Bigger Than a Big Weather Story

Bigger Than a Big Weather Story

When I was a practicing journalist I came to learn that there are few stories bigger than a big weather story. I still remember, more than three decades later, my managing editor at the daily paper where I worked standing in the middle of the newsroom as a tropical storm was headed our way and bellowing, “Blow it all out of proportion!” And we dutifully did.

So what’s bigger than a big weather story? The current furor over COVID-19, AKA the coronavirus, reminds me of our coverage of tropical storms and hurricanes, but on steroids. The media has certainly seen to the task of blowing it all out of proportion, making it bigger by far than a big weather story.

Now I can already hear the protests and mocking retorts. “But, BUT! This thing is deadly! It’s killing people! It’s a pandemic! It will destroy civilization as we know it!”

Yes, yes, I know all that (except the last one, of course), and I don’t mean to minimize the potential for death and destruction that this virus can wreak, any more than I would minimize the potential of seriously bad weather to kill and destroy. I’m also not intending to discourage people from taking reasonable precautions to protect themselves and others, though I am advocating that people not overreact. While some people, mostly older people and those with serious underlying medical conditions, are at high risk, many cases of the virus in the U.S. have been relatively mild. I think it’s both useful and even hugely beneficial to keep things in perspective and not run off the cliff by blowing things all out of proportion.

Striking a balance

As with any emergency, two factors are critically important. One is to recognize the danger and how to best address it, and the other is to stay calm and avoid panic. The kind of media coverage we’ve gotten on COVID-19, for the most part, has been heavy on the former (even as it was late in coming and largely distorted, which it remains), and exceedingly light on the later. I don’t think it has done what it could to make people safer and shockingly little to calm them or put things in perspective. We’ve seen the results of this as people rush to alter their everyday lives in ways that often are gross overreactions while not necessarily making them any safer. Meanwhile, the impact on the economy, with more than a 20% drop in the markets and massive slow-downs and shut-downs of whole industries, appears to be perhaps more harmful to the country than the virus itself.

We’ve watched on television as people in places, mostly on the West and East Coasts, stripped store shelves bare, as if theynauris-pukis-S0XbrnbUo-g-unsplash close quarters were expecting some sort of plague of locusts to descend on them. By way of comparison, as recently as a few days ago everything remained normal here where I live in North-Central Florida. I felt people were being sensible, given the remote risk involved, and there were no signs of panic. And then the dominoes started falling here as elsewhere. The National Hot Rod Association announced it was postponing the Gator Nationals hot rod races in Gainesville, which particularly pissed me off, partly because I had already bought my ticket, but more because it is an outdoor event, furchrissake. Florida colleges and universities are considering moving all classes online. And then yesterday I visited some of the local stores and, while I wouldn’t characterize the atmosphere as one of panic, it clearly had shifted from the usual norm. I’m not an expert, but I have to think the chance of contracting a virus in the closed confines of a supermarket has to be greater than in the open air.

As in other places, along with water, toilet paper and some other products had been stripped from the shelves. While I can kind of understand and even expected the water – these stores run out of water even in more normal times – but toilet paper? Folks, this isn’t a dysentery epidemic. What possible need for toilet paper, beyond normal consumption, can anyone have? And it turns out this isn’t just happening in this country, but overseas, too. There is the family in Australia who (by mistake) ordered not 48 rolls but 48 cases of toilet paper. By their estimate, 12 years worth of the stuff. Now admittedly the order was placed before the coronavirus furor reached full bore, but the family is finding they’ve become very popular among people who can’t find TP in the stores in Oz and are re-selling the rolls as a fundraiser.

Watching people rolling carts topped to the brim with products, one wonders if they’re planning on withdrawing to underground bunkers to await the all-clear after the radioactive fallout from nuclear war has stopped dropping or for when the invading aliens have returned to their distant galaxy. In large part promoted by the media, this sort of rush is now under way across the country.

One report I got was from my contractor, who described the scene in coastal Mississippi: “I stocked up on enough food and supplies to last a month just in case we have to be isolated but I’ve seen people buying enough to last for the rest of the year. It’s absolutely ridiculous.” Number, as of today, of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Mississippi: 10, at least one of which originated out of state. Number of deaths in the state from COVID-19: 0. Mississippi’s population: 2.99 million.

Ridiculous, indeed.

