· The older you are, the lower your chances of surviving even with medical intervention.
· The virus begins to shed and is contagious before a person starts showing symptoms. HOWEVER, because this is a respiratory virus and is primarily spread by droplets, most infection comes from close contact with someone who is infected.
· It’s possible for some people to have the virus and not have symptoms and thus unknowingly spread it through close contact. (This is not unique to coronavirus.)
· The virus can remain alive and infectious outside its host anywhere from a few hours to a few days depending on the material.
· COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu and has a higher mortality rate.
· For perspective: On average, deaths from complications from seasonal flu are fewer than 0.1%. [Note that this is zero point one percent: one tenth of one percent.] Based on best available data right now, average deaths from complications of COVID-19 are 3% - 4%.
· HOWEVER, and this is critical to understanding what’s going on right now: mortality rate is also determined by the level of medical care available. It can be lower, and also climb much higher if the medical system becomes overwhelmed.
· Experts within the United States are estimating a worst-case scenario of 70 – 100 million COVID-19 infections. [I've since seen this number as high as 210 million.] Our population is roughly 350 million.
· For perspective: an average 3-4% mortality rate means a potential worst-case scenario of between 2 million and 4 million deaths within the United States alone.
Those numbers are so extreme that it’s difficult for some people (including me!) to wrap their heads around them. And two very natural human responses when we don’t understand something is a) to roll our eyes and ignore it thinking it couldn’t possibly be that bad and/or couldn’t possibly reach us, and b) panic. I’m seeing a whole lot of both right now.
On one side there are those who truly believe that the threat from COVID-19 is hugely overblown and part of a political agenda and that what we’re experiencing now is deliberate mass panic driven by media hype. I really can’t fault distrusting the media in and of itself. “If it bleeds, it leads” has been a maxim for longer than I’ve been alive and it’s fair to say that a lot of the animosity, anger, and even mass ignorance we experience now can be traced directly back to that “blood for eyeballs” philosophy. But “the media” is not a single entity. Not every outlet has the same reporting standards. And the problem with seeing the media as a monolith that continually cries wolf is that every once in a while there really is a wolf and COVID-19 happens to be one. Those who completely dismiss this threat are putting themselves, their families, and anyone they come in contact with at risk.
On the other side there are those who’ve responded to the daily mix of market tumbles, administration missteps and miscommunications, celebrity infections, climbing COVID-19 numbers, and massive event cancellations by diving hard into the mass panic deep end. Maybe it’s different where you live, but here from small grocery stores to big warehouse centers the freezer cases and shelves are empty—completely bare—not just of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but of EVERYTHING non-perishable that’s worth eating, as if this is the last possible chance to stock up on Twinkies before the zombie apocalypse. (Yes, that was a Zombieland reference.)
This panic creates secondary panic which then feeds more panic.
The easiest way I have to describe it is to relate it to the temporary gas shortage we experienced in Dallas in the wake of the damage hurricane Harvey did to the Houston oil refineries. Because of that damage, there would necessarily be a slowdown in gas production but if everyone had gone about their lives as if all was normal, it’s likely no one would have noticed the slowdown at all. Instead, there was a run on the gas stations and everyone and their cousin who would have normally waited days to fill the tank again all started topping off at the same time. And because gas station supply chains are not set up to fill sudden demand like that, even though there was plenty of gas at the repositories, there was suddenly a very real shortage at the stations themselves. And for people like me who had only 1/3 tank and had places to get to the next day and couldn’t afford to get stuck in the middle of nowhere with no way to get fuel, a crisis created entirely out of herd panic became a genuine crisis. That’s what’s going on now with all of this hoarding of food and supplies.
