11 days ago on March 10th I stood a block down the street from Times Square, waiting to get tickets to one of Broadway's hottest new shows, Hadestown. Winner of eight Tonies at the 73rd iteration of those awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, the air was fraught with excitement. If we had played our cards right, my friends and I were about to purchase tickets (albeit standing room only) to this amazing show for only $39, original Broadway cast and all.
As we eagerly awaited our chance to peer through the velvet curtain of the Walter Kerr Theatre, the air was fraught with something else as well: a sense of nervousness. With no one but each other to produce entertainment during our two-hour wait in line, conversation meandered a number of directions, including to that of the novel coronavirus that's been sweeping the nation (and the world) in COVID-19.
"It's not really that bad, is it?" I wondered out loud as my friends recounted story after story about universities closing all across the country. We openly wondered if our university would be next. "I mean, aren't people overreacting?"
In hindsight, this seems like a foolhardy thing to say. And yet, at the time the threat of the virus was genuinely distant. It was still easy to think of COVID-19 as a foreign disease, promulgated abroad, that would likely see a few isolated cases in the United States, but nothing serious. Even with universities from Stanford to Harvard already closed or closing on March 10th, it didn't quite seem possible that our little corner of the world in Atlanta would shutter up shop in the same way.
I was sorely mistaken.
Fast forward to now, and the threat of COVID-19 has made itself clear. The virus is spreading in the United States at an exponential rate, and more people are dying every day. At the time of my writing this on March 21st, there have been 23,662 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States and 322 people have died of it. More are sure to follow.
The outbreak has ballooned to such a degree that it is not simply my life that has been interrupted, but the lives of practically all other Americans as well. K-12 education has been suspended or moved online in virtually all states. Sports leagues have postponed or canceled their seasons. Restaurants and bars have called it quits for now. Even that aforementioned Broadway shut down just two days after I visited. And in six different states (California, Illinois, New York, Connecticut, Oregon, and New Jersey) residents have been ordered to shelter in place and to only venture outside if it is absolutely necessary. The restrictions in those three states alone affect more than 88 million people.
In short, the novel coronavirus has completely rewritten the fabric of American life, and as it continues to spread and uncertainty continues to mount, there is sure to be ever greater disruption.
Which is why I am in no short order baffled by the response of some of those closest to me. Some tweets read that the coronavirus is nothing more than a hoax, hyped up by either Donald Trump to give himself a "wartime" edge or his Democratic opponents to bring the president down in a pandemic terror. Others, from the elderly to parents of young children, have summarily dismissed the virus as something they need not be concerned about.
"It's just like the flu. In fact, the flu kills more people."
"We literally have tens of thousands of people on the highways every year, but we don't shut them down. We accept the risk. We lose tens of thousands of people to the normal flu, yet we're not putting up the body count on a weekly basis."
That last quote comes from my representative to the United States Senate, Sen. Ron Johnson, in an op-ed he wrote just yesterday for the Wall Street Journal, and frankly I'm deeply ashamed. To carry on with Mr. Johnson's maligned highway analogy, we might accept the risk inherent in driving a car, but we do so with all the peace of mind afforded by seatbelts, airbags, and sober, licensed drivers. With COVID-19 we have none of that: no vaccine, no antivirals, little knowledge of how quickly it spreads and kills.
In truth, I highly doubt that Mr. Johnson would be so eager to climb aboard American interstates if he were deprived of such basic necessities as brakes or a steering wheel.
And while the debate over how seriously to take day-to-day restrictions with the virus have manifested in the same predictable tenor of an old vs. young generational cage fight, I'm not sure that simple explanation is really so apt. There are plenty of folks my age and younger who are still out celebrating everything from St. Patrick's Day to spring break, drinking and making merry per usual, including congregating in large groups. And plenty of older people I know have also refused to take the virus seriously, carrying on their typical routines in everything from shopping excursions to Sunday church attendance.
The whole of the situation is this: COVID-19 is a serious danger, a bona fide global pandemic as officially codified by the World Health Organization and tackling it will necessitate that we treat it seriously. That means practicing such sanitary habits as washing hands, as well as social distancing in order to slow its transmission.
The bit on social distancing is especially huge, because there is some evidence that the virus may remain alive and active, even in people who show no symptoms or who have survived the worst of the symptoms, for up to 37 days. And even though the mortality rate of the virus may "only" be about 1%, if the virus infects half of the planet that means somewhere on the scale of 40 million people could die. That's a figure not seen in any public health capacity in over 100 years.
So, in response to my much younger and naiver self, are people overreacting? The answer is no. It may be difficult, but reordering life for this moment in time is entirely the right thing to do.
Please take COVID-19 seriously.