Friday, March 13, 2020

"Staying Home" During a Pandemic.

The new coronavirus human infection (COVID-19) that began in China's Hebei Province at the end of last year is now a global pandemic.

The USA is just starting to realize what's at stake here. For a long time, it seemed like it was a problem for "other people," which is the way epidemics tend to be regarded when one is not personally affected.

I started to pay more attention only when the virus moved to Italy a few weeks ago, because my daughter Agnese and her classmates were there for their "Semester in Rome." Our school, like most American universities, made an early call to end its program and get the kids home with proper precautions at the beginning of this month.

At the end of February and beginning of March, there was a sense that the situation in Italy could rapidly escalate, but no one expected the events of the past week. Italy is "shut down" as I write, and much of Europe and North America are following the same trail. Up until recently, it had been too easy to downplay COVID-19, because it's a complicated disease that manifests itself in different ways. It was too easy for us to think of it as just "a very bad version of the flu" because we were focused on hypothetical statistics like "death percentage" and on the idea that "most people get it only mildly." Whereas (as Italy shows, and they have a good health system there) the extensive spread of the COVID-19 virus creates significant overall problems in a modern society that has any sense of responsibility at all. 

The virus spreads widely among humans; most get only a little sick and some (perhaps many) never develop symptoms at all. But it hits vulnerable sectors of the population much harder, where it can develop into an serious acute respiratory illness. This is where the emergency lies. Though it may only be dangerous to the health of a few, it is the responsibility of all of us to protect them.

If the virus is unchecked, the result is a rapid spike in people who need hospitalization and special medical care. The ICUs are quickly overwhelmed, and there are not enough doctors, equipment, beds, etc. for patients who require real and immediate critical attention. This is exactly what has happened in Italy. Meanwhile, hospitals still have their regular flow of inpatients and urgent cases. The situation is comparable to a wartime crisis with ongoing civilian casualties. Doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers are exhausted, pushed beyond the limits of human endurance. In Italy, they have been heroic.

A healthcare crisis of this magnitude (or worse) may be coming to the USA and other countries within days or weeks. We must do everything we can to prepare for it and mitigate its impact as much as possible. With sufficient resources, most of the COVID-19 patients who require hospitalization "will live." But they will need specialized and long-term treatment. Otherwise many more of them will die or suffer permanent serious lung injuries. There is no making light of the desperate nature of the problem for them or for health-caregivers. That means, simply, that it is a serious problem for all of us.

What can we do?

The whole society needs to slow down the spread of the virus in order to slow down to a more manageable level the flow of people needing hospital care. COVID-19 spreads easily, many people might get it without ever knowing (but still spread it to others), most get nothing more than mild symptoms, but the "small percentage" of people who end up with serious pneumonia and other complications is still a huge number when they are all going into the healthcare system at the same time, needing intensive care and special medical equipment.

One thing we can all do is practice "social distancing" - a nice way of saying that public events need to be cancelled and public gathering places closed for a certain period of time. For the technologically-driven economies of the Global Village, this presents an unprecedented challenge. It is difficult to estimate the financial repercussions, and here too we all must be prepared to help the real human beings whose livelihoods are seriously disrupted or ruined. This is going to cost a lot of money over a significant period of time, and society as a whole has to be prepared to help shoulder the burden. It's encouraging to see that so many in the world recognize that what is ultimately at stake are values beyond price.

Maybe we will learn more about solidarity as we recognize the need to take care of one another, especially our elders and chronically ill people.

In any case, right now we are all going to have slow down and stay home. That in itself may not be such a bad thing in the long run. For many reasons.

I have had lots of experience with being "homebound" for long stretches of time (due to disability) during the course of the last two decades. It's not easy. For me, embracing my "material limitations" is an ongoing struggle. I can also say, however, that new possibilities "open up" within the limits, and I recognize them if I'm paying attention. 

Life is a gift, and there is always value in it, always a way to go "forward" - to draw closer to its fulfillment, to rediscover the Mystery at its roots that gives meaning to our actions and carries us through our sufferings. 

It's not easy. We have to persist, always ready to begin again. But we also have to be patient with ourselves... and with each other.