With our global supply chains interconnected as they are, there has been a slowdown and shortage of some things—particularly of some specific items made in China. But this has not created a slowdown or shortage of most of our food supply or paper goods. What we’re experiencing now is an artificial crisis created entirely out of herd panic which causes genuine shortage issues for those who truly need food or toilet paper and can’t get it because the shelves are completely empty. There’s nothing wrong with stocking up on a few weeks’ worth of food and necessities, but this isn’t that. This is mass panic feeding itself and causing those who normally wouldn’t worry about grabbing more just in case to grab whatever they can because they have no idea when they’ll be able to get it again and that’s putting the elderly and infirm and financially disadvantaged at risk because what is someone on a fixed income, who can only afford to call a taxi to get to the grocery store once a week supposed to do when they arrive to fill their meager shopping list and find no food, no nothing? What option do they have but to go back home to empty cupboards and pray for things to get better before they starve? What’s a single working mother of four supposed to do when her weekly paycheck comes in and she can finally go get some laundry detergent and toilet paper so the kids can have clean clothes and not have to use the McDonalds bathroom only to find there’s nothing available because a whole bunch of jerks figured they needed a three-year supply right now just in case every toilet paper maker shut down tomorrow. [Don’t even get me started on those guys in Tennessee who cleared out 17,000 bottles of Purrell on a 1,300 mile road trip with the intent of making a profit once people realized there was a shortage. People like that are responsible for the shortage.]
Honestly, the complete dismissal of threat, the blind panic, and the mercenary mindset all scare me more than the virus.
Here are the Hard Facts: Based on all available data, every place that has experienced COVID-19 has followed a nearly identical exponential infection trajectory. In other words, without intervention—sometimes drastic intervention—the rate of new infections can literally be plotted onto a chart and you can watch the exponential growth happen in real time as if you’ve just predicted the future.
For people like me who aren’t very good at conceptualizing numbers here’s a borrowed analogy that helps explain what exponential growth is and why it’s so dangerous in this scenario: If you have a pond with one lily pad, and every day the lily pad population doubles, and it takes 47 days for the lily pads to double enough to cover half the pond, how many days will it take for the lily pads to cover the entire pond? The answer is 48. But on day 40 there wouldn’t have been even enough lily pads for you to notice they were there.
That is what is happening with exponential spread of COVID-19. We barely notice it exists for the first x number of days. And because so many people who are infected don’t end up needing critical care, sometimes it’s able to spread for quite a while in a given community before it gets any notice at all. But eventually the number of infections grows large enough that critical care patients begin showing up in the ER. At first it’s just one. Then there’s another. By the time the local facilities realize what’s going on the exponential jump hits so hard and so fast the entire medical infrastructure is overrun and yet still the new cases keep coming. At that point people who would have otherwise lived through the viral infection end up dying from it, or from secondary bacterial infections, and people without COVID-19 who have existing treatable health conditions end up dying without treatment because there simply aren’t any resources left to get the care they need.
That’s what happened in Wuhan, and then in Iran, and then in Italy.
In Lombardy, the epicenter of the Italian COVID-19 outbreak (an area in which the medical system is considered one of the best in the world) first hand reports from front line medical staff speak of reaching “catastrophic care” level triage—a nightmare scenario that you’d only expect to see during war or massive calamity where there are so many in need and resources are stretched so thin that medical personnel are forced to choose who to try to save and who to let die.
The biggest threat this virus poses to our lives isn’t that it might kill us all—although certainly there are some for whom the virus is potentially quite deadly and we need to take collective action to protect them—the biggest threat is an exponential infection rate that overwhelms our fragile medical system to the point of collapse.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not every country that has been hit hard by the virus has suffered in the same way and we’re in the position of being able to benefit from and learn from the sacrifices made by front line medical personnel. Many of them gave their lives trying to figure out how to fight this virus and in turn were able to pass on the data we would need and the examples to follow to avoid the same path. Collectively we have the power to determine how bad this gets—or doesn’t.
The truth is, even if we can’t see it, even if the numbers don’t yet show it, community spread of COVID-19 is already happening in the United States right now. On the exponential timeline we are about 10 days behind Italy. The lily pads are here and they are doubling. The problem is our testing capacity is far, far behind the demand for those tests. People who are sick and who believe they have COVID-19 are still unable to get confirmation unless they are so sick as to require critical care. Without tests to show who has COVID-19 and who doesn’t, we’re entirely reliant on the critical care cases to understand where the spread has gone and how fast it is growing. [At the time I started writing this, access to testing was still in a state of flux. I’m hopeful that within the next few days we’ll be up and running at least to the point we’re no longer rationing tests to the sickest or—don’t get me started—the rich and famous.]
