A Virus in the Neighborhood


Well, I had another Mister Rogers post mostly written, but then I, along with everyone else, found the coronavirus* situation demanding my attention. Yesterday, one of my closest friends had to cancel our time together because he needs to self-quarantine for his own protection. I was going to suggest it if he didn’t. I live in Washington state. That’s our reality right now.

I’m not a medical professional. I don’t play one on TV. I never dreamed of being a doctor. I have one extremely narrow area of medical specialty: my Miracle Girl’s medical history–which is history now, but at one time was called “Life As We Knew It.” Or “Our Reality Right Now.”

So I’m going to address this not as a doctor, but as a pastor.

First, we have to distinguish between the actual situation concerning the spread and threat of this virus versus some people’s extreme response. Toilet paper. For some unclear reason, people are hoarding toilet paper. In other circumstances, I would be fascinated, sociologically. I lived in Nicaragua for seven years. We learned to carry toilet paper if we were going out and might need to use public restrooms, because outside of high income areas, you weren’t going to find any in the restroom. Of course, you might find a restroom for which you needed to pay 5 cordobas admission, and then you might get your two squares as part of your entry fee.

You think I’m digressing, but I’m not. Being without toilet paper is an unpleasant reality many people experience. Something in our developed-world, “First World Problems” mentality has concluded that, if we’re stuck in our homes for an indefinite stretch of time, the immediate threat of losing our civilized lifestyle would be to run out of TP. I sound like I’m mocking–and I am, a little–but I get it. We like our comforts. We’ve grown accustomed to them and have moved them from “privilege” to “right.” (Go ahead, have a debate with yourself right now: is toilet paper a right or a privilege?)

The run on toilet paper–and this rush is not a hoax or fake news, Target has signs everywhere limiting each customers purchase of hand sanitizer, TP, and a bunch of other things–reveals that we’re unsettled, maybe afraid, and don’t really know how to respond. Unfortunately, other people look at that behavior, label it “ridiculous,” and conclude that the actual situation, the spread of a virus we have yet to understand, much less cure, is not really happening.

I need to say this as clearly as I can: People’s extreme response to news of the virus has no bearing on accurate medical information about the virus. None. Chicken Licken went screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” It wasn’t. We know that story so well, we want to conclude if someone screams this way, there must be no real problem. It doesn’t work that way. If some people behave what appears ridiculously (justified or unjustified**) while a real problem occurs, the real problem is not nullified by their behavior.

Second, we have a medical situation that relates to politics (as virtually everything does) but this is not first and foremost a political situation. By that, I mean one’s political position must not inform their reading of the evidence concerning the virus. (In an ideal world, our political position would never inform our reading of evidence, about anything, but rather vice-versa. But hey, let’s stick to the pandemic for now.) I urge you to read what the CDC, the World Health Organization, and other health professionals have to say. I’m not going to site any figures or statistics here, because they will instantly become outdated. To follow this crisis, we have to keep informing ourselves and continue to learn what’s happening. Whatever we learn today will need to be updated and corrected tomorrow. We’re not in a static situation. We can’t just “find out what’s going on.” We must track with what’s going on.

Personally, I am anti-panic. I don’t have that personality and I fall on the other end of the spectrum in a number of areas (e.g. more untidy than germophobe, more “health optimist” than hypochondriac). When I first heard about the virus, months ago, I said what many have: “The flu is worse, it kills more people; if you want to get upset about something, get upset about that.” I was wrong, dismissing this danger by invoking a different danger. That latter does not cancel out the former. We learn. We correct. We adapt.

I’m going to repeat what should now be common knowledge: SARS-CoV-2 poses a different, potentially greater threat than influenza A and influenza B. Absolutely, more people get the flu and more die from the flu. In current numbers. Here’s where I was wrong: we don’t know enough about coronavirus to predict what will happen next, how much it will spread, how quickly, or what the mortality rate will be. We have no vaccine and won’t for at least a year. Our scientists are literally learning about this virus day by day, minute by minute. We have decades of knowledge from researching the flu (and thousands of years experiencing it) and mere weeks to months from studying coronavirus.

But what we have learned, so far:

Covid-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) appears to have a higher fatality rate (not total numbers, rate), but this may be skewed high because our studies may be missing less severe cases. It appears that people can carry coronavirus asymptomatically. Covid-19 is spread through small droplets from the mouth and nose and thus through coughing and sneezing. It may also be spread through airborne droplets, meaning it can remain in the air after the infected person is no longer present.

Words like “appears” and “may be” when describing what we “know” about this virus should tell you how early we are in the information-gathering phase. But these are not wild guesses, fake news, or theories that could just as easily prove false. This is the best information we have right now according to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Center for Disease Control.

The biggest issue, the one requiring all these shut-downs, quarantines, and precautions, is that the spread of coronavirus could increase exponentially. If the cases of Covid-19 double in a few days time (as they have in the U.S.), and double again, and that pattern continues, the US will be in the same situation as Italy or even Wuhan, China. The demand for treatment could exceed our available resources.

Chart showing that proactive measures flatten the number-of-cases curve to avoid overflowing healthcare systems

This is our situation. We don’t have a vaccine for this virus. We can’t cure it, so preventing it becomes crucial. In Northern Italy, hospitals have higher demand for respirators than they have equipment available. If we respond successfully by reducing the virus’s spread, we’ll have fewer cases, fewer deaths, and the wave will subside before we pass our capacity threshold. If we don’t, many more people will suffer and, likely, many more will die. Those aren’t irrational fears. That is, as my friend says, just math.

If you’re tempted to say, “I thought you were addressing this as a pastor,” I am addressing it as a pastor. I’m encouraging awareness and education. All of us have to research and act on the information available in order to respond to the situation before us. Here we are.

Don’t panic. I’ll quote my pastor, Tim Wilbur, who is also one of my best friends:

Let’s not panic as we trust God for protection, while at the same time lets be cautious and conscientious towards others. In our neck of the woods things are looking bleak. There have been deaths and newly contaminated people are being discovered everyday. So trust God, be a good neighbor and use the good sense God gave you as we face this dilemma together, knowing God is loving and ever present.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you it’s not real, or not a real threat. If you are in the low-risk category, then you are more responsible to put others’ safety first, especially those for whom this virus could be life-threatening.

Our question right now is: “How can I be a neighbor to those most at risk? Those at risk from the virus itself or from the massive disruption this necessary effort to prevent the virus’s spread will cause?” We’re just beginning to grasp the social and economic impact our neighbors face, especially those already suffering poverty. That will need its own post.

The strangest part of our situation is that, if we succeed at truncating the spread of this virus, if we mitigate the outbreak so that our healthcare professionals can keep up, with the result that fewer people die…those who claim it’s either a hoax or a groundless, hysterical overreaction will feel vindicated. But the Bible tells us how those arguments will go. Cooperating to save lives is worth it.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”― Fred Rogers

There. Now it’s a Mister Rogers post, too. We have a chance for God to bring the best out of us in this scary time. We have a chance to be true neighbors the way Jesus described.

*SARS-CoV-2 is the name given to the novel coronavirus now declared a pandemic. There are other strains of coronavirus. In this post, I will use “coronavirus” but please understand I mean SARS-CoV-2.

** If someone ends up using every square of toilet paper that they hoarded before they’re able to purchase more, the ridiculous (appearing) behavior becomes justified.

7 thoughts on “A Virus in the Neighborhood

  1. Benji Tittle

    Good post.

    BTW, just learned this: just like AIDS is the name of a disease and HIV is the name of the virus that causes it, COVID-19 is the name of this new disease, while SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus that causes it.

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