Putting things in perspective

To further see how ridiculous, let’s put things in perspective a bit. As of today, this county where I live has had a grand total of no cases of coronavirus. The county to the east has had five cases, the county to the north has had one (which came from Georgia, the state, not the country), and one to the southwest has recorded one case. None of the other four counties that border on this county has had any cases, and no deaths have been recorded in any of these counties. The state of Florida, which has about 22 million people, not counting its many visitors, has so far confirmed 76 cases and three deaths, several cases involving people who had traveled abroad or were from other states.

Meanwhile, so far this year, if averages from other recent years can be relied on, in just 75 days something like 630 people have died in road accidents on the state’s streets and highways and another 51,000 or so have been injured. Perhaps if people paid more attention to their driving and less to concern about wiping their butts they’d be a lot better off.

I haven’t even been able to find accurate statistics on how many people have come down from the flu or died from it in Florida, but nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that as many as 49 million people this flu season alone have contracted the flu, there have been up to 23 million medical visits and 620,000 hospitalizations, and 52,000 deaths, including 144 children to date (that includes 12 so far in Florida). By comparison, the CDC is reporting 1,629 cases of coronavirus in 46 states and the District of Columbia, and 41 deaths, with no child deaths in the U.S. Not that any of those cases or deaths are to be dismissed, but the comparison with the illness and deaths from the flu and other things can’t be ignored. In this country, we see more than 67,000 people die each year from opioids.

Hysteria and playing politics

If you look objectively at what the current Administration in the White House has done to control introduction and spread of this virus, it has acted decisively and quickly. When it became apparent that the virus had originated in or around the city of Wuhan in China, the President on Jan. 31 ordered a limited ban on entry into the U.S. by most travelers coming from China, and it went into effect on Feb. 2. This past week, on March 11, the President ordered a similar ban on travel from Europe, with exemptions for travelers from the U.K. and Ireland, both of which were later added to the ban. And on March 13 he declared a national state of emergency, with the effect of releasing additional federal resources and funding to deal with the crisis.

To assure a coordinated approach, the President on Feb. 26 had put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the government’s response to the coronavirus, with experts from the CDC and National Institutes of Health (NIH) leading the medical response to the threat posed by COVID-19. If you didn’t see that press conference you should now since I think it was one of the most explanatory and straightforward presidential press conference I’ve ever seen.

You’d almost never know that President Trump was doing anything to address the threat of coronavirus if you only follow the never-Trumpers on the left wing of the media who, along with some on the Democratic side of the aisle in Congress, have disgustingly done their utmost to politicize what is a national crisis. It reached the point where on some networks program hosts blatantly squelched any views that offered support to the President. This was transparently obvious, for instance, to anyone watching as CNN’s Don Lemon – who, in my assessment, would have a hard time beating out a clever hamster in an intelligence contest – repeatedly shut down former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (himself no big Trump supporter) as Kasich attempted to defend the President’s response to the crisis.

Along with the anti-Trump prejudice, we heard such inanities as commentators saying it was “zenophobic” and “racist” to call macau-photo-agency-4I6VHLP5Ws4-unsplash masked familythe virus “the Wuhan virus” or “the Chinese virus,” despite the fact that the origins of the virus in and around Wuhan is little disputed. That encouraged Chinese officials to blast the U.S. for saying the virus originated in China and even to threaten to withhold vital medications from the U.S. Meanwhile, lots of viruses and ailments, including Ebola, West Nile, Zika, and Lyme, not to mention “the Spanish flu” and “the Asian flu” – remember those, from 1918 and 1957, respectively? – have been named after the area in which they originated, and no one ever called those names racist or zenophobic.

Two big scandals exposed by the coronavirus

Not to sugar coat anything, there are at least two big national scandals this coronavirus thing has in fact uncovered, and we should be grateful that it has. One is the lack of our capacity to produce kits to test for the virus on a massive scale. While South Korea has been able to test 20,000 people a day, it is safe to say we don’t really know how many people in the U.S. have been tested. We do know that testing capacity in this country has been severely limited – perhaps no more than 20,000 tests in total performed to date – and this falls squarely on the shoulders of the CDC. Conflicts between the CDC and some states, such as the conflict with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, at the epicenter of the outbreak, have been reported, and little has been done to tap the capacity of the private sector to produce test kits of sufficient number. Fortunately, on March 13 the FDA approved pharmaceutical giant Roche’s new automated test, which should allow a rapid ramp-up of testing capability as it begins to roll out. Roche says it already has 500,000 tests ready and can produce another 1.5 million of them per month. Going forward, a more flexible approach to developing and deploying testing for various diseases needs to be implemented.

