I have to admit that it’s been tough to fully grasp the reality of COVID-19 and what it means for my family and me. On March 23, as the number of cases in Minnesota continues to rise sharply, Governor Tim Walz held a press conference to reinforce the need for everybody to pull together and stay away from each other.
This is going to be tough for my teenage son. As of now, seven days after schools in Minnesota were shut down for the foreseeable future, he has been mostly at home but occasionally out at the park in our neighborhood.
I understand now, or am just beginning to really understand, that he won’t be able to do this anymore. Perhaps he should not have been doing it at all.
History clearly shows us the power of responding to a pandemic with force and decisiveness. This is happening now, too.
We have weighed the cost of having him cooped up inside, playing the one video game he purchased last year with his own money, or Facetiming a handful of friends. Even in the best of times, he often bounces his basketball in the house, ricocheting it against the old oak door in our front entryway as if he was at the gym shooting hoops.
It’s a nervous habit, a way to think while moving—or move while thinking, more accurately. We have tolerated it, mostly, but any chance he has to get outside and play ball with friends or just random people who show up at the park is one we haven’t passed up.
But now I know that we have to. We have to keep him inside, along with his three sisters, and it is not going to be easy. Our house is a hundred years old, built, ironically, in the middle of the last major pandemic—the influenza pandemic that began in 1918—that raged throughout the world.
Back then, no one had seen a virus under a microscope. Still, many people did understand the importance of obeying quarantine orders and staying home alone, or with their families, although surely no one used the phrase “social distancing.”
Frank Snowden is a professor emeritus at Yale University who studies the history of medicine. Just last year, he published a book, Epidemics and Society From the Black Death to the Present, and on March 23 he was on Minnesota Public Radio to talk about it.
One sobering anecdote from professor Snowden involved the different outcomes for communities that did and did not practice social distancing during the 1918 pandemic. In Philadelphia, he noted, there was a crisis in the community that had nothing to do with the flu.
The city’s mayor, Thomas B. Smith, had been indicted on murder charges and was thus distracted, as was the rest of the city. Then, Philadelphia’s top health official, Wilhelm Krusen, was pressured into allowing a giant, public parade to go forward in the fall of 2018, despite knowledge that the flu had taken hold of the city.
It was a public health disaster, furthered by other confusing directives, such as the delayed and halting decision to shut down bars and other gathering spots. As a result, the virus exploded overnight in Philadelphia, racing from person to person, leaving young and old bodies stacked with nowhere to go.
This didn’t have to happen, though. St. Louis officials, for example, took control of the situation as soon as the flu was detected in a military barrack. They shut down schools and banned gatherings, drawing ire from business owners but pushing forward anyway, and the city’s population was largely spared from the worst effects of the rapidly spreading virus.
History clearly shows us the power of responding to a pandemic with force and decisiveness. This is happening now, too. Countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore have taken the COVID-19 threat seriously, immediately implementing quarantine and mass testing procedures that are now being recognized as the way to thwart the pandemic before it rages out of control.
Graham Mooney, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, was also on Minnesota Public Radio on March 23. Mooney chalked up the swift and so far successful actions taken by South Korea and a handful of other countries as evidence of lessons learned during the SARS epidemic.
Those lessons include the need to act rapidly, in a collaborative and transparent fashion. China was criticized for downplaying the threat of SARS and otherwise limiting information about it; some of that has happened this time around, too, but not in the handful of countries that have been tackling COVID-19 head-on.
And so I realize now that I will have to take this situation more seriously, here at home. I will have to keep my son home and somehow deal with the repeated slap of his basketball hitting the door and bouncing back into his hands.
This is a rapidly changing situation, after all. I began writing this in the morning and finished before noon. Along the way, three key announcements have come across the wire.
First, Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, Peggy Flanagan, announced that her brother has died of complications related to COVID-19. Then, Governor Walz revealed that he was exposed to the virus and is now in self-quarantine. Finally, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar informed the public that her husband has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and is in isolation.
This is not getting serious; it is serious. Sorry, kids, there will be no more outdoor basketball games on the horizon—if not for your sake, then for the sake of everyone else.