I’ve seen so many wacky, dangerous, and downright ignorant things being said about the current state of pandemic affairs, that I couldn’t sleep last night for my agitation over it. I won’t go into all the issues, like conspiracy theories (Trump did it! The DNC did it!) and ridiculous anti-human, pro-capitalist Darwinist points of view, because they don’t deserve attention.
I know all of us come to every situation and every decision we make with our own prejudices and biases, and operating from our own personal, political, and professional interests. I’m going to do my best to strip my biases here and look at some cold hard facts that I think are being misremembered, willfully misapplied, or dangerously corrupted, right now, either out of frustration, boredom, or, most egregiously, self-interest. Will you lean in with me for just a few minutes?
My biggest concern right now, as we begin to reopen or “phase in” all across the country, is that there continue to be two wildly erroneous narratives being pushed: 1) That so many people have gotten sick, died, and/or recovered, that clearly the preventative measures didn’t work; and 2) That if everyone is going to get sick anyway, we might as well just get it over with.
I understand why folks would begin to believe one or the other of these arguments. On the surface, they sound logical. They are not.
Let’s begin with the first argument, that the extreme number of cases and deaths in the United States, particularly as compared to the rest of the world, means stay-at-home orders, preventative practices (masks, hand sanitizer, hand-washing), and social distancing, have not worked. As of May 8, the United States has 1,248,040 confirmed cases and 75,477 deaths. That’s a 6% fatality rate. (Admittedly, chances are that there are many cases that have gone unconfirmed which would mean the fatality rate is probably more like 3%.) Yes, these numbers are disturbingly high. Yes, we probably should have done better and acted sooner. But let’s focus on those numbers a little bit closer and imagine what they would look like if we had done nothing for the last eight weeks.
I want you to imagine that the United States had ignored the spread, as had been seriously suggested, and gone about business as usual. I want you to take that number—1,248,040—and think about what it would be today if everyone kept crowding onto city buses and trains, going to and from work every day. If young people had continued to cram into school classrooms and lecture halls. If people had been flocking by the thousands into standing-room-only concert halls. If air travel continued uninterrupted before, during, and after spring break, filling to the brim our airplanes and airports, hotel rooms and casinos, resorts and restaurants and bars. What does that number look like, right now, with 60-days of free spread? Is it double? Triple? Octuple? Really consider this for a second. What do you think that number is? 5 million cases? 6 million? Have you settled on a likely amount? Okay.
Now tell me what a 6% fatality rate looks like. How many people are dead? Is that just the cost of doing business in America?
Now, I agree that it can be discouraging to be sitting at home, bored, broke, life disrupted, work disrupted, income disrupted, and see a number like 1.2 million cases. Even more disheartening is to see 75,000 deaths. “What was the point!?” I urge you to keep perspective. It is exactly because we hit the brakes and because so many of us have been doing what was asked of us that the number is only what it is right now. Let your imagination do some work, here, and calculate 60 days of “normal living” against that number.
Now, let’s take the second argument. It’s either some version of “everyone is going to get sick anyway” or “we need to build up an immunity to this anyway,” with the subsequent suggestion that we should just get it over with in one fell swoop. This again seems sensible on the surface, but it would be a disaster. No one ever promised that social distancing and preventative measures were a panacea that would keep all of us from ever getting sick. So, then, what was the point of all this? Well, in fact, the doctors and experts made it clear very early on that we were not staying at home to protect ourselves, but to protect others. Specifically, to protect our healthcare workers and our healthcare system from total collapse.
Consider the imaginative exercise from above. What number did you come up with for total cases and total deaths, had we done nothing? Now, imagine how many of those bodies would have needed to be hospitalized? At the very least, almost every single one of those fatalities may have had days or weeks of health decline, where they needed care and attention from nurses and doctors, surgeons and anesthesiologists, etc. If we had “just gotten it over with” and all gotten sick at the same time, it might have allowed us to build up our collective (herd) immunity faster, if that’s even possible with this virus (that is as yet unproved), but at what cost? This is exactly the choice Italy made at first and why that country became the picture of failure and disaster, the warning sign to the rest of the world. It was that picture that caused American leadership to finally take note and pursue the path that we did. After all, if our hospitals and doctors’ offices had been overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases alone, where would the 300+ million of us needing care at any moment for other reasons, like stroke or heart attack, broken bone or deadly allergen, toxic ingestion or severe injury, get the help we need? How many accidental casualties?
So, it is true, we will all probably contract this virus at some point, or already have. It is in that way (though not in other ways) very much like the flu that comes back at least once per year; but unlike the flu, we do not have vaccines and antibodies for this yet. We had to create the buffer ourselves. We had to be the temporary vaccine so that we could somewhat control the rate of infection by slowing it down, just as the flu vaccine slows down the rate of infection but doesn’t stop the spread completely. To have allowed the virus to run rampant for the sake of getting it over with would have resulted in not just higher numbers of COVID illnesses that are probably going to happen at some point anyway, but it would have caused a total catastrophe for our healthcare systems around the country; this means too many otherwise treatable injuries and illnesses would turn fatal because the system simply wouldn’t have been able to keep up. (And guess what, doctors and nurses get sick, too. Now we have a system that’s over capacity and under-staffed. Sounds good to you?)
If you were feeling like all of this was pointless, I hope you understand that it wasn’t. Either by force or by choice, we did help to flatten the curve, but we’re not done. I went out for a coffee yesterday, wearing a mask and keeping my distance, and noticed that there were two dozen people walking the outdoor mall completely without care. Not a single person besides me, except for the employees, was wearing a mask. Our Governor announced that as of May 9th we would begin PHASE 1 of EASING restrictions. People take that to mean: it’s over!
This is not over.
You, I, and our loved ones are going to get sick. Hopefully our cases will be mild or even asymptomatic. But we don’t know. And we don’t know what will happen to the family members, friends, or the front-line workers, like our neighborhood barista we apparently literally can’t live without, if we give our “mild” case to them. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that on my conscience.
This isn’t about living in fear. It’s about loving our neighbor.
This is isn’t about hoping we will never get sick. We will get sick.
But don’t you want a doctor, a nurse, an ambulance, a hospital bed available to you or your loved ones when it happens? Wear your damn mask. Wash your damn hands. Use your damn brains. There are only two reasons why you wouldn’t. Either you refuse to understand. Or you refuse to care.
What kind of person do you want to be? Yes, it’s your choice.