I hesitate to even bother to write about this because there is so much noise on the topic already, but eh. My rants are just as valid as anyone else’s. And if we’re talking about annoying inconveniences based on coronaviruses, I’d like to submit the two extra days this week I get to spend with my children at home making up stuff for them to do and the dream vacation to Italy I have planned for April 1st. My tickets to the Vatican Museum are for April 3. The Creation of Adam, The School of Athens, The Last Judgement. They’ll all be closed.
Today, the UK decided to stop all travel to Italy so at least we can now get a refund for our British Airways flights, but I’m not at all sure how one goes about trying to get the Catholic Church to return money. I don’t have high hopes.
And yet…I don’t think we’re overreacting.
In case you have a really short attention span, here’s my whole point:
None of the closings, quarantines, or travel restrictions are to prevent eventual cases of the disease. They are to prevent them from ALL HAPPENING AT THE SAME TIME.
Problem 1: No one liked Economics in school
Except me. I have degrees in Economics and Education which makes all of my formal coursework about measured responses to carefully analyzed data and everyone is already bored by this sentence. I understand. But here’s the crux of supply and demand shock:
People want stuff and then go buy it. Except when we all go at once and then we run out for a while.
You know how you went to the grocery store and they were out of hand sanitizer and toilet paper? That’s because people heard about a disease that needed killing and that they might get trapped at home with their kids and realized that being trapped with no toilet paper would go Lord of the Flies really fast.
A lot of us had that thought at once, and now there’s no toilet paper, but it will be back next week and you can make do with Kleenex or The Atlantic until the TP supply replenishes.
Now imagine that you’re going to the hospital instead of the grocery store and you’re hoping to pick up the ability to breathe instead of the opportunity to wipe your rear end without chafing. A greater supply next week will not do you any good.
Problem 2: No one liked Math in school
There are some math lovers among us and you can spot one by noticing who keeps using numbers in their Facebook posts. But far fewer people like nuanced math with uncertain inputs and variables. The mortality rate might be 3.4%. Or it might be less than 1%. Or it could be 8% of those over age 65. And what’s the rate of transmission? And can you spread the disease while not showing symptoms? I don’t know and neither does anyone else with any certainty. Here’s some math anyway.
As of this writing, the proportion of the US population that has antibodies against this disease is about 800/330,000,000. That’s about .00024%.
The United States has more than 50 million people over the age of 65.
Over 25 million Americans have asthma.
At least 15 million Americans are living with cancer at any given time.
These are some of the “vulnerable populations” and just a slice of the “underlying conditions” they keep referencing on the news. 3-4% of any of these groups is a lot of people.
Even if only half of the US population is eventually exposed to COVID-19, 1 percent of half of the nation is about 1.65 million people. That’s also a lot of people.
Problem 3: No one likes thinking about more problems
It is totally natural to look at the world from your own point of view. It’s hard to do it any other way. I’ve heard people say “isn’t it just a really bad cold?” and “it’s only bad if you’re old, right? Or have underlying conditions?” over the last few days.
I mean…I guess. Probably. But don’t you love anyone in that category? Like my dad. Or my mother-in-law. Or my 7-year-old son, who has had pneumonia and bronchitis in the last few months because of viruses that are “just a really bad cold.”
When he was four, I heard him coughing in bed and went in to check on him. My non-asthmatic preschooler with no “underlying medical conditions” looked at me with glassy eyes and said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
That’s when I had the opportunity to drive him to the ER of a world class children’s hospital where we were seen by the screening nurse, sent straight to triage, and had him hooked up to high flow oxygen, fluids, and steroids within the hour of his terrifying statement. He stayed like that for four days. I don’t know if you’ve ever jumped the line in the ER, but it’s a scary experience.
Most people will be fine if they get COVID-19. But some people really will not be, and people love them, too. Their best chance at recovery is if they have ready access to health care in a system that is not already overburdened.
Problem 4: No one likes Economics as an adult, either
Back to supply and demand and medical care. Right now, nations are trying REALLY HARD to stop the spread of the disease. That’s not because anyone thinks the disease is all that terrible, but because they think it spreads fast and harms vulnerable people and literally no one has ever had it before.
The concern is not that we’re all gonna die. The concern is that if it is allowed to spread naturally, with no social distancing or quarantines or isolation attempts, too many people will need medical care at the same time. The month of May, for instance, could see extreme capacity issues in hospitals and with medical supplies and equipment.
Even if you’re kind of a jerk and you think, “this is the best virus ever! It only kills the old and weak and children are spared. Let’s get rid of some of the dead weight, open up those Boomer positions at work and finally get some wealth into the hands of the next generation!” you should still be kind of worried. You never know when you might wrap your midlife crisis vehicle around a tree and really need a fully-staffed, well-appointed emergency room nearby.
And you are definitely a jerk.
Problem 5: No one likes uncertainty
The best scientific minds in the world are making predictions instead of summaries and that gives people feelings. About politics. About their neighbors. About math again.
Comparisons to other outbreaks are silly.
It is kind of like the flu in that it’s respiratory and it will kill a small percentage of people who get it. It is not like the flu in that none of us have been vaccinated or had it before to create some immunity.
It is kind of like the flu of 1918 in that it’s spreading rapidly around the world, but it’s also not like that because we have antibiotics for secondary infections and WebMd. Also, 911, ventilators, cars, and electricity. It’s better now.
But the scientists aren’t crazy and they’re not recommending that people go buy ridiculous amounts of hand sanitizer. They keep saying, calmly as far as I can tell, we don’t know what will happen, but we’d like to slow down the spread as much as possible while we figure it out.
So I will sit here, instead of in my 16th-century-palace-turned-hotel just off the Spanish Steps, and be grateful that just in case my kids get COVID-19, and just in case it does turn out to hate children with vulnerable lungs, that I had the forethought to get extra Albuterol and oral steroids.
And, of course, toilet paper.