We are also reliant on people who believe they have COVID-19 to fully self-quarantine as a way to protect the community and not everyone has the option to do this, and not everyone who has the option to do it has been considerate enough to follow through.
That’s where we are right now.
This is not my opinion. This is not spin. It is happening. It is fact.
Right now, specifically these next two weeks where we know we have community spread but not where or how many and the virus is incubating and hasn’t fully surfaced, this is the most critical time for all of us even if there are no known cases in our areas.
This is the calm before the storm.
If, because we can’t see the rising numbers yet—or worse, if we refuse to see them—we continue on as if everything is fine, then there is a very high possibility that parts of our country are going to follow the patterns of Wuhan, Iran, and Italy. Those who do not take active measures now will be the ones who are sick ten days from now and who are in the emergency room on a ventilator twenty days from now. It is in this scenario that the worst-case estimates have the greatest possibility of materializing--the scenario where in thirty days those who need a ventilator can’t get one because there aren’t any left. Similarly, if we fall prey to panic and lose the ability to behave as rational adults and compassionate human beings, we are going to compound the situation and turn a difficult scenario into a true crisis for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable among us.
But if we’re able to look to what has happened elsewhere and take appropriate proactive measures, and if we’re able to avoid the pitfalls of panic, we have a very solid chance of getting closer to coming through this with very little damage and without doing unnecessary damage to those among us who can least afford it.
Controlling the Damage and Slowing the Spread: We’ve reached a point where, globally, experts agree it’s highly unlikely we’ll be able to contain this virus. As such, the immediate goal here in the United States is to slow the spread or, in technical parlance, to flatten the curve.
Flattening the curve means slowing the infection rate down low enough to avoid overwhelming the medical system so that when people do get sick and need critical care we have the resources to treat them and give them the best possible fighting chance at survival. By flattening the curve we are also able to ensure that our supply chains stay strong, businesses are least disrupted, and medical help for things other than COVID-19 is also available when it’s needed.
The most effective way to flatten the curve for any viral outbreak is through social distancing.
Social distancing can mean different things depending on the particulars of a given situation, but loosely it’s used to describe a conscious effort to reduce close contact between people.
The Big Picture: In the larger sense, social distancing means shutting down venues where lots of people gather such as conventions, concerts, sporting events, political rallies and such. This is why sports leagues have cancelled seasons, local governments have stepped in to close schools, and businesses that can allow their employees to work remotely have done so even when there are no obvious outbreaks in their area. If these measures are taken before they are obviously needed there’s a chance they won’t be needed for long. If they’re held off on until after signs of an outbreak exist, it’s already too late and more drastic measures will be needed to slow the spread such as what happened in Wuhan with quarantining a city of over 10 million people or in Italy with locking down the entire country.
The Medium Picture: On a more personal level social distancing might mean choosing to stay in rather than go out with friends. In my own case it means having your teenage and young adult kids think you’re a paranoid and shitty parent because you insist that school getting canceled does not mean it’s a good time to increase your social life.
The Personal Picture: On the smallest scale, social distancing might mean working from home or even self-quarantining as a proactive measure (vs. doing it to avoid spreading an existing infection.) Not everyone has the luxury of utilizing this option, but if you do, this form of social distancing is one of the biggest things you can personally do to protect yourself from coming into contact those who might be infected and ALSO to help collectively in limiting overall community spread. Every additional body that avoids contact with others is one more connection point that the virus can’t make. (To clarify, social distancing doesn’t mean staying indoors. It just means avoiding close contact with other human beings. The safe distance is usually described as being 6 feet or more.)
None of this is easy. All of it comes at great economic and personal cost. Those who can least afford it are the ones who will be hit the hardest by it. I’ve been a single working mother of young school age children struggling to make ends meet and I feel a touch of panic just thinking about what it would be like if I had been faced with a sudden school closure and had to figure out how to find childcare for my kids while also trying to figure out how to keep income coming in while everything around me was shutting down. A lot of people are hurting really, really badly right now and it’s going to get a lot worse, so I’m not being the least bit glib when I say that no matter how extreme these actions might seem in the moment—especially with our reported infection rate currently as low as it is and most of our medical systems not yet seeing an influx of critical care patients—that the cost of not doing them has the potential to be so, so much greater.
