Yogi Berra once said that “it gets late early out there.” I have that same sense when it comes to the coronavirus or Covid-19 and what it means. A few years ago, my money would have been on the H7N9 flu for the next global pandemic, but a couple of mutations here and some CDC budget cuts there and we get Covid-19.
I can’t imagine what people must have thought in 1918 when the H1N1 “Spanish Flu” pandemic (that likely originated in Kansas) killed upwards of 600,000 in the United States and an estimated 100 million worldwide. Lacking our instantaneous global communications, people experienced the panic and fear differently than we are.
Thinking back to the 1957 H2N2 “Asian” flu that killed 70,000 nationwide and the 1968 H3N2 “Hong Kong” flu pandemic that killed 34,000, I don’t recall things unfolding as they are now with empty store shelves, closings, and cancellations of what was previously only cancelled for a World War, but here we are.
What is in our power to do is what has always been in our power, whether it’s covering your mouth and nose by coughing or sneezing into your sleeve, washing your hands often and vigorously, not touching your face, staying home if you’re sick or suspect that you might be (self-isolate), or doing what you can to maintain good health like getting enough sleep and good nutrition.
Beyond that, we will cancel as many gatherings as possible and hope that it will slow down the spread and maybe allow testing or immunity or science to catch up. Locally, the decision was made to cancel activities and events at the Bridgeton Public Library until further notice as well as the May 2nd KidsFest in City Park. May seems far from now, but deadlines for preparations, funding commitments, and advertising arrive weeks in advance, which is why we’re seeing longer range cancellations. And there may be many more to come.
As I write this, municipal court sessions have been cancelled through the end of March and plans are being made on how to ensure that children who depend on school for breakfast and lunch can still receive meals in the face of school closures. The municipal workforce and every other workforce is reconsidering everything from what constitutes “essential personnel” to how to best deliver essential services while minimizing exposure risks to themselves and the customers they serve. We have closed City offices to the public but will find ways to provide services. Stay tuned.
At some point, the rate of spread will peak and then slow down so that we can all exhale. I suspect that we won’t know when that moment comes simply because we’re far behind the curve, having diddled away precious weeks or months when testing and other measures might have dramatically altered the trajectory of the virus. This may well be the price we pay for allowing the underfunding of those health-related agencies, organizations, and programs charged with containment, testing, stockpiling, vaccinations, and preparing for the type of health crisis we’re now experiencing.
When we come out of this—and we will—chances are that we’ll be living in a new normal. The only question is whether we’ll be proactive in shaping that new normal in a constructive way or whether we’ll shrug it off, blame the media for overhyping the threat, and try and go on to other things.
Whatever we choose, we should at least insist that the federal government invest whatever it takes to create an early warning system to spot potential epidemics and pandemics “over there,” because despite how we feel about “those people,” we want the front lines to be Wuhan, China or some other place we can’t pronounce rather than two counties over. And if it starts on our shores, then let’s at least contain the spread. The marketplace and the private sector won’t do this because it’s not profitable, so the government must.
Let’s get through this difficult season, but when the smoke clears, it will be a time of accountability because unlike SARS or MERS, this may well be our last warning.