So I stayed off social media for a couple of days because it was very difficult to watch the US begin to go through a collective freakout over the coronavirus. Watching a people being forced to confront their (inevitable) mortality is not a pretty sight. And of course, none of this is helped by our current polarized political and media environment.
I hate to feed the polarization beast and talk politics in what should be a medical and apolitical conversation, but it seems unavoidable. On the one hand, we have a president who engaged in his own freakout over how this might affect him and his election chances rather than the American people, going so far as to call the coronavirus a hoax. It is not, just to be clear. If ever there was a kind of crisis when we needed a public-spirited, non-divisive stable genius in charge, a disease outbreak is it. Additionally, we have people in charge at the federal level who deny science; look to religion for answers in medical matters; and constantly dismiss expertise. I don’t like to say it, but I don’t think answers will be found at the federal level. States and medical personnel are going to have to take the lead.
Also, the media need to do better. There’s the insatiable bias toward conflict built into much TV news (which I guess works because people reward it with their eyeballs). But I’ve also already seen enough “doomsday pepper” clickbait articles to know there’s a lot of irresponsible journalism out there right now.
Yes, there are circumstances in which a particular global outbreak could definitely bring down society – say, if Ebola with its average 50% death rate went global. Then there truly would be a complete strangling of the real economy. Production and supply chains for food, medicine, and essentials would break down as factories and fields and transportation networks were starved for workers. Municipal water supplies could be threatened as regular workers became unavailable and whatever chemicals and equipment are needed would be in short supply. And of course, people would be overwhelmed just surviving and burying their loved ones.
But this coronavirus is not that disease. Yes, covid-19, as it’s now called by the WHO, is incredibly infectious. Personally, I’m resolved to the fact that it’s likely to soon be widespread worldwide. But most people’s symptoms (around 80%) are mild. There are more serious cases, but the best data we have right now shows that the death rate remains around two to three percent. That death rate is far higher than the flu (at about .1%), of course, and it’s altogether tragic, like any disease outbreak (or war or famine, for that matter). But it is manageable from a societal perspective. With this disease profile, a recession seems likely (which will be painful in its own right), but the economy will eventually grind back to life.
What cannot happen, under any circumstances, is a panic. Any panic will cause more problems than the disease itself. If you’re overly worried about shortages of essentials and go on a hoarding spree, you’ll cause the very shortages you were worried about. We are all being tested now, whether we can keep our wits about us, while remaining appropriately vigilant.
What is appropriately vigilant? There are both individual and societal components. Healthy individuals need to wash their hands, avoid touching their faces, and avoid crowded spaces and sick people. People who feel sick or could have been exposed need to seek medical care, wear a mask if going out for any reason, and respect quarantine orders. Among the needed societal measures are those quarantines, as well as continued monitoring and testing and making sure hospitals and medical personnel are well supplied.
The goal here is to avoid any given hospital system getting overwhelmed. That’s when it really gets ugly. This is what we see in Wuhan, China – the epicenter of the outbreak and where tens of thousands of people have gotten sick. That situation is unusual compared to other countries so far, but it carries critical lessons for the US. Wuhan’s crisis was exacerbated by a political system that saw coverup, denial, and self-interest as more important than public health. I’m talking about the closed, propagandistic system of communist China, of course, but I am seeing far too many parallels in the early response by the Trump administration and Fox News. To any Trump supporters and Republicans, you must demand better. Sure, Democrats and the media will go too far the other way, but trust me, you want the benefits of an open society that questions and critiques more than you want an authoritarian society that sweeps under the rug.
To wrap up, my basic messages are these: Don’t panic. Stay vigilant. Support medical personnel and researchers. Help your fellow citizens get needed care.
Sure, circumstances could change. After all, before the WHO named this thing covid-19, it was referred to as the novel coronavirus – novel, as in “new”. We’re learning more every day. But I’m confident, based on what we know so far, we can get through this – calmly and together.