We are in the lull right now, the days where we know the lily pads are doubling but there aren’t enough of them for us to notice. In real life this means we know there are people out there who have COVID-19 but are asymptomatic, or who’ve been exposed and not yet shown symptoms. We just don’t know how many there are, or who they are, or where they’ve traveled or how randomly we ourselves might cross their paths. Again, because this is critical, this is the calm before the storm.
Ten days from now, we’ll know.
Some people, especially those already inclined to dismiss the viral threat on account of media hype, will find the very idea of changing their lives to accommodate a hypothetical fear to be abhorrent. Far be it from me to try to convince someone to live opposite their convictions. That’s not my goal here. I am writing this because the world needs you and I care about you and I don’t want you to become an unnecessary casualty.
So, if you’re inclined to listen to advice, here’s the little I have to offer.
1. Practice safe social distancing to the maximum level your situation allows.
As an aside: Masks are not a substitute for social distancing. Evidence shows that surgical masks (if you can even find them) don’t do much to protect a healthy person from catching the virus as they don’t block droplets from reaching the face. However, they do create a barrier that stops a person from touching their face with contaminated hands. Where surgical masks matter most in slowing the spread is when they’re worn by sick people as they help reduce the number of droplets that get into the air and on surfaces. The masks that are effective in keeping healthy people from getting sick are N95 masks but only if worn correctly and with a proper seal. (Again, if you can even find them).
Social distancing is the far safer route.
2. Wash your hands. COVID-19 is a respiratory virus. The only way it can infect you is if it finds its way to your lungs. The number one way that viruses find their way to your lungs is when you yourself introduce them by touching your face with contaminated hands. We instinctually and unknowingly touch our faces dozens of times a day, so while making an effort to avoid touching your face is helpful, it is even more helpful to ensure that if and when you do touch your face you do so with uncontaminated hands. And the best way to keep your hands uncontaminated is through frequent and thorough hand washing.
Hand sanitizers (if you can even get them) are helpful for times that it’s not possible to wash your hands, but hand washing with plain soap and water is still the most effective.
3. If you are over aged 60 or are any age with existing health conditions or a weakened immune system, please take extra precautions to isolate yourself. That cruise you’ve been planning (assuming it hasn’t been cancelled) is not worth the risk to your health and life. Now is the wrong time to fly. Or attend the opera. Or even (gasp!) go to book club. If you just can’t see yourself skipping out on all the things you love, then at the very least make an effort to put physical distance between yourself and others. This means no handshaking or hugs, no eating finger food out of shared dishes, and keeping 6 feet of space between you and the next person.
4. No matter your age or health status, make an effort to keep physical distance between yourself and others. This, too, means avoiding handshakes, hugs, and limiting social events.
5. Be Prepared, but Don’t Hoard: Our supply chains are not disrupted. Stores continue to receive regular shipments of goods and supplies and are putting whatever they have out onto the shelves as it arrives. If you need 2 of something and the store happens to have 5 on the shelf, please don’t take all 5 just because they’re there.
6. Be a Good Friend: Loneliness and isolation are very real problems that grow worse with social distancing. If you are aware of anyone who lives and works alone or who suffers from depression, spend some time each day reaching out and connecting by phone or video chat or even in person if the situation allows for keeping a safe physical distance.
7. Be a Good Neighbor: During a COVID-19 outbreak, even a trip to the grocery store can become a potential death sentence for the very elderly and the immune compromised. But nobody wants to feel like a burden and it can be difficult for those who need help to ask for it. If you are young and healthy and willing to take an active community role, offering to shop and run errands on behalf of grandparents, parents, and elderly or vulnerable neighbors will not only help keep them safe but can double as a relief against isolation.
8. It’s Okay to Order In: As more people begin to practice social distancing, restaurants and small service businesses are going to take an enormous hit. If you’re not used to cooking for yourself or don’t have the space to hold more than a few perishable goods and would rather not be eating out of cans and boxes, current best advice says that prepared hot meals are generally considered safe so long as the handoff of the food itself is done safely. So if there are local businesses that you would normally frequent you can help flatten their economic curve by having their goods and services delivered to your door.
