For all our technological and cultural advances, humans have a glaring weakness – an Achilles Heel, if you will. It’s our difficulty comprehending and working with situations where actions and consequences are experienced separately in time and/or space.
It’s why we scald ourselves in the shower, turning the water too far in one direction, and then freeze by turning too far, too quickly in the other direction. It’s why we build subdivisions even as a housing boom is already ebbing and shopping malls as brick-and-mortar storefronts are vanishing. It’s even the reason Union and Confederate forces clashed in a number of battles fought after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Back then, our problem was news traveled too slowly. Today, it moves too fast. Worse yet, it arrives without context. The implications are clear in Americans’ responses to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).
We’re inundated daily with facts and figures from around the world on rates of infection, recovery, and mortality. It’s become our new language. We’re not all citing the same numbers with the same time stamp, mind you, but that’s not our biggest problem. That would be the misguided attempt to extrapolate what numbers from China, Iran, Italy, and elsewhere in America mean without proper context.
As those facts arrive from Asia and Europe, we focus instantly on how many people are confirmed sick and how many have died. From this, we do our back-of-the-napkin calculations of survival rates/mortality rates. Many of us are alarmed. Many are dismissive. Few are rational.
The first best thing we can do is to stop drawing conclusions like we’re somehow all experts in contagious disease. Beyond that, we can slow down and wait for a more complete set of facts as the basis for those conclusions. And let prudence be our guide in the meantime. Even though we aren’t virus experts, we can apply common sense and reason to how we think about its spread.
The analogy that comes to mind is a tsunami-caused earthquake. Near the quake’s epicenter, we feel tremors and see the effects almost immediately. But the tsunami may take minutes, hours, or even up to a day to hit land. Data points about COVID-19’s health impacts are the earthquake. We felt it almost immediately once news leaked out of China, and we’ve been compiling and tracking that data around the clock ever since. But, while the virus spreads alarmingly quickly, it hasn’t crossed the Asian and European continents, nor the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, with the same speed as the news about it on the internet and the news shows.
We face the same risk as the shower example, but with much more at stake. We see data coming in today from China and assume it applies directly to where we are now in the US. But we’re two months behind them. What we see there are numbers improving, and it’s really tempting to want to breath a massive sigh of relief and get on with our lives as normal.
But, the numbers and encouraging images from China now come after the extremely aggressive measures Chinese officials took in January and February to stop the spread of COVID-19. Through massive lockdowns, quarantines, electronic surveillance, rapid construction of new hospitals, and other measures, China seems to be succeeding at getting a handle on the epidemic. But we’re looking at their situation on the other side of the curve, while trying to feel better about our place here on the just-getting-started side of the curve. That’s extremely dangerous.
Add to our time lag the incomplete causal analysis on which we’re relying for making choices about how seriously to take things. We look at countries at various points in the spread. Italy, for example is in dire straits, with doctor’s forced to choose which patients to save and which to let die. The news from China and from Korea is encouraging. From Italy, things are grim and getting worse. Experts conjecture it’s the higher median age of Italian citizens and their highly social culture which make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. But these are unproven theories, not facts.
Meanwhile, here in America, we have friends perhaps more frightened than is helpful, but also many more who seem dismissive of it all. I see smart people ignoring voluntary recommendations and mandatory orders from public and health officials, even as the number of confirmed cases in the US has increased by 700 to 900 cases each of the last three days. Unlike the Italians, we’ve not yet reached the point where emergency rooms and hospitals are taxed to the max. But, conventional wisdom is we have even less capacity in our country than they have in theirs. And, we may yet have to travel much of the road Italians are on before we get to the point we’d like to be like China.
Choosing between the deepening crisis of Italy and the apparently more hopeful story out of China and other Asian nations, crisis deniers are betting their lives on the latter.
As in any crisis, we should draw our hope from the best-case scenario. But we must plan and execute our actions to combat the worst. Your life and the lives of your loved ones may very well depend on it. Mine does too.
Image Credit: composite image created from base COVID-19 illustration from the CDC (fair use).