Health Care

I Fear the Coronavirus

A passenger wearing a face mask checks his mobile phone on a bus following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the country in Beijing, China, February 21, 2020. (Stringer/Reuters)
Here’s why.

Fine, I’ll say it: I’m afraid of it, the virus.

For a significant portion of readers, that’s enough to write me off. “It’s just like the flu, but not as bad,” I’ve been told several times already. That response is based on a sound calculation used by Calvin Coolidge that for every ten problems you can see in the distance, only one will ever reach you.

But it looks like it reached us. Seattle’s outbreak has spread across several counties. New York’s is still mostly concentrated in mine, Westchester. In five days, Westchester went from one confirmed case to 82. Schools in the lower part of the county, Scarsdale, have closed for ten days. Schools across the border into the Bronx, such as Fordham University, have also closed. A school district next to ours closed for one day because of a trace contact between a student and a confirmed case. Our schools haven’t closed yet, but I think they should.

I called and wrote an email to the local superintendent of schools and tried to explain my concern that in New York State, schools were only closing when a student or teacher tested positive for COVID-19.

We aren’t testing asymptomatic people and the disease has an incubation period of at least two days. That seems like a protocol for discovering that you failed to contain the coronavirus, not for discovering when you should start acting to contain it. South Korea and Hong Kong closed schools before they became major vectors of transmission. Their numbers are starting to level off, but Seoul began discouraging people from leaving their homes unnecessarily five weeks ago.

In my email to the superintendent, I used a phrase a similarly concerned friend gave me as a shorthand for explaining to myself and to others why I’m taking action: “Too early is, by definition, ‘not too late.’” I’m not a germaphobe or health nut. Far from it. But I have an abiding belief that the hardest prejudice to overcome is the notion that things will go on roughly as they always have.

Could President Trump be right that the Wuhan virus is less concerning that the flu, because it is less prevalent? Maybe. But I doubt it. When there is not time for long-term longitudinal studies, broad prejudice is a good enough substitute. One might dismiss the extraordinary actions of China, South Korea, and Japan as actions taken by germaphobic, authoritarian East Asian cultures. But why would China’s government, so often known for treating life cheaply, shut down its industrial heartlands for a bad flu season? One could dismiss the quarantine of Lombardy as an overreaction by dramatic Italians, though that doesn’t quite work: Lombardy is more like an Italian-speaking half-Teutonic Switzerland. But Israel has to be level-headed every day to survive, and it is temporarily shutting down entry into the country.

Nobody responds to the flu this way.

Locally, I’ve already noticed an inchoate class consciousness driving reactions at different levels of society. Bulk-shopping stores like Costco were picked over early. High-end grocers like Whole Foods were ransacked of frozen vegetables this weekend. (An in-law of mine said that shoppers were peering into his cart and at the bags of frozen lima beans as if they might discover a new trove in the store or pilfer his when he wasn’t looking.) But the mid-tier grocers were still well-stocked — except for hand sanitizer. An EMS worker I know is about to work a 24-hour shift. She joked: “Usually, they [the patients] try to rob me of narcotics, now they’re trying to rob my cleaning supplies. What a time to be alive.” Prepared people are preparing. High-information people have started to stockpile. And those who know scarcity are avoiding it by whatever bonkers means necessary. But the great middle is slow to accept the idea that the normal, gentle tide of American life can develop a sudden deadly undercurrent that pulls them down.

It’s true that the chances of death for those who are not old or immunosuppressed are small. But not that small. An optimistic scenario suggests that for middle-aged men, the chances of death resemble those of my high school’s junior and senior classes playing Russian roulette together with one or two deadly rounds among hundreds of dummy bullets. There could be one or two deaths among the more than 700 souls. There could be 100 deaths among their aged parents. My own graduating class’s 20-year reunion is in a few months. Will it be a mournful one?

But the thing driving the crisis isn’t death itself, but the collapse of health-care systems. To take the example above, if the current numbers are reliable, there are another 50–90 bullets among those 700 rounds that could send me or my classmates to the hospital, needful of a respirator or intensive care. And there aren’t that many respirators and ICU beds available. Once a hospital becomes that crowded with critical and serious cases of bilateral interstitial pneumonia, other surgeries get deferred or canceled, or they are performed by exhausted and demoralized doctors. That’s when the death rates start to spike. That’s what happened in Wuhan. And that’s what’s happening in northern Italy now.

Maybe I’ve psyched myself out. There’s a minor and non-fatal peril in staring at your phone and waiting for news updates. Many political obsessives have been doing this since 2015, and they’ve managed to hypnotize themselves into thinking Vladimir Putin controls the world and that, because of this, Donald Trump is turning America into a fascist society. If they’d had social media in 2005, they’d have told you we lived in a theocracy.

The phone has a way of stimulating the brain and giving you tunnel vision. The physical act of hunching over it, focusing your eyes on a small plane, and tip-tapping your fingers over it is bound to create a physiological response indicating stress. Am I suffering from a self-inflicted delusion or something else? I took my temperature this afternoon: 99.4. And then I read that Italy is thinking of extending its quarantine to the whole nation.

Don’t panic. But my friend’s advice is comforting. Act too early — at least it won’t be too late.

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