9. Be Generous: Those who work in the service industries are going to be hit really hard by this. If you’re in a position to use a service that relies on tips and you’re in a position to be generous, now would be the time to do that.
10. Be Kind: In times of uncertainty, stress levels rise. People are terrified, not just of the virus but of all the unknowns that come with it. They don’t know how they’re going find childcare, how they’re going to support their families, how they’re going to afford medical care if they need it. As stress rises, tempers rise and every little thing feels much bigger than it otherwise would. Now is the time to practice patience and understanding and let slights go, and to try whenever possible to “first do no harm.”
My Personal Assessment: Like everyone else, I have opinions. Mine are no more valid than any other layperson’s, but I’m offering them here for anyone who might be interested to see where my brain is going on this. I implore you to take it all with a grain of salt:
There’s a lot of naysaying going on about the threat this virus poses and there’s a huge part of me tempted to buy into that. It’s in my nature to buck the herd. I see a crowd going one direction, I automatically want to go the other way for no other reason than I don’t want to be part of the group. This is not necessarily smart and it has often caused me unnecessary work and grief, but I am what I am and when I see so many people start to panic and the warnings keep getting more and more dire, my immediate natural response is to go the opposite direction and think nope, it’s gonna be just fine.
But I’ve also lived in some pretty gnarly places and I’ve born witness to what mob panic can do, and I can’t remember one time since I’ve become aware enough to pay attention that our government has handled a “non-routine” emergency effectively and efficiently. By “non-routine” I mean anything that involves more than sending in basic FEMA supplies after a textbook storm is over.
With apologies to the experts and those with boots-on-the-ground experience, to this armchair observer it has always seemed that our government is a poorly-oiled patched-together machine that barely functions on the best of days, and whenever shit gets real—I mean really, really real—it morphs into a comedy of bureaucratic errors lumbering forward at a don’t-give-a-fuck pace. Inevitably the citizenry springs into action and it’s the ingenuity and desperation of the everyman and everywoman that ends up saving lives and saving the day. And then once the worst of the crisis has passed, that lumbering behemoth pulls up into town and is all, “step aside folks, let the professionals handle this.”
Maybe it’s because of that, maybe it’s because And the Band Played On is still fresh in my head, maybe a combination of that and more, but whenever it was I first caught wind that there might be community spread in Washington State, I noped myself right over to Costco and loaded up on several weeks’ worth of necessities. Not because I was afraid of the zombie apocalypse but because I’d seen this movie before. I knew it was just a matter of time before new cases started popping up all over the country. I didn’t buy masks or buckets of hand sanitizer or a year’s worth of toilet paper. I just knew what would happen when mob panic kicked in and I wanted to skip that ride.
This was before Iran and before Italy.
Since the time I started writing this post Spain has also locked down and most of Europe has turned into a hot zone. Obviously, it was before all that, too. But even in my own worst-case “avoid the mob” thinking, I didn’t imagine the panic would turn into what it since has.
After the kids got home that evening I tossed them disinfecting wipes and Lysol sprays, told them to keep them in their cars, told them that from this point forward they needed to treat every person and every surface they came in contact with as if it was contaminated, and explained the types of protocols we’d need to go through to keep ourselves healthy. Told them they’d probably be fine, but I’d have a rough go of it and I’d rather not go bankrupt from medical bills so keep that shit out of the house, please and thank you, and then I went about my life.
For all the good that did, one of my kids is now sick and I’m just holding on to hope that it really is the common cold. Motherly love is well and good and all that, but I’m keeping to the whole other side of the house.
Anyway, back around the time of that mob-avoiding shopping trip the voices warning about the virus were pretty few and far between and, I dunno, maybe I’m remembering this wrong, but most of “the media” I was catching seemed to be downplaying the threat as no big deal for us. So yeah, I took it seriously from the outset, and I saw how this was going to go down, but it was easy to be a voice of caution because that meant going my own way separate from the herd.
At the same time I thought surely—surely!—by now the grown-ups in the room have got a handle on this. Surely the people whose job it is to be aware of threats are actually doing their jobs and they’re ramping up for this. Surely once they’ve realized that we had community spread they’d be on top of it and even if it was taking a while for us to hear about it there had to be some kind of plan behind the scenes. I mean, surely that craptastic bureaucratic machine has since learned from Katrina and Maria and every other FUBAR situation between, and surely this small bit of planning I’m doing now to avoid having to deal with the mob later is overkill and I’ll probably be embarrassed about it afterward.
