Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Let us not be cavalier about the coronavirus. Let us pay proper respect to the dead.
I’ve been a civil libertarian my entire life. But my freedom has never been absolute. To paraphrase John Stuart Mill: My rights end where your nose begins.
Government responses to the deadly coronavirus don’t inspire confidence. For months, officials told us there was nothing to worry about. They actively encouraged us to take part in high risk activities. They shipped medical supplies to China, sparking shortages at home. They lied about face masks. To this day, they mandate hair nets and beard guards for food service workers, but not masks.
Officials at all levels – from small town city councils to UN bodies – have let us down. Some have abused their authority. Others have treated us like children. Many of the rules to which we are now subject are petty. Entire books will be written about these matters.
But those legitimate concerns do not change simple facts. The coronavirus has turned every one of us into Typhoid Mary. While remaining healthy herself, that historical figure was a spreader of disease.
As Eugene Volokh has explained, each of us is now “potentially highly lethal to people around us.” In his words, “It’s like carrying a gun that every so often…shoots a bullet in a random direction, without my pulling the trigger.”
Laura Spinney, the author of a book about the 1918 Spanish Flu, says an epidemic is like a forest fire. It relies on ‘fuel’ – new humans to infect. When we mingle, we provide that fuel. We become the mechanism by which others fall sick and die.
Case Study #1: Pregnant Women
215 women who delivered babies over a two-week period at two New York City hospitals were tested for the coronavirus. Five, who had virus-like symptoms, tested positive. But so did 29 others who had no symptoms.
In other words: 85% of those who had the virus didn’t know they were infected, and that they were potentially dangerous to their newborns.
Case Study #2: Homeless People
A Boston homeless shelter tested 397 of their clients. 37% were positive for the coronavirus.
Not one of these 146 people displayed any symptoms; they didn’t know they were contagious.
The evidence couldn’t be clearer. This is a stealth virus. Many individuals – potentially me, potentially you – who have it don’t know we do. If we don’t limit our human contact, if we don’t at least wear a mask to protect everyone else from our exhalations, we are Typhoid Marys on the loose.
I sympathize with the argument that the economy can’t remain shuttered indefinitely. This pandemic has been ruinous for families and businesses. People are scared and stressed.
At this point in time, all of our possible responses come up short. Nothing we do will erase this bad dream. However we choose to proceed, many more lives will be damaged.
But while arguing in favour of re-opening the economy, let us be careful not to minimize this disaster. The US numbers for the first half of this month are grim. In two weeks, 22,194 Americans died of this virus. (I’ve excluded April 14th’s numbers, which were artificially high due to the reclassification of some earlier cases. All data from here.)
22 thousand deaths in two weeks is an average of 1,585 people per day. That’s the death toll of September 11 every two days. During those same two weeks,
13,135 souls died in France
10,516 died in the UK
9,425 died in Spain
8,490 died in Italy
This adds up to a further 41,466 deaths. When a virus about which our knowledge is limited, and for which we have no vaccine kills this many people that’s a big deal. When a virus strikes down 137 doctors in a single country in six weeks, that’s a big deal.
To compare a few months of coronavirus deaths to an entire year’s worth of motor vehicle fatalities is to compare apples to oranges. Who felt compelled, after the tragic events of 9/11, to put those 2,977 deaths ‘into perspective’? Who felt compelled to point out that 14 times as many people had died in America from auto accidents alone the previous year?
If raw numbers are how we separate important concerns from non-important ones, Americans should never again pay the slightest attention to domestic homicide. Out of 2.8 million deaths in the US each year, 1,000 are women murdered by their current or former partner. That’s four one-hundredths of one percent.
I believe it’s the people behind the numbers that matter. So please, let us choose our words carefully. Downplaying the disaster that is the coronavirus displays an astonishing lack of empathy for millions of human beings whose lives have been permanently altered. Downplaying the coronavirus looks like appalling disrespect for the medical personnel who have been struggling and succumbing on the front lines of this battle.
The argument that the dead are mostly old folks who didn’t have much time left, anyway, is callous. This virus has swept through nursing home after nursing home, leaving carnage in its wake (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
If you have no elderly relative in such a facility, thank your lucky stars that you’ve been spared this nightmare. Forbidden from visiting, we have no idea whether we’ll hug our loved one again. Whenever the phone rings, the dread is that we’re about to be advised the virus has breached the firewall and is now inside.
It is not OK for old people to die alone, deprived of human contact, frightened, and gasping for breath. It is not OK for families to be denied the solace of a traditional funeral due to infection concerns, or the mutual comfort that a gathering of the bereaved provides. Please do not dismiss as no big deal these harrowing, end-of-life experiences that will haunt some families forever.
Younger individuals are far from exempt. I invite you to read about the life and death of this 43-year-old California police detective. Twice denied a test (she was considered low-risk due to her age and absence of underlying health issues), by the time she was hospitalized and confirmed positive, it was too late.
I invite you to read about this 36-year-old UK bus driver, one of 26 London area transit workers who’ve perished from COVID-19. He had mild asthma, but that isn’t a death sentence. This man spent time in the ICU, was released from hospital, and died four days later. He leaves behind a 7-year-old son.
Please read about the demise of this healthy, 39-year-old Florida disc jockey, and his devastated young family.
And about this 48-year-old sports photographer for the New York Post, with his now-fatherless children, aged two and five.
Please read about this 61-year-old Brooklyn medical worker, with the 18-year-old daughter who will never see her mother again.
About this Michigan woman who lost her 59-year-old husband and 20-year-old son within the span of three days.
And about this 51-year-old Boston flight attendant. Despite being diabetic, he lived a full life until the coronavirus came along.
Please read about Julie Alliot, the 16-year-old with no known health problems, who succumbed to this virus in France. Yes, deaths among teenagers are rare, but that fact is cold comfort to her traumatized mother and sister.
Let us now circle back to Typhoid Mary. Although immune herself, that individual was a danger to other people. She was a loaded gun.
Until affordable, rapid testing becomes widely available, none of us can be certain we aren’t committing the same crime for which Typhoid Mary has long been reviled.
Let us not be cavalier.
|Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World
Donna Laframboise is a former vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (1998-2001). She blogs at BigPicNews.com and is a former National Post and Toronto Star columnist.
Donna’s specialty is deep research. She has been tracking this virus closely and daily since February. During those early weeks, the mainstream media insisted the virus was a non-issue. To be concerned was to fuel anti-Chinese racism (see here and here).