Global pandemic. The words conjure mental images of overworked doctors, hospital floors packed with the gravely ill, infrastructure shutdown, and fearful people huddling together in their tiny germboxes, flanked all around by useless medicines and dwindling food supplies. All overlaid with the jangling sound of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult played on repeat, of course.
And here we are in the middle of one.
In some ways, it matches the picture.
The medical industry is overloaded and struggling to catch up with the flood of people infected with this particular strain of novel coronavirus, which is proving more virulent and seems to have a longer incubation period than other strains, resulting in a wider transmission through those who don’t yet know they are contagious. The death rate (somewhere between 1% and 2% of those who are infected) is considerably higher than the death rate of seasonal flu, which kills thousands every year and no longer makes headlines. Like the flu, though, COVID-19 disproportionately affects those over 60, and those with preexisting medical conditions.
In some parts of the world, people are confined to their homes, subject to community-wide quarantine protocols. Italy, for example, where the virus runs rampant, has put nearly the whole country in shutdown, closing public gathering places, freezing tourism, and forbidding citizens to leave the house except for work, food shopping, and medical visits.
Panic buying is at an all-time high, with stores across the world reporting shortages of toilet paper, hand-sanitizer, over-the-counter medicines, and zombie melee weapons. Thanks to industry shutdowns in China and other manufacturing locations in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, there is a very palpable fear circulating that these staples may not be available, for love or money, in the immediate future. I confess to buying a couple of extra packs of TP myself this week, largely due to a recurring nightmare I have where we run out of it and have to use pages from my Calvin & Hobbes comic collection instead.
And, of course, amid all the uncertainty, the economy has taken a nosedive. It’s not a good time to check the status of your 401K. Just trust me; don’t look. Close your eyes, buckle up, and trust the market. The Dow will rise again! Or maybe not, but by the time we know that, we’ll likely be raiding the fortresses of violent biker gangs for the last of the world’s gasoline, and our investment portfolios will matter about as much as my long gone personal library.
While some areas of the world are already hard hit by illness—China, Italy, South Korea—others, like us here in the U.S., are taking note of what those countries are doing and gearing up for our own battle with the virus.
Sure, the doomsday preppers are walking around the place with those smug I-told-you-so smirks on their faces, but I don’t think it’s going to be that bad. As unwelcome as this virus is, I fear it a lot less than I fear the collective herd at this moment. We’re a panicky species, by and large. And a scared populace is a dangerous populace. We start by buying up all the toilet paper, and before you know it, we’re burning down the houses of people with seasonal allergies. In part, I blame the wall-to-wall, drama-inducing barrage of breathless news coverage. Fear and doom drive up the ratings, and it’s all about ratings. But I also blame the human animal, who, though sometimes resilient, compassionate, and resourceful beyond reckoning, is also prone to impulsiveness, anger, and selfishness. Which side of our ever-spinning coin will we land on in this mess?
To quote Tommy Lee Jones’ character from Men In Black, Agent K: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.” Let’s hope we handle the challenges of the coming days better than we would handle a hypothetical Arquillian Battle Cruiser bent on destroying the planet.
Just do not ask me for any of my toilet paper.
In these troubled times, it’s every butt for itself.