Surely on every count I was wrong.
So here we are and now the voices screaming about how bad it is and how bad it’s going to get keep getting louder and it’s my natural inclination to go the other way and say please stop being so goddang dramatic. I can’t tell you how badly I want the naysayers to be right. And you know, they might actually end up being right in the end, just not for the reasons they think.
The drastic social distancing actions taken across the board nearly overnight by industry and local government was probably one of the smartest things that could have possibly happened. These major “overblown” shutdowns and cancellations may have just ended up saving hundreds of thousands of lives. The paradox is, having saved them, we’ll never know.
And perhaps I’m naïve, perhaps this is wishful thinking, but I also feel it would be a huge mistake to discount the role that culture and environment plays in the spread and containment of this virus. We are not Italy, or Iran, or China. The way I see it, there are aspects of American culture that, if properly utilized, have the potential to act as a natural deterrent against the speed and distance at which the virus spreads.
Specifically, I’m thinking about our vast suburban landscapes and car-dependent lifestyles and single-family homes. Just based on logistics alone, I imagine it’s a vastly different experience trying to control this virus in, say, New York City than in Abilene, Texas. And I imagine the there’s a difference by a factor so large I can’t even guess it between trying to control the virus in NYC as compared to, say, rural Wyoming.
This virus spreads by close personal contact. It doesn’t travel on the wind. It doesn’t travel through the water. That’s why social distancing has the biggest impact in stopping its spread. Places like New York City where living areas are small and many neighbors share the same common areas and in which most people rely on public transportation or walking to get from place to the next is far closer in layup and lifestyle to Lombardy and Wuhan than any part of suburban American is.
If you live in a metropolitan area that has a lot of apartment living and the benefit of good mass transit, you need to take every possible warning you’re hearing and double it. Absent drastic measures, this virus is heading for you and it will take massive and vigilant care to prevent it from catching on and spreading in your community.
But if you live in the suburbs, well, the naysayers might have a point.
I’m not sure about other states, but here in Texas you can go from your house to the bank to the pharmacy to the dry cleaner and home again without ever coming in physical contact with another human being. Add curbside grocery pick up to that and you get where I’m going with this, right?
If the Dallas suburbs locked down for three weeks, that would be the end of it for them. Here, most people over the age of 18 have their own “air gapped” transportation and there’s a literal air gap between housing units. There are no common areas. No shared spaces. People would basically be sitting this out in personal containment units. If the population did what they were told and practiced social distancing and—this is the critical part—were willing to wait out the entire incubation period until they knew who was sick and who wasn’t—those areas could very literally stop community spread entirely within a matter of weeks.
Rural areas are a naysayer’s dream. Out in the country it’s possible for most people to go about their lives with little to no disruption at all. If proper precautions are taken now it’s possible most rural areas will never deal with this virus in the first place. The biggest sacrifice would be forgoing religious services for a few weeks because those group gatherings are often about as big as it gets.
So while I do believe it’s going to get gnarly for a while—especially these next two weeks while we’re kind of holding our breath to see how far this has gone into the community and how many are actually sick—and it may get especially gnarly for longer periods in more densely populated areas—as a whole, and provided we don’t carelessly fuck up our advantages, this country is in the position to turn the tide a lot more quickly than some of the other places the virus has struck.
So yes, those worst-case scenario numbers are definitely within the realm of reason, but our citizenry has already shown time and again that we’re capable of taking matters into our own hands and doing what needs to be done on a local level to help our communities get through. It’s not that the naysayers are necessarily right, it’s that they have the potential to be right if collectively we’re willing do what needs to be done to make it so. Personally, I’m willing to work hard to give them that win. I’m even willing to shut my mouth when the “I told you so-s” start up, knowing that in the end it’s a win for all of us because first we did no harm.
Stay safe and smart, my friend.
Look out for you and your family and your neighbors.
Take this seriously so we can look back on it as no big deal and I expect to see you on the other side.