Don Rogers: Puny odds for a global scourge
For fear, nothing beats a pandemic. Imagination runs even wilder than the pathogen.
Must be all those damned dystopian stories. Thank the limbic dominance in our brains, simple physiology.
Think “Andromeda Strain,” “The Road,” “Station Eleven.” That last is Nevada County’s Big Read for 2020, by the way. Let’s see if author Emily St. John Mandel comes April 17 as scheduled. “Contagion,” “Outbreak, “The Stand,” “12 Monkeys,” every zombie flick or show that ever was.
From history we can draw upon the great plagues, fevers, poxes. Dysentery, cholera, measles, tuberculosis, polio, malaria, AIDS, Ebola. Deadly germs everywhere.
And every year, the regular ol’ flu, which infects 10-15% of the population and kills at least 30,000 Americans a season and up to 600,000 worldwide. Nastier strains get names: Asian, Hong Kong, Bird, Swine.
Then there’s the Spanish flu of 1918-19, the big daddy. Deaths worldwide attributed to this flu range from 17 million to as many as 100 million. It infected one of every three or four people around the globe.
This is the killer that health officials and other Cassandras for decades have referenced with arched eyebrows while warning about what surely is headed our way, someday, what they’ve been waiting for.
This is why the experts are concerned about COVID-19, though only 130,000 cases with 5,000 deaths among 8 billion people have been identified globally, and around 1,300 cases among the 330 million residents of the United States, as I write. That’s 0.0004% of all Americans, pretty minuscule.
But let’s say the disease actually has gone wild and spread unchecked and untested to some crazy number in our country, like a million. Still, only 0.3% of us would have caught COVID-19. This far gone would mean it’s also far less lethal than we have supposed, more like the regular flu, maybe less so.
Over this — call it prudent overreaction — schools are closing, events being canceled, workers ducking the office, airliners flying empty, cruise ships kept offshore, stock markets crashing. Wuhan, China, locked down, with 68,000 confirmed cases and 3,000 deaths so far in a population of nearly 11 million. All of Italy under quarantine.
MERS and SARS, also coronaviruses, never really got loose. COVID-19 is showing up almost everywhere. Today is not the issue, the reason for all this panic. It’s the uncertainty of tomorrow.
A case here, a case there, a geometric progression, and pretty soon cases everywhere. The map is speckling quickly. A few tiny blisters have begun to appear.
The new White House chief of staff and a few congresspeople, including one who had mocked the precautions with a gas mask, have sequestered themselves after direct contact with a carrier of the coronavirus.
Tom and Rita Hanks tested positive down in Australia. Same with Utah Jazz players in Oklahoma City, and so the sudden suspension of the NBA season. The germ gives the stars no pass.
The president continues shaking hands. The odds are in his favor.
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Besides the fact of world war, besides humanity’s ignorance of the cause, there was the propaganda as the Spanish flu took hold. Leaders tried to downplay the severity: “This isn’t the disease we’re looking for,” basically.
Congress in 1918 passed a law against criticizing the government, and newspaper pundits participated in declaring things like “Fear kills more than the disease,” which became something of a mantra across the country.
Problem was, ordinary people got sick and could see family, friends and neighbors getting sick, and more than they’d imagine dying. Reassurance from leaders, and from the press, rang false when the hospitals were overflowing.
Ours are not overflowing, as they have in Wuhan and parts of northern Italy, but it wouldn’t take much. It didn’t there.
Today almost none of us even know anyone who has caught this, but we can see footage of cruise ships carrying the coronavirus and the nursing homes in the Seattle area where 31 of the nation’s 39 deaths from the disease have occurred as of Thursday morning. The 71-year-old man with underlying health issues who died in Placer County had been on one of a handful of cruise ships worldwide carrying COVID-19.
The news reports haven’t inflated numbers and haven’t exaggerated, though the stories tend to run shallow, nearly all treating a case or set of cases in isolation from the rest of the story.
Social media and the political press have been less restrained. Surprise, surprise. You’d think to be a Democrat is to declare the arrival of the apocalypse, and to be a Republican requires denial of anything more serious than a head cold.
Officialdom is not immune, either: A Placer-Yolo County joint press release this week referenced cases “increasing rapidly” in the two counties, from one to eight. Yolo’s population is 200,000, Placer’s 400,000.
Health practices during the Spanish flu weren’t what they are now. The first flu shot was two decades away. We have globalization today, but no world war, nothing in trenches.
Knowledge is power we can put to use and limit the toll. So long as we’re wise enough to use it. We could start with the math.
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Not only Democrats are deciding to avoid gatherings. Not just an oil tiff has sent the stock markets tumbling. The root of this scare is not the big bad media. Covering the flu instead won’t help. We’re not scared of the flu, the deadly pandemic we know.
Personally, I can’t muster much fear of this outbreak, either, at least not so far. Oh, it will blister beyond China and Italy and the nursing homes in Seattle, probably burst into flame before burning out as it seems to be doing in Wuhan, where it “exploded” to infect 0.6 percent of the population at risk there, at the epicenter.
As cases soar here, will we reach up to 1 or 2 or 3% of us catching this coronavirus? At a worst case 3% mortality among the sliver who does come down with COVID-19, that would stress the hospitals as patients pile in all at once.
Still. This is not the Spanish flu. This is not the pandemic we’ve been waiting for.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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