As I've watched the coronavirus spread across Oregon, America and the rest of the world, it's reminded me of another recent calamity:  the 2011 tsunami in Japan.  I remember watching live aerial footage of the seawater relentlessly creep inland across the flat farmlands of northern Japan.  From the safe vantage point above, it seemed to be a slow progression but, nevertheless, it was inexorable, unstoppable and inevitable as the waters continued to spread inland.  This coronavirus seems to be acting in the same way.  To some Americans, it seems like it's spreading very slowly, hence the collective complacency here.  

But to those who are dubious or complacent, I ask, "Unless we start implementing extreme social distancing, what's going to stop it?"  There are different scenarios that will eventually mitigate it, including a vaccine.  But given what's happening in the rest of the world, I worry that the coronavirus is going to affect Americans during the coming months in ways that we can't even imagine.

Only one country has turned the corner on the coronavirus outbreak so far and that's China, but their situation is completely different than here in America.  China has a centralized healthcare system, an authoritarian government which isn't afraid to implement drastic measures, a group-oriented society (which focuses on the "good of the group" rather than on the individual, like here in the U.S.) and, partly because of that, a population that's been mostly compliant with the demands of the government. 

Whether or not you agree with the politics of the Chinese government (I don't), the fact is that given all of those things, China is in a seemingly-ideal situation to battle an epidemic like the coronavirus.  But even they are having a hard time containing it.  It has required constant vigilance and a determined effort among the Chinese people to bring the numbers down.   But the numbers there are coming down -- though probably not to zero, as they've boasted in recent days.  A few other countries have also had success, including Singapore and Hong Kong, but only because they took serious measures right away (literally on Day 1) and have continued to rigorously implement those measures on a compliant population.  None of that is true in America. 

Western societies based on individualism and capitalism, with its ingrained philosophy of "every man for himself," are going to have a difficult time dealing with this type of crisis.  That's because the only solution is a collective one:  helping each other for the good of the group.  Are Americans willing to do that, to modify their personal beliefs temporarily if it means saving thousands and perhaps millions of American lives?  Hopefully.  But I doubt it.  This event may totally alter the world's political and economic foundation.

Medical experts tell us there are short-term and long-term solutions to this crisis.  In the short-term, we need to:

  • Get Informed.  Americans need to start taking this threat seriously, and that includes younger folks who mistakenly feel they're immune and therefore don't need to worry or take precautions.  As we're learning in Italy, they're not (immune) and they do (need to take precautions).  But along with the generational divide, there's also a political divide.  Most Democrats, according to an NBC poll released yesterday, are taking the virus seriously while most Republicans, getting their cue from our president, feel it's been overblown.  Like so many other things these last few years, our response to the coronavirus has unfortunately become a partisan issue. 
  • Use Proper Hygiene.  You know the drill:  wash those hands!
  • Implement Extreme Social Distancing.  Some younger folks are thinking they don't need to take precautions like social distancing because, they figure, catching the virus is no big deal for them.  First of all, lots of young people are dying from this virus.  Secondly, younger folks who get infected can easily pass it on to others, including their parents and grandparents (not to mention the medical staff who will treat them).  And avoid anyone who says something with bravado like, "Well, I'm not going to let this virus control me."  That careless and selfish attitude makes them high risk for infection, so steer clear.  When you distance yourself or take other preventative measures, you're not just helping yourself; you're helping everyone else, too.  So do it.  Now.
  • Think "Positive."  Sure, we should all be optimistic.  But I mean more than that.  Assume that you've tested Positive for the coronavirus and then act accordingly.  How would you behave?  You'd keep your distance from others, you'd think more about how what you do affects others, and you'd be extremely cautious about any social interaction.  Think Positive! 

Those are things we should all be doing.  But I've been thinking of additional things that I can do to help others cope with the outbreak -- besides, of course, retreating into my Del-Cave and washing my hands 35 times a day.  Like I say, I'm one of the those borderline "older" folks who need to take more precautions with this virus, so I'm hesitant to do anything involving face-to-face contact.  But I can volunteer to create websites and develop online maps of the outbreak, and I can build apps (like, where's the nearest store with toilet paper?), so maybe something in that vein.  We all need to pitch in, even if it's just a random act of kindness like sending a comforting email to an anxious elderly friend.

When will this virus subside?  The long-term solutions include: 

  • Vaccination.  According to Dr. Anthony Fauci and other medical experts, the development, manufacturing and implementation of a vaccine is at least a year away.  That's concerning because without a vaccine, we'll probably never be able to eliminate the coronavirus threat, but rather only control it.  That means even if we implement extreme social distancing and the virus recedes, it will likely continue to pop up around America like whack-a-mole and be a continual threat until a vaccine is distributed.  People don't seem to understand this.  The numbers in China are coming down now, but only because of their extremely careful and on-going vigilance.  It's not like, "Gee, let's all do social distancing for a few weeks, then it'll go away and we'll get back to normal."  
  • The East Asia Solution.  China, as I mentioned, has managed to control the outbreaks but only because of authoritarian control.  The South Korean government jumped on the crisis right away (unlike in the U.S.) and their government has been able to "flatten the curve" in recent weeks -- but only with extensive and continual testing, rigorous monitoring and mapping of outbreaks, and extensive contact tracing.  Those types of solutions have little chance of working in America, though, unless Americans are willing to temporarily ease their ingrained concerns about privacy and government control.  
  • Herd Immunity.  As people who are infected by the coronavirus recover, they will no longer be contagious.  The idea behind "herd immunity" is that enough people will have immunity to protect those who haven't become infected, like how a herd of buffalo encircles and protects their young.  In the case of a virus, those who are immune act as a buffer, separating the contagious from the vulnerable, thus slowly the transmission rate.  The downside of this idea is that a large number of people first need to become infected .  Given the high fatality rate of coronavirus, that means millions of people in the U.S., especially those who are older or who have underlying health conditions, could likely die before herd immunity kicks in. 
  • Mutation.  The parallels between the coronavirus and the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak aren't perfect, because that was an H1N1 (i.e., swine flu) type of influenza.  But after the Spanish Flu killed tens of millions worldwide over six months, it suddenly and mysteriously vanished.  Scientists still aren't sure what happened, but it may have mutated to a less virulent strain. The same could happen with the coronavirus.  Or, on the down side, the coronavirus could mutate into something even worse than it already is, similar to how the Spanish Flu behaved in 1918.
  • Seasonal Reduction?  This virus may recede in the spring with warmer weather, just as the normal flu does.  The coronavirus seems to be ramping up now in the southern hemisphere, which is heading into winter.  In that case, it may wane here in the northern hemisphere this summer but then come back strong in the fall.  It's too soon to say either way.  And in case you were wondering, the devastating Spanish Flu of 1918 did not recede in the spring.  It first emerged in March of that year (either in Spain, Kansas, China or perhaps somewhere else, depending on which research you look at) and was only a mild nuisance until it receded in July.  But then it came back with a vengeance in August as a different strain and killed tens of millions worldwide over the next several months.  Pleasant story, huh?  My point is, don't necessarily expect this virus to recede in the spring.

I certainly hope this virus will recede with the warmer weather in the spring and resurface only after a vaccine is developed.  Unlike what Donald Trump, Jr. said, I’m not “hoping it will kill millions of Americans” and make his father look bad – that’s ridiculous.  Medical experts are unsure if it will mutate or recede in the spring.  But if it doesn’t, and looking at what’s going on now in other parts of the world, and given the lack of capacity in the U.S. healthcare system and the lack of concern exhibited by large segments of America, I’m afraid that we’re in for a long and difficult haul. 

 

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