Monday Musings: Flattening the Curve, Projection “Hoaxes,” and Righteous Anger

I’m angry today.

The pandemic – the isolation, the uncertainty, the steady stream of tragic news, the underlying fear – elicits different emotions at different times, running the gamut from those I’d expect (sadness, fear, numbness) to those I might not. At times lately, I have looked with renewed appreciation at the blessings I have and have had, and I’m thankful, even peaceful.

Today, for a whole host of reasons, I’m pissed. Why? Well, if you really want to know, read the articles about the so-called “Red Dawn” emails. Read the articles about red state Senators getting ventilators for their states, while blue states, where the virus is MUCH worse, have to beg for masks and tests, as well as ventilators. Read the articles about how dangerous it would be to “reopen the country for business” at the end of this month.

But it’s not just those things. How many of you have heard people claiming that, because the national death toll is now projected to be lower – “merely” 64,000 rather than 100,000-240,000 – the more alarmist projections were a “hoax” and symptomatic of panic and overreaction? Never mind that 64,000 is more Americans than died in either the Korean or Vietnam War. Never mind that it’s more people than die in traffic accidents or are killed by firearms each year. Never mind that it’s comparable to annual drug deaths in this country. And never mind that even this new projection could have been much, much lower if only our nation’s leaders had taken action more quickly.

Those crying “hoax” ignore the fact that the projections fell because we (belatedly) reacted to the crisis. They refuse to acknowledge that social-distancing saves lives, that shutting down the economy, though excruciating, saves lives. The best analogy I have seen for this insanity comes from a Tweet I read the other day: Claiming, based on the new projections, that we have “overreacted” to the crisis is like saying, “The fire department told me my house would burn to the ground, but they were wrong – it’s still standing and now it’s all wet…”

In the same way, the President’s talk of opening up the country before his own health experts deem it safe is a recipe for disaster. We are in the first wave of this pandemic. More waves will come. Flattening the curve now does NOT mean we have won. It means we have bought ourselves a bit of time, during which we should be making more masks, building more ventilators, increasing the capacity of our hospitals, and, one hopes, developing a vaccine for the virus.

There will be another wave. It may well be worse than this one if we don’t avail ourselves of this time we’ve gained. The next wave will certainly be every bit as bad if we end the social distancing and self-quarantining too soon. This is not my opinion. It is basic epidemiology (and yeah, I live with a biologist). So, in other words, we have succeeded in slowing the first wave of the pandemic, and in doing so have likely held down the initial infection rate and death toll. And that’s great. But that’s all we’ve done.

Again, flattening the curve is a delaying tactic, a way of marshaling our resources so that we’re not utterly overwhelmed by a highly contagious and deadly illness. It is not the ultimate goal, but rather an interim strategy. Which means that even after this curve has run its course, we will not be done and we will not be safe.

Finally, consider this: Despite early reports to the contrary, this is not an older person’s disease. Yes, fatality rates are higher among those in older age groups. But young people are getting this virus, and young people are dying from it. For whatever reason – and thank whatever deity you worship for this – children really do seem to be relatively immune. But the recurring conservative talking point about how Covid-19 is only killing the elderly and infirm, like it’s some sort of airborne wolfpack, is complete bullshit. Remember that the next time you hear someone saying that we should be willing to make sacrifices to open the country for business again. Yes, recessions and depressions take a terrible toll, not just economically, but also in terms of our physical and mental health. But look around at your family, your circle of friends, your community of professional colleagues. Who among them would you be willing to consign to an early death?

So, yeah, I’m angry today. Angry because we as a society are still not doing all we can to stop this thing. Angry because our leaders are failing us again and again and again. Angry because the information we need to combat the virus is not as readily available as it should be, leading to false narratives and unrealistic expectations.

Stay safe. Stay hunkered down. Be smart. Be careful. Not only because your health and life are at stake. But because so are mine, and so are those of the people I love.