The other big scandal, and perhaps the bigger and more difficult one to address, is how dependent the U.S. has become on overseas production of pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical components, with China holding the lion’s share of production of some key medications. It is estimated that China is the source of 97 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S., and two countries, China and India, produce most of the pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical materials used in the U.S. Along with the strategic threat this preponderance of source represents, there also have been issues of quality control and corruption in the Chinese pharmaceutical industry. It would seem that moves should begin immediately to domesticate key elements of this country’s pharmaceuticals production, something other countries also should do.

We have learned lessons from previous pandemics, such as the H1N1 pandemic of a decade ago, but sometimes lessons are forgotten and each new pandemic brings with it new challenges. Making systemic fixes to address such obvious and serious problems as these two needs to be a national priority. And that is not blowing things out of proportion.

Photo credits: Featured image: Max LaRochelle/Unsplash; Crowded: Nauris Pukis/Unsplash; Masked Family: Macau Photo Agency/Unsplash

11 Replies to “Bigger Than a Big Weather Story”

  1. You are correct about the over reaction by the general population which was absolutely inflamed by the media. I have to give credit to WLOX in Biloxi that interviewed beach goers today and they had positive attitudes and was enjoying a beautiful day in the sun. I’m confident that the virus will fade with the onset of Spring which will give the pharmaceutical companies time to create a vaccine before the next round.

    1. Good to hear that some attempt at balance still exists in the media. I have found the local media to be less inflammatory than the national media and your example illustrates that. Hopefully all this insanity will be short-lived.

  2. A reporter in Washington Post compared COVID-19 with this:
    There’s an old brain teaser that goes like this: You have a pond of a certain size, and upon that pond, a single lilypad. This particular species of lily pad reproduces once a day, so that on day two, you have two lily pads. On day three, you have four, and so on. Now the teaser. “If it takes the lily pads 48 days to cover the pond completely, how long will it take for the pond to be covered halfway?” The answer is 47 days. “ By what happened/is happening in Italy (since Feb 26, 2158 deaths in a region with the best medical system in Europe) I think the comparison is right. You do not feel it, but all of a sudden is all over the place.

    1. Yes, while I’m not a mathematician, I do know of that demonstration of geometric progression of things (I think that’s what it’s called). The same thing applies with other communicable diseases, like the flu. While I’m not denigrating the seriousness of the spread of COVID-19, the point I was trying to make was that it’s not the only, and perhaps not even the biggest, threat facing us, and spreading panic about it is not productive in any case. Caution, taking precautions? Yes. Panic and, as a side effect, destroying the economy over it, I don’t think is useful. One doesn’t want the cure to be worse than the disease.

      That’s the first time I’ve heard that Italy has the best medical system in Europe. Anecdotally I haven’t heard very good things about the Italian medical system but, again, I don’t claim expertise in this area. Three things that were pointed out to me, specific to Italy, are, first, the large number of Chinese tourists and the extensive nature of Chinese investment in the country, which probably helps explain why Italy has been so strongly affected; second, the average age of the Italian population, given the elevated mortality for older people, could help explain the high death toll; and third, the tendency of Italians to look after their parents and grandparents in their own homes rather than putting them into nursing homes, which might have helped spread the infection to a wider spectrum of the population. Again, this is speculative, but these things make a lot of sense to me.

      I welcome any comments on these points or any further insights on the situation.

  3. And I would add a fourth reason: Italy and Italians did not initially take this virus seriously enough, unfortunately.

    1. Point well taken. I think a number of countries in Europe and elsewhere didn’t.

      I wasn’t aware that Lombardia had such a developed medical system. My only contact with Italian medicine was outside the country or with buying medications at an airport pharmacy (no prescription needed). The anecdotes I’ve heard have been from other parts of Italy, and they were a bit underwhelming. Will keep that in mind if I ever get sick in Italy in the future.

  4. I was working outside in New Orleans throughout this week, but I, among many others, took precautions. Here’s hoping that this virus finally passes soon because I want to go to Fête Française next Saturday. As for why China makes so much of our products, take a look at how many laws, regulations, etc. on the books.

    1. I hope you can make it to Fête Française, but if you think this is all going to be over in a week I think you’re going to be sadly disappointed. Would that it could be so.

        1. Not surprised, especially seeing how things are going in Louisiana. People really pushed it at Mardi Gras and since and, as you see, the confirmed cases now are going way up in the state.

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