Ruminations on Corona Craziness

by Phil Anderson

Corona beer causes the the corona virus – or cures it – according to the bar talk. One hopes these notions are intended to be humorous. But there is a lot of ignorance, misinformation, and hysteria floating around. As the reaction –or overreaction – to the corona virus pandemic develops we are seeing a lot of irrational craziness. 

This is not about downplaying the seriousness of this problem or to suggest we not take appropriate actions to limit the spread of the disease. But rational actions, and leadership from the medical professionals, are what is needed not knee jerk hysteria or political posturing. 

To begin with the problem needs to be put into perspective with actual facts. The best available information is that the COVID-19 virus is transmitted between people through CLOSE CONTACT with infected persons. It is transmitted by liquid droplets from coughing and sneezing and is not spread by airborne transmission. The people most at risk are those who are in close contact with a COVID-19 infected person. The close contact of airplane travel is another way the virus spreads. So why are people being asked to work from home when their normal work does not involve close contact with other people?  

The disease is affecting mostly older people, especially those with existing health problems. The average healthy person is very unlikely to contract, or die, from this disease. This is born out by the numbers coming out of China and other parts of the world. The cases reported so far the U.S. match this pattern. The vast majority of people who do contract the disease will recover.  In the U.S. only a small percentage – currently about 1 ten thousandths of one percent – of the total population are getting the disease. So why are schools being closed? Why are young adults being sent home from work or college when no cases of infection exist in those locations?

Maybe we should err on the side of caution.  We should take sensible actions to reduce possible exposure. But the latest news reports say there have been 2,795 cases testing positive in the U.S. To date 57 people have died. In contrast the Centers for Disease Control estimates that EVERY YEAR influenza produces 9 million to 45 million cases of illness with between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations. Every year 12,000 to 61,000 deaths result from the flu. Do we close schools every year?  So far 25.8 million students have been affected by school closures. But the CDC says short term closures will likely make little difference in the spread of the virus. It seems to me the reaction is more hysteria than sensible precautions.

Why are people rushing to buy toilet paper? Diarrhea is not a symptom or consequence of the corona virus. Why are people panic buying food and other supplies? Going to the store to do regular shopping is not likely to expose anyone to this disease. Panic buying of paper face masks is resulting in a shortage of masks that the health care workers do need for protecting themselves and patients. The World Health Organization says masks are ineffective and not needed by most people. 

Can things get worse? Yes, and it probably will. In 2009 we had a swine flu (H1N1) epidemic.  The CDC estimated 60.8 million people contracted this strain of the flu, 274,304 were hospitalized, and 12,469 died. No matter what we do we can't control nature and the COVID-19 will spread. 

Then there are all the other, everyday ways to die that everyone ignores. Tens of thousands of people die every year from other diseases, gun violence, traffic accidents, workplace accidents, medical mistakes, or lack of access to health care. Many of these deaths are preventable. Obesity kills about 300,000 people a year. Diabetes kills 83,000 a year and is largely caused by our self-inflicted poor diets. In total about 2.8 million of us die every year (0.8 percent of the population). This pandemic is just one more of many dangers we face everyday without panic and without utilizing KNOWN, SENSENBLE PREVENTIVE ACTIONS. 

Should we ignore the current pandemic? Of course not! What is needed NOW is a robust public health infrastructure along with all the social safety net programs of a modern society. You organize and maintain a fire department expecting some houses will catch fire. You don't organize an ad hoc bucket brigade every time a fire starts. You don't lay off the fire fighters just because no one's house is currently burning. We have failed to create and maintain the necessary medical, social, and economic infrastructure all our people need, all the time, for responding to this pandemic, or any other disaster.

The current national leadership believes in the bucket brigade approach. In every budget since taking office, the Trump administration has cut the Centers for Disease Control. They dismantled an epidemic response team created under the National Security Council. They have tried to cut Medicare, Medicaid, other health programs, and dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Now politicians on both sides are scrambling to create the appearance of helping people after decades of fighting real solutions. The House has passed an emergency paid sick leave bill but the fine print exempts many employers. A bill to spend $8.3 billion to fight this pandemic has been floated. This is more than the entire CDC yearly budget. Who will benefit from this knee jerk response? I bet it won't be the people who get sick!

When people get sick they need access to health care regardless of what disease they have, how they got it, or whether they can pay for the care. When an epidemic happens we need national, universal healthcare. People need paid sick leave so they won't come to work and infect other people. They need paid family medical leave so they can stay home to care for a sick child or family member. They need unemployment insurance when a crisis affects their jobs. Parents need school nurses monitoring kids for disease. We need a modern system of medical, social, and economic support that meets the needs of people ALL THE TIME, and especially during a pandemic.

Unfortunately what we have is an underfunded, fragmented, for-profit maze of inadequate services available to some people but not everyone. For decades we have failed to “promote the general welfare” and now we are not adequately prepared to deal with this pandemic. As the disease spreads, people panic, and the economy crashes, we will be stuck with the consequences of our shortsighted choices.