I surprised myself to note that just three months into this year, I've already blogged several times as often as I did last year. Of course, last year was spent trying to breathe after having the very air punched from my lungs with Dad's death. It still hurts, but I am getting the occasional gasp in these days. Our fragile world reminds me daily that change is a constant, and I'll try to remember how Grandpa described Dad: the strength of a bull with the reflexes of a cat. The world is not a place for sissies at this moment, and we must adapt, find equilibrium with little help from the shaky edifices around us. If Dad were here, I know he'd say things of great wisdom and comfort. I also know he'd do his best to be prepared, he would be vigilant, and he would hope for the best and do all he could to bring about a good outcome for others whenever possible. To that end, I'm trying to manage my perceptions and to not succumb to the temptation of reacting emotionally to news that can be quite unsettling.
What's going on now is that we are in the midst of the sweep of COVID-19, the Corona virus, around the world and in the United States. The virus first emerged late last year in Wuhan China, and spread quickly, hitting places like Northern Italy particularly hard, as the Italians did not heed medical authorities' advice to limit social contact. The US Surgeon General said today that we are roughly two weeks behind the wave that happened in Italy, and that this week will be bad. I believe him. This is one of those interesting times which we live in hope of never enjoying. There's a reason why that's an ancient curse. Many people have strong opinions about what is happening, but I've had to tune out quite a bit of noise that is unproductive, politically motivated, and frankly hysterical. I decided to track what's going on in what hard numbers I can locate. I may not have sensible conclusions to draw on these data, but I will keep this record because I believe the numbers tell a story that no amount of manipulation can tart up. Don't serve me mutton and try to tell me it's lamb. I'll also do myself the service of making peace with the fact that we simply don't know where all this is going and how it will resolve. The best we can do is to be vigilant, exercise personal responsibility*, and when we've taken care of ourselves, act as stewards for the more vulnerable folks around us whenever possible. In that way, we can act like the wisest of people with the strength of a bull and the reflexes of a cat.
Because things are changing so quickly, I will post occasional blog updates on things related to the virus and what's going on in my immediate area. For the sake of continuity, I will post statistics from a source I believe to be accurate and even-handed. That source is the Coronavirus Dashboard from Johns Hopkins University. As of today, March 23, 6:23 PM, there are 378,547 confirmed cases in the world among 168 countries, 16,497 people have died of this virus, and 100,982 are considered to have recovered from this illness. To give some sense of scale on these metrics, when I began tracking this site on March 10, there were just around 100,000 confirmed cases, and the growth in diagnosed cases appears to be about 10% /day.
Let's just consider the last 7 days according to Johns Hopkins:
Date Time Confirmed Cases Countries Deaths Total Recovered
2/17 4:33PM 196,640 155 7893 80,648
2/18 1:33 PM 214,894 157 8732 83,313
2/19 6:43 PM 242,713 160 9867 84,962
2/20 4:43 PM 271,629 166 11,280 87,403
2/21 7:43 PM 304,544 170 12,974 91,679
2/22 8:43 PM 335,997 173 14,641 98,333
2/23 6:23 PM 378,547 168 16,497 100,982
In the most loosey-goosey sort of calculation, these numbers indicate a disease that is doubling in confirmed prevalence very 7 days. On a planet of billions, 400,000 people doesn't sound like much, but growth continued at this pace would push the number to well over a million and close to two million in just two weeks. If the number doubles by millions per week, from there things will get sporty quite quickly.
Many have argued that these stats are skewed because 80% of people who will contract the cases will have such mild cases that they may not know they have it(even as they spread the disease), and the others will have such mild symptoms that they can stay home and nurse themselves through what seems like a mild cold. Therefore, 80% of the cases will never be diagnosed, so the metric for the actual number of cases is a huge underestimate, and therefore the death rate is even lower than it appears per capita.
