Thursday, March 12, 2020

Los avestruces

I read The Plague about 20 years ago and that's what my copy looked like.  I'd seen Outbreak in the theater a few years before that, mostly because my girlfriend at the time was on her way to medical school and had a thing for infectious diseases.  She worked for some professor at the University of Michigan studying cholera, so maybe for that reason I tended to see outbreaks as something that really only posed a risk to people in developing countries forced to cope with massive mosquito populations and a lack of potable water.  Outbreak seemed full-on Hollywood to me, no chance of anything like that happening here.  And while The Plague was much more realistic, it came across to me as a period work--something that couldn't happen anymore, not in an industrialized country anyway.

Even so, I can't say I've been totally dismissive of disease threats over the years.  Mad cow disease seemed like something that was going to be a real problem back in the early 2000s--a fully terminal illness spread by invisible microscopic prions that are undetectable and indestructible and could be in your beef.  But mad cow is not infectious and public health authorities have more or less stamped it out through testing, prohibiting cattle cannibalism, and restricting certain imports.  Then in the mid-2000s came the avian influenza scare, which one of my favorite authors suggested was going decimate the developing world and in a worst-case scenario could cause a global holocaust on the order of 900 million deaths.  But the bird flu didn't really grip either--and that was in the midst of the generally mendacious, incompetent Bush II administration.  So a plague?  Eh.
"Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise."
But here we are.

I've spend the better part of the last 48 hours reading various forms of literature on coronavirus and epidemic containment, posting social media articles about the importance of implementing social distancing at the earliest possible times, and urging local school officials to suspend in-person classes.     Most, if not everyone I've encountered, who has approached the issue either from a purely public health perspective or even just an agnostic, what-makes-the-most-sense sort of open-mindedness have readily acknowledged the science and the public health expertise and quickly agreed that we should be flattening the freaking curve A.S.A.P.  But not everybody has been looking at the epidemic pandemic through those kinds of lenses.
"Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, 'doing business.'"
Closing schools and businesses is going to disrupt all kinds of activities.  If the schools aren't open then people will need child care, or else they won't be able to go to work.  If their employers are closed or their jobs don't allow for WFH options then they may not be able to work regardless.  If people aren't working then they may not be getting paid.  If people aren't getting paid then they are going to have trouble paying their rent or mortgage, their utility bills, their student loans, or even affording day-to-day necessities like food and transportation expenses.  This is to say nothing of all the actual work those people would otherwise be doing, and that will now be delayed or just won't be getting done, and whatever implications that has on society, the economy, et cetera.

So people don't want to close schools and businesses, and say they won't do so unless and until doing so becomes absolutely necessary.  All that is perfectly understandable and the reluctance to close schools and businesses was well and good before the coronavirus arrived.  But now that it's here, the time to act has come.
"He knew quite well that it was plague and, needless to say, he also knew that, were this to be officially admitted, the authorities would be compelled to take very drastic steps. This was, of course, the explanation of his colleagues' reluctance to face the facts."
Though we've reached the point at which closure is necessary, things are remaining open. What gives?

I've lost sight of what people are waiting for.  First we were waiting for cases to reach the U.S.  Then, I guess, we were waiting for cases to reach our state.  Then to reach our town.  None of this made any sense to me in the first place; with modern air travel once a virus reaches San Francisco or Seattle it's going to be all across the country within a matter of hours.  But fine--you want to wait until there are confirmed cases in your area, I disagree but fine.  Well, yesterday there were reports of students in our local school systems here in Richmond being tested for the virus--and yet the schools remain open today.  What are they waiting for?
"The public lacked, in short, standards of comparison. It was only as time passed and the steady rise in the death-rate could not be ignored that public opinion became alive to the truth."
I don't know.  I think the schools should be closed.  And yet, here I am, letting our kids go to school anyway.  What the hell am I thinking?  Not sure I really know that, either.

Obviously I am not an epidemiologist or public health professional.  I'm not a doctor, nurse, or health care worker.  So who am I, really, to say that the schools are wrong to stay open?  The principal at my daughter's school, and the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools (where our exchange student is enrolled) both say they are in close contact with the Virginia Department of Health, are taking the virus seriously, and are prepared to announce closures if they need to.  Who am I to say that's not good enough?  Indeed, it's not as though I've got health department officials to consult with.  Why should anybody listen to me?

I'm probably just an irrational parent overreacting to the latest craze.

Except I really don't think I am.
"There comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two do make four is punished with death."
Okay, maybe not death.
"Many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits, as yet. Plague was an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come."

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