Friday the Thirteenth…appropriate enough.
It is the last day of classes before Spring Break, though most seem to have been canceled. Cars line the roads near the residence halls as students hastily load their belongings in the rain. Though the weather is warming up and beginning to show signs of the coming season, the mood does not match. The air is thick with dread, confusion, and a weird tension that’s impossible to shake. The proverbial “calm before the storm.”
Just two days before, the World Health Organization upgraded the status of the novel coronavirus outbreak to “pandemic,” and the cascade of emails and news articles began. While the university had previously made the call to keep the dorms open through the break and discourage travel as a precaution, an abrupt change was made. All classes were to immediately move online for the remaining six weeks, a stressful upheaval in itself, and every student would be required to vacate the campus by the end of the break. Labs would likely be hand-waved away, and senior capstone projects would be turned in as-is for grading on partial completion.
Students are saying goodbyes all over campus, and tying up loose ends before leaving. Some may be back in September (if things return to normal), but others will simply have their final year at the university cut short. Inside the Union, the building is packed with over a thousand people in the main thoroughfare, holding an impromptu “Coronamencement” in place of the commencement that would never happen. It’s kind of ironic, holding a major gathering while the semester is being thrown into chaos due to a viral threat…
It’s easy to get caught up in worries about the quality of education inevitably falling off a cliff or the anxiety of being suddenly kicked out of where you live, but it really is a dire situation. The phrase “putting your eggs in one basket” comes to mind, and I suspect that’s the line of thinking going on at an administrative level. In addition to the potential for a disease to spread like wildfire on a college campus, applying the statistics of an epidemic to a hotspot of academics is a terrifying societal risk. Despite the relative isolation of the area, confirmed cases of COVID-19 have made their way to the state.
One day later, I have to go to my job in Retail Land, where I’m floored by the stark contrast in attitudes. Sure, some students and faculty referred to the decision an “overreaction” and favored the idea of merely trying to isolate the campus from the outside world, but that’s nowhere near the brazen stupidity going on in town. The movie theater’s parking lot is as full as it was for the last Avengers film, every restaurant appears busy, and people are out shopping. Frivolous shopping by blasé buyers vocally proclaiming their ignorance and panicked types “stocking up” line up alike. I dare not venture into Wal-Mart or any of the grocery stores after work, but I’m told that there are rows upon rows of aisles that are entirely bare. (The toilet paper and hand sanitizer were long gone, days before, of course.)
I’m, quite frankly, disturbed by what’s going on. You have belligerent ignorance on one end and undirected panic on the other, with little being done to mitigate the impending threat as people create a scenario enabling faster propagation. Meanwhile, medical professionals prepare to do battle, knowing full well that they are ill-equipped. Supply interruptions have caused shortages of everything from masks to commonly used drugs like anticoagulants needed for surgeries. There aren’t enough hospital beds or ventilators in the world for expected numbers of patients, with the WHO’s estimated 20% of infected requiring hospitalization to survive.
People bat around different numbers for mortality rates, but here’s the thing: the number of deaths is a function of the hospitalization rate and hospital capacity. If 10-20% (do you like 1-in-10 odds?) of people who come in contact with a virus known to spread very easily can only survive it with medical attention, that obviously means it’s fatal to not receive that care. Maybe there aren’t enough resources to go around, maybe people avoid seeking medical care due to the costs or lack of insurance. Maybe they have another medical emergency and hospitals are stretched too thin due to the virus. When you have doctors around the world telling you shit’s about to hit the fan…maybe don’t pretend you know more than people who devoted years of their lives to studying their field?
I just read this chilling “open letter letter from Italy to the international scientific community” not too long before I had the urge to sit down and begin writing this.
The next few months will be interesting…