The problem with this disease is not that it has a relatively low mortality rate in the absolute sense. The problem with this disease is that for the most vulnerable in our population, contracting this "minor cold" is not a survivable event. It is easily transmissible, and lives on surfaces for a ridiculous amount of time. We don't have enough hospital beds in this country for 20% or 10% or 5% of our population to all be hospitalized at one time. Furthermore, this is going to make a lot of our brave and dedicated healthcare professionals sick, so they'll be patients as well and will either work sick, or those who are able will face increasingly frightening work situations. I will not sport with your intelligence by explaining this in further detail.
Now we've been asked by our Surgeon General to stay at home, and to each act as though we are carrying the virus to level off the spike in new cases. I realize this is financially devastating for a lot of people, and ruinous to 401Ks and the like, but I also believe that the market will bounce back. I'm not thrilled myself, because this will no doubt create uncertainty in a job market I aspire to enter in 9 months. However, the way we conduct interactions is probably overdue for major shifts in our business and educational sectors to more environments online. These transitions bring so many challenges, but I think ultimately this may be more an incredible opportunity than a bad thing. Let's wait and see.
If this was ever going to happen, thank goodness it is happening at a time when students and workers can interact on network devices that nearly all of us carry. If this had happened 20 years ago, most people would be utterly at sea and terrified. Now we're all connected, so we can keep our sense of balance, right? Try not to think of this as a scary loss of contact, but of a realignment. This is not the Blue Screen Of Death, but more of a soft boot. We need to roll with it and make this work, whatever that entails. Is this a frightening moment? Yes, potentially quite. However, this is what is on our plates. Our houses aren't being bombed. We're not being marched into gas chambers. We have the wealth of libraries and museums and symphonies at our fingertips, dancing at our very command, so compared to what previous generations have faced, this seems less disastrous than other things that could happen. If this is the worst crisis of our lives, many of us are getting off easy.
On a more personal note, I am finishing my Master's while also teaching (really, a full-time job) at a university. Boy howdy is this a huge adjustment for me, but I also have the maturity (yes, it's a thing that exists in the world) to recognize that through my actions, my students will learn how to react to an unsettling and unexpected crisis. I will do my utmost to help them recognize that it's possible to have something wonderful come from a change you never wished for in the first place. I'm going to work with them and I hope to help them be their personal best in their own studies.
My task is made slightly more difficult by the fact that I am sick. I have been grappling with something since last Wednesday that was diagnosed remotely today by a doctor as 50/50 a cold or a mild case of COVID-19. I've already been isolating at home since Wednesday. Sick or not, I have dozens of students for whom I am responsible, and I will do my best to prepare them for future courses by giving them good value in this one, but from a distance. I'll keep you posted on how I'm doing, but it's been a mild annoyance, so far, and I'm getting lots of rest, though I've a raft of papers to grade starting later this week. Watch this space. I was told to go immediately to the ER if I develop a fever or shortness of breath. Trust me when I say I will be on a hair trigger on that.
I look forward to the great works of art, music, and literature that will come of this moment in time. I think when the dust settles from the COVID-19 scare, there will be a burst of creativity that will eclipse the creative renaissance that happened after 9/11. I encourage everyone to re-read favorite novels and listen to favorite music. When you cook or clean or garden, pull up an audio book of something you've always meant to read and listen to it on YouTube or Audible while you work. Make time and space for your own renaissance. If you can't think of something you should read, I strongly urge you to read (as I did for my students) either Howard's End or especially A Passage To India by E.M. Forster. His ardent theme is that humans need to behave in ways that are respectful of the sovereignty of other people, and that this can only happen through empathy. "Only connect" is his primary message. His message is as timely today as it was a century ago. A note on the two film productions of these books -- they are brilliant, but they only touch the hem of the garment of the writing of Forster. Don't cheat yourself-- read the books. They're not that long, and they are a delight and demonstrate an elegance and subtlety of mind that more of us would benefit from cultivating.
Not everyone will behave wisely, so we are better off staying home and keeping ourselves safe as this disease makes its way around the world. We only have so much control over whether we get it, but we do have control over our own behavior. Heck, my case is mild now, but there are no guarantees. I'm hoping for the best.
God bless us every one.