I can’t stop thinking about the science-fiction post-apocalyptic nightmare we’d be living in right now if the regular flu didn’t exist until December of 2019 and it suddenly appeared and started spreading in the age of the internet.
32 million Americans have gotten the flu this year so far.
310,000 needed hospitalization.
18,000 have died.
This year. Imagine if this were a new thing or being reported with every single case. We’d be locked up in our homes eating our shoes by now.
COVID-19 has a very good chance of killing more Americans than the regular flu this year alone. The death rate is higher; we are lulled into complacency because we think this is just another flu (it isn’t); and we have an incompetent president who has almost no checks on his power and cares more about the stock market than he cares about your life. (Yes, you)
But the biggest difference is going to be the reporting and monitoring of this. It won’t take very big numbers to create a panic. The good news about a little panic is that large assemblies of people, where these viruses love to party, are going to get cancelled or postponed. That’s a good thing. It’s also going to get people washing their hands and touching each other and themselves less. Also a good thing. Click here for an excellent study on how these precautions helped in 1918 (comparing cities that took this seriously and those that didn’t).
It’s an odd in-between state to follow this outbreak. Each individual life lost is a tragedy. Those who suffer for weeks and recover are also worthy of our utmost sympathy. Then there are those who are in the medical community who are going to work long hours in terrifying conditions. And those whose lives are going to be disrupted. There are event organizers who are going to watch a year of work go down the drain. Business who will shutter due to loss of economic activity. That’s a story we can tell, and it’s an accurate story.
We could tell a very similar story about cars, air pollution, global warming, guns, heart disease, smoking, depression, drug addiction. There are dozens of major epidemics out there worthy of our respect, their sufferers deserving our sympathy. This is yet another valid story. And another story that can be made less tragic through good judgement, sound action, and science.
The other story we will be able to tell one day is how we responded to this crisis. What were our individual and collective actions? China clamped down on this hard, in a way that by accounts from residents of Wuhan were very difficult to endure (and remain difficult). But there are also reports from the streets of Wuhan full of pride for having sacrificed in a way that helped limit the spread. That’s another valid story to tell.
All of these stories can be true at once. Because they highlight many things that we keep at bay from our daily consciousness: Our time here is limited; many of us die earlier than we hoped we might; we leave so much undone in our lives; there are so many things that might sweep us away…
But also: Our lives are wonderful and worth preserving; science is incredible to the point of being miraculous; we can do things as a group that none of us could do on our own with a million lifetimes; the suffering of our neighbors should be something we can feel and sympathize with.
We rarely have to tackle the multi-faceted truths of life. Normally, we worry how our hair looks or if we unplugged the iron. We worry about getting the next bill paid or our email inboxes. Life is bigger, fuller, richer, and more tragic than this. Keep that in perspective as we wrestle with the challenges to come. And wash your hands.