Coronavirus and the history happening around us

AP photo.


So how is everybody feeling? I have used this space to write about a great many issues surrounding this COVID-19 tsunami that has overtaken us in the past week. Today I don’t want to write about nuts and bolts, statistics or curves — though there are plenty of updates to give.

Instead, consider this: Every day for the past week or so, things have happened that our great-grandchildren will be answering questions about in history class, if they still teach history.

Sometimes you need to stop and take a couple of steps back and look around. While maintaining proper social distance, of course.

This past weekend, it seemed like most everybody was taking time to acclimate to a new reality. They went to parks or hung out with kids. They posted to social media, and tried to figure out ways to help. Others were trying to figure out what to do next. They’ve had small businesses shut down, or have children at home when they need to go to work, or they’ve lost jobs.

Still others are more worried about the virus, about getting it themselves or a loved one contracting it. I find myself in that group. I’ve had two strokes. I’m not as young as I used to be. Since Super Bowl Sunday, I’ve visited Los Angeles, Nashville, Lexington, Greensboro, N.C. and Charlottesville, Va. I’ve been in large arenas and busy airports. I’m not sure how I eluded it. Maybe it was those drives through West Virginia. Maybe you have similar concerns.

There is fear. There is uncertainty. And that leads to anger, which crops up in different ways.

This virus is nasty. People want to cite how this outbreak was worse or that flu is more lethal. On Twitter, they always want to debate numbers. This virus is making people really sick. And the problem is that it can do that to large numbers of people in a short time. In general, if you get it, and show up at the hospital, and they can take care of you, then you’ll recover and go on with life.

But this thing is so contagious that it has the ability to overwhelm our healthcare apparatus. It is more contagious than the regular flu. It is more lethal than H1N1, which was our last major pandemic. It is more akin to the flu that hit the U.S. in 1918.

The problem is hospital capacity. If you catch COVID-19 and have to go to the hospital but can’t get treated, because it has been flooded with other cases, you could die. And if someone else arrives at the hospital with some other critical medical situation and can’t get treated because of the glut of COVID-19 patients, they could die.

As a nation, we weren’t ready for this. Why? That’s a matter for later. We could debate it, but that would get us nowhere — especially in this column. We were slow in developing and distributing tests for the virus, and we’re still playing catch-up. We don’t have enough protective gear for the doctors and nurses and other professionals who will be caring for highly contagious and very sick patients.

Given that reality, state governments around the nation have slammed on the brakes. They’ve stopped businesses, closed schools, and in general put lives on hold.

While on hold, and this is historic, various industries around the nation have jumped in to produce medical equipment. For the first time since World War II, significant manufacturing plants are converting themselves to a wartime-like footing to fabricate ventilators, masks, gowns, whatever kind of equipment is needed.

The goal is this: State and federal governments are trying to buy time. And it’s expensive. They’re trying to slow the flow of patients into our system, until the infrastructure can handle it, until the equipment can be put into place, until we’ve caught up, at least a little bit.

So we all wait. At home. The economy, basically, has been put into a government-induced coma. It has been shut down.

In Washington, D.C., the Senate is working on a $1 trillion-plus rescue package. It is designed — or should be — to keep both individuals and companies, from mammoth airlines to small businesses, afloat until the economy can be brought out of this coma.

The hope is that once it is back up and the virus threat under some semblance of control, the economy will return to normal speed quickly.

But none of us knows whether that will be the case. None of us knows what this virus will do. None of us knows, really, much of anything. How long this shutdown will last. How long we’ll have to go without haircuts. Whether our jobs will still be around when the wheel starts turning again.

In the meantime, they’re building military field hospitals in Washington, California and New York. It hasn’t been too long ago that the sports world was scoffing at the Ivy League for canceling its postseason tournament entirely. Now the gymnasium at Yale is full of hospital beds. Soccer fields in Seattle are housing medical tents. A military hospital ship is headed for the California coast, to dock outside of Los Angeles. Another is headed for New York City.

I don’t suppose there’s much point to my rambling here except that you should keep your eyes open and watch closely. This stuff is history. Many people and businesses and ways of doing things will be much different on the other side of this. From industry to education, changes that happen now will alter things moving forward.

It is a defining moment for everyone involved. It is a defining moment for President Donald Trump. It is a defining moment for Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, just three months into his job, finding his voice and acting decisively, and drawing national attention for it.

And it is a defining moment for each of us. Trump called this a national “trial” on Sunday. As trials go, it isn’t exactly storming the beaches at Normandy, but it will require some resolve, patience, intelligence, perseverance, generosity, resilience and, yes, courage.

This morning, Dr. Jerome Adams, U.S. Surgeon General, made the rounds of the morning shows to deliver this message: “I want America to understand this week, it’s going to get bad. . . . Right now, there are not enough people out there who are taking this seriously.”

That’s not a very inspiring note to end on. But it ought to prepare us to show resolve. And more than anything, to respect the challenge before us, and the moment we live in.

I try to share with you something useful or uplifting at the end of these. In this one, I want you to consider a passage written by Mahatma Gandhi, while he was suffering from the deadly “Spanish” flu in India in 1918. How much different would the world have been had he not survived?

“Today we are reduced to a state of miserable weakness and are easily infected by noxious germs moving about in the air,” he wrote. “There is one and only one really effective way by which we can save ourselves from them even in our present broken state of health. That way is the way of self-restraint or of imposing a limit on our acts.”

In times like this, a little self-restraint can go a long way.