Across the world we will have to suffer and then rebuild


The Zoutpansberger is a member of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE). This society also serves as a useful discussion forum for hundreds of editors of weekly newspapers across the globe. The past week the discussion focused on the manner in which coronavirus statistics are being reflected.

Sandra George from Michigan in the USA started off by asking whether death comparisons were useful to readers. “I’d be wanting to report deaths this year compared to deaths last year. … My math says that the global tally so far this year of 76,488 coronavirus deaths is a little more than 2% of a total of 3,463,700 deaths from communicable diseases. Wouldn’t this information be helpful to the public in evaluating the government’s response and allocation of resources?  I think it might help the public’s respect for the media too. Now that there’s so much corporate control of so much of the media, the groupthink is a tide that is pretty hard to resist. Let’s give people context even if no one else is doing it.”

Thomas V Ward, publisher of The Valley Breeze in Lincoln, USA, had a slightly different perspective. He commented on the (thus far) fairly empty hospitals in parts of the US.

“So far, it is not what they fear, but they keep telling us ‘the worst is coming.’ In another 10 days, no one will believe them. But for now, most people are hunkered down, and small business is in crisis. 

There’s another thing people might notice if they look at the charts. 

As we ‘flatten the curve,’ we also lengthen it. Flattening the curve appears more to be about not overwhelming hospitals all at once. But, how long will business owners be expected to remain forced out of business? And will it be even longer with a flattened curve? The curves I look at say ‘yes.’ “ 

The best contribution, however, came from Charlie Gay, the former editor and publisher of the Shelton-Mason County Journal in Washington State, who currently stays in France:

“I guess I fall into the ‘ignore the scientists’ explanations at your own peril’ camp because I have read a couple of scientific papers that explain the mathematical models showing how coronavirus infections grow exponentially instead of slowly like the normal flu. There is an R factor that we need to reduce to keep the medical system from being overwhelmed. The R is the number of other people that the average coronavirus carrier infects. It is somewhere around 1.0 for the normal flu and was 2.2 for the Spanish flu. Early research has shown that it is 3.0 or more for this coronavirus, which makes it nastier than the flu; it is particularly virulent and can grow exponentially with that R factor. Surely everyone has seen the stories about people carrying it and spreading it without knowing they have it.

There was a very strange and scary case in my home state of Washington, epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. before New York was overwhelmed. When the outbreak was still ‘confined’ to the Seattle area and centered around the Kirkland nursing home that lost 27 residents to the virus, the Skagit County Chorale about an hour north of Seattle decided to practise. Sixty singers showed up. Within a few days 45 people were sick and two later died. It raised questions about how in the world the virus spreads through the air. Methinks whatever asymptomatic singer went to the rehearsal played havoc with the R factor by gathering with a huge group rather than just a few co-workers or family. But that's what mathematical averages are about.

So about six weeks ago when the coronavirus was basically a foreign news story here in France, my wife and I went to the Porte de Vanves flea market in Paris. The country had recorded its first coronavirus death (a Chinese tourist had come here without knowing he was sick, entered a Paris hospital on January 27 and died there February 10), but people in this city of 2.3 million were still living normal lives, including riding in the sardine cans know as subway cars. We met a vendor at the market who said he couldn't greet my wife with a kiss as normal because he had a cold. We joked that maybe he had the coronavirus. He played down the day's coronavirus news by saying, ‘You know, 1,400 people died of the flu in France last winter.’ If I saw him today, I could say to him, ‘But, Monsieur, 1,417 people died of coronavirus in France today.’ France's toll so far is 10,328.

My point about the mathematical model was supposed to be that the scientists are saying, ‘The worst is yet to come,’ because they have studied the numbers. What they have warned about has come to pass, and they are happy that most people have been isolating themselves because a virus left unchecked would allow it to spread exponentially. Why do I think things will be worse in a week than they are now? Because I look at the graphs with 200 deaths in the U.S. on March 24, 400 on March 28, 800 on March 31, 1,200 on April 4 and 1,600 today. Maybe the doomsday stuff is too outlandish to believe, but as a layman, I'm not going to sit here and tell the scientists they are wrong when they predict 2,000 deaths a day next week. I pray they're wrong, but I have no reason to believe they're wrong.

There is no ‘good’ solution to end the coronavirus outbreak. There's death and economic pain in all proposals. It should be obvious from the 53,000 deaths in a few weeks in Italy, Spain, France and the U.S. that the virus will take a devastating toll on life if everybody just goