We find ourselves confronting a very real threat from an invisible enemy, a microscopic virus that spreads via aerosol mists that we exhale, cough or sneeze.
It can live for hours or even days on the surfaces we touch. The novel coronavirus has taken the nation — and world — by storm. Here in Fargo-Moorhead and most of North Dakota and Minnesota, known infections still are few.
But elsewhere in the U.S., including around Seattle and in New York and California, the virus is spreading rapidly. That seeming level of safety here in the hinterlands could breed dangerous complacency.
The deadly Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-19 proved that rural areas and smaller cities are not immune. That outbreak killed more than 1,700 in North Dakota and more than 10,000 in Minnesota.
We rarely confront threats that increase at an exponential rate. A problem that initially appears miniscule suddenly explodes through rapid doubling: two becomes four becomes eight, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024 in mere days.
Unfortunately, because of the ongoing lack of testing, we really have no good idea about how this virus is spreading through the population. We are fighting this enemy blindfolded. A few contagious sparks can sweep through a population with no immunity like a wildfire.
Unchecked, that explosive rate of infection spread would quickly overwhelm our hospitals, leaving seriously and critically ill patients without the help they need. Some would be left to die at home.
That’s the nightmare we’re trying to avoid by closing schools and enforcing strict limits on gatherings. Some people don’t seem to grasp the grim math. They huff that the country is gripped by panic, that the risks are overblown, and we should all calm down. They seem to view this as like a terrorist threat, where steely resolve and stubborn normalcy are called for. Emphatically no.
If we as communities fail to take the most serious public health threat of our lives seriously, by ignoring the pleas of experts to stay home to the extent possible and avoid groups, then we can expect to see mass fatalities. Some projections predict that the U.S could see more than 2 million deaths if the virus isn’t kept from spreading like wildfire — a body count greater than from all of the wars the country has fought, combined.
Another formidable challenge is that people can spread the virus without showing any symptoms. A particular worry is that younger people, who face a lower risk of serious illness, won’t heed the warnings about social distancing. But even healthy people in their 20s can become seriously ill or die. Those not worried about that outcome should think of those who are older and less healthy and are at much greater risk. Who would want to be carelessly responsible for making someone we come into contact with seriously — even fatally — ill?
We are a society that prizes individual freedoms. We don’t like being told what we can’t do. But we have to put aside selfish interests until this storm passes and work together. Because make no mistake: This is the storm of our lives, and how we respond to it will determine the outcome.