The Coronavirus – A Reality Check?


Yes, I admit it.  I am a contrarian.  Part of it is inborn, part of it is acquired and part of it comes from both professional experience practicing law and experience as a parent where I have learned that there are always two sides to any dispute.  Which brings me to the massive collective freak-out humankind is experiencing over the Coronavirus.

Is the level of panic we are seeing proof that we are not teaching enough history to kids?  Because it seems to me that this sort of thing is, well, normal.  Not “it happened to me just this past Tuesday” normal, but “recorded history goes back many thousands of years” normal.

We moderns feel awfully superior to those who came long before us.  We have things like refrigeration, handheld phones and antibiotics.  We have explored outer space and gained the ability to understand and even manipulate DNA.

My point is that we feel so superior to those in past generations because we know so much more about so many things than they did.  Ha, those silly people of the middle ages and their plague – if only they had known to kill the rats and wash their hands.  Or something.  Then everything would have been fine.  They even had bedbugs.  Oh wait – we have those again too.

The problem is that even now, we do not know everything.  Like the Coronavirus.  What is it?  How does it travel?  How long can it live?  What is the most effective way to protect one’s self?  We do not know these things.  And in this way we can see that we are, in fact, not terribly different from those folks in the Middle Ages who were hit with something they had not yet learned.

Perhaps my thoughts here are colored a bit by some family history.  I am amazed that I am not seeing more references made these days to the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.  It was a genuine epidemic that had an extremely high mortality rate.  And worse, it did not just pile onto the very old, very young or very weak.  It hit healthy people in the prime of life and brought them down hard and fast.

I have always known about this outbreak because of my grandma Johnnie.  Grandma Johnnie was one of seven kids who lived on a farm in Nebraska.  Johnnie, by the way, was the nickname she eventually took on due to her maiden name of Johnson.  In 1918, when Johnnie was just fourteen, the Spanish flu swept through their community.  When it had passed, she had lost her mother and two of  her six sisters.  The flu made her a mother long before she actually became one.  She had to shake off her grief and get to the hard work of raising her younger sisters until she went away to nursing school.  At a school, incidentally, very far from home – chosen by her father to keep her from quitting and coming back to care for the family, a burden that should not have been hers to bear.

I do not intend to write a treatise on the 1918 flu epidemic, but there is lots out there and each of you ought to read something on it.  This was not the middle ages, but was instead an era at the dawn of medicine as we know it today.  This was an era with electricity, canned food, and Ford showrooms.

In my own city of Indianapolis, local history says that we were more successful than most places at practicing an effective kind of public health.  And we still lost 6,000 souls, many of which were at an army base and hospital where infected soldiers landed when they came back from Europe.  That death rate was about 2% of the population.  Today that would be about 16,000 deaths within the area we define as “the old city limits” and closer to 40,000 victims in the greater Indianapolis area, which now stretches into several other counties.

My point is that if we step back a bit, we have to acknowledge that this sort of thing is the normal state of affairs in human history.  We have become used to control.  Many of us can sate our taste for chocolate ice cream on the hottest day of July within fifteen minutes of the craving.  We have armies of health care providers on standby who can treat and cure almost everything but cancer, and they are working hard on that.

We would do well to recognize that control is an illusion, that human history has been nothing if not a series of examples of hubris and pride, knocked down by events we could not control.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons I am less confident than many in our ability to either screw up or to fix the earth’s climate.  The truth is that we don’t know what we don’t know.  These things that we don’t know continue to come at us, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly.  The Coronavirus seems to me one of the latter.

Make no mistake, I don’t want to catch this new virus and I certainly don’t want to die from it.  And I don’t want anyone else to either.  But what I may want has no bearing on what the world is intent on dishing up for us every so often.

I will make a prediction.  Humanity will deal with it.  Some of us will die.  Well, actually, all of us will die, but some very small proportion of us (a far, far smaller proportion than in 1918) will die from this.  But the odds are that each one of us will not.  The most we can hope for is to learn how this virus ticks so that we can either fight it or protect ourselves from it, or both.  And hope that it does not come roaring back like the bedbugs that we in the modern America thought were things that only affected our stupid ancestors.  (For the record, I have been fortunate to not experience the modern bedbug scourge firsthand – and hope to keep it that way).

The human person is the same as the human person has always been, whether that person lived in ancient Mesopotamia, in fifteenth century Scotland or in a gated community in the United States in 2020.  This is our weakness.  And it is also our strength.

Photo source: c. 1918 photo of an emergency hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas during the influenza outbreak.  Originally from the archives of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, and found on Wikimedia Commons, under a CCA 2.0 Generic license.


30 thoughts on “The Coronavirus – A Reality Check?

  1. Phew, thanks for a little perspective! I think you nailed it when you talk about our false sense of control. We can take reasonable precautions, keep calm and educate ourselves, but we can’t control these things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder if this is going to bolster my introvert/stay at home mentality. Someone offered me some free tickets to our local flower and patio show. I wouldn’t really want to go most of the time, and I think this virus thing makes me feel better about not wanting to go. I have not yet had a chance to tell the Mrs. about the free tickets, so maybe she will change my mind. Or not, we will see.


  2. My wife (the nurse practitioner) has told people who want to freak out “So, regular flu kills 3,500 people in Canada each year, did you get your flu shot? No? Well then you should adjust your level of anxiety for something that has made a dozen people sick in this country.
    Now, as you mentioned we should not be careless, unprepared or smug. The appropriate level of concern in Indianapolis or Toronto is very different from being in Wuhan or on the Diamond Princess.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, perhaps I would be singing a different tune if I were touring Asian countries aboard a cruise ship. But even then it would still be some kind of normal, with an appropriately wide lens.


    • I have sometimes joked that we are made to worry about things like being eaten by tigers or such. And that because we no longer have to worry about being eaten when we set foot on the porch, we worry about other things instead. This virus is closer to the tiger than it is to finding mayo on your burger when you asked for it without, but it is still a pretty small worry in the grand scheme of things. It seems like this virus is like most in that it targets the frail more than the rest of us. But then again, one day both of us will probably be frail and such a virus will be a legitimate worry, as it is for those with frail loved ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with many of your thoughts JP. I don’t think they know exactly what they are dealing with yet, and certainly in the context of the Spanish Flu pandemic, it is not yet at that level of catastrophe. Certainly precautions need to be taken, esp in certain areas but no need for hysteria. I tend to err on the side of caution, having been the only person in my pharmacy who came down with H1N1 (two weeks of hell, followed by four weeks of weakness, but never in any danger of dying despite one visit to ER for SOB and chest xray, and I do remember exactly the patient who coughed all over me as I counselled her on her Tamiflu – she had worn her flannel PJ’s to the ER). It greatly annoyed me that I was the only one who got sick as I am the Queen of Hand Sanitizer, but then only one ER doctor caught it and her was Mr. Exercise King. H1N1 seemed to strike younger healthy people. What does concern me re this virus is the number of people who are asymptomatic carriers, as that does not bode well for world-wide spread, no matter how much screening they do. Several years ago I read a book called The Great Influenza – by John Barry – a fascinating read about the 1918 flu epidemic and how it started, but then I sometimes like a good medical read. My great uncle Charlie WW1 vet was in a British hospital for six months in 1919 convalescing with it which sparked my interest. Here’s the link if any of your followers want to check it out. I got my copy at the library.
    Incidentally, a relative recently returned to western Canada from 3 months in Asia, and despite being in Thailand, Cambodia, South Korea and flying back through Hong Kong instead of South Korea which he had pre-booked as their were too many cases by then, he was NOT screened once by the Canadian airport customs, nor even questioned or advised. Nothing. He said he was screened 3 times in the Hong Kong airport, and his passport checked thoroughly for where he had traveled, so I’m not convinced our Canadian government is taking this seriously at all. Or perhaps there is a lot of variation in what different countries or even areas of the same country are doing. No general consensus anyway.


  4. Your point about our lack of control is well taken, and greater perspective is needed. My husband and I went on a food shopping outing today to find the store’s shelves nearly empty: apparently, people have begun hoarding, not a hopeful sign.

    But surely the level of panic has been worsened by the lack of transparency that began in China and continues here, with a President whose misinformation must repeatedly be corrected by the scientists who know better—and some really poor early decisions, such as to send inappropriately trained personnel to meet people who had been marinating in a cruise ship, where the ill and not yet so were quarantined together.The fact that the plummeting
    stock market didn’t react to a rate cut suggests we may be in for some rough economic times. (It rallied only when Joe Biden did well on Super Tuesday, JP.) Ok; I’ll stop now…

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re all going to die yet you still want to argue politics? 😁

      We will probably see the food hoarders now after our first local case was reported today. Apparently Campbell’s Soup is a hot item for the first time in years. Hopefully it will be short term like when everyone panics and makes a run for bread and milk whenever a big snow is forecast.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Since the President dismantled the White House’s pandemic effort, cut the CDC budget to pay for his wall, isn’t listening to the scientists, and is more concerned about keeping the numbers “down” than actually determining how many people have been infected, then I see a direct association between his blundering non-leadership and this situation worsening far more than was necessary. So call it politics if you like, but people will needlessly die as a result.

        One major difference between now and 1918 is we have more knowledge about how to deal with these outbreaks. It’s true I have no control over events (except to wash my hands more often), but those in authority do—and they blew it, hugely.


      • Hey, you should know that the guy who loves Pop-Tarts would be the last guy on the world to dis Campbell’s Soup. I was raised on the stuff and still consider it to be “home cookin'” But it seem to have fallen out of fashion – I have been watching in silent fear as it seems to lose shelf space every year in the supermarkets. We just went through our last can of Tomato this weekend – I hope there will be some on our next shopping trip!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Well JP – it seems anymore that the news of the day disturbs me before I’ve even had my morning coffee. I’ve always been a bit of a germaphobe anyway, so I am reading and listening to suggestions, most of them being not to touch your face, or scrub your hands thoroughly with a good soap when you’ve been out of the house. As a germaphobe, I’ve never touched my face while out and, though I’ve not carried around Purell, I do keep diaper wipes handy in the car. I’ve not stopped and had fast food while out running errands in over ten years due to Michigan’s Hep A outbreak and resulting 32 deaths, not from needle use, but simply because food handlers don’t wash their hands. Ugh. I am glad that I rarely use cash anymore because I heard that Coronavirus germs can contaminate money and coins long after they were touched by an infected person. Even the local poll workers for our primary election were requesting that people seal their ballot envelopes with tape, or use a wet paper towel to moisten the envelope, i.e. not licking it to seal it. Years ago, using cash was more commonplace and a day of errands for me might have included bopping from the hardware store, to the nursery, Hallmark card store, grocery store, maybe the drug store – now my grocery store, which is similar to a Walmart makes one-stop shopping and using a Meijer credit easier – no cash is tendered/received. The only time I use cash is for purchasing gasoline and since my car, at 10 ½ years old, only has racked up 7,200 miles, you know how often I fill up at the pump.

    After hearing the latest headlines this morning, I once again was grateful that I work from home … then I heard a news blurb that stated if a majority of the population has the ability to work from home during quarantine, and kids are remoting into school/classes to avoid contamination or are quarantined, neighborhood broadband services will be stretched to the maximum, thus outages will occur. Well, OMG – no internet … we are all doomed. 🙂


    • Haha, a terrible choice – Coronavirus or no internet, pick one. I might take my chances with Coronavirus.

      I have been kind of the opposite of a germaphobe. Not that I seek out germs, I just don’t really think about them. Does that boost my immune system? I have not been sick over the past year, so who knows. I guess there is nothing to do but be ready to take my chances.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha ha – well I fear I’d have to return to my workplace and my boss has made my office into a storage room (he says) … I’ve not been on site since April 2009 (actually I’ve not even seen my boss since 2012).

        It is actually better to be around germs – this is why doctors used to preach against using antibacterial soap … you must have contact with a certain amount of germs. I started becoming worried about germs while my mom was still alive – she had many orthopedic issues and could not get out easily in Winter. My boss’ wife was a third-grade teacher at the time, they had a young son, and our tenant had three young grandchildren, all boys and it seemed someone was always sick with colds or flu. One Winter I brought home a cold, gave it to my mom and she could not get out in the ice/snow to get to a doctor for antibiotics and ended up with walking pneumonia as a result of it, so after that I became overzealous about not getting sick. Now, because of working from home and I have no family here and none of my friends live near me, I am kind of in my own bubble if you think about it.

        Did you hear about the young student’s civil rights suit filed in conjunction with the Coronavirus? I heard about it on my CBS affiliate this morning. Here is a link to the story:


  6. I was doing some research on Ancestry and came across some death records from 1919 where a number of people died from “Consumption.” I looked it up, and that was the name then given for tuberculosis. I don’t know if there was a relationship with the Spanish Flu of the day, but people of all ages were taken by it. So tragic. I hope this Covid-19 or whatever it is, passes us by sooner than later. Maybe it will remind us to be careful about hygiene and common sense and such things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think tuburculosis was a different thing, but I am sure that in an age when lots of people suffered from a lung condition like that, the spanish flu would make quick work of them.


  7. JP, great text. The people freaking out instead of simply sitting down and trying their best to understand what’s going on is part of our “follow the pack” spirit. And the governments are not immune to that. I understand the need to quarantine huge areas and populations. But it’s more likely to be run over by a bus or a car, or so many other risks. It’s even easier to die of flu.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess it all depends on who you are. So far, I am not elderly and weak with compromised immunity or lung function. If I were that person I would be a lot more worried than I am.

      Also, this may be veering off topic a bit, but with less and less religious belief out there, there would seem to be more and more people who look at this life as all there is. If that were my belief system I would probably be more concerned as well. Right now, this Catholic guy’s only real worry is to get myself to confession before I catch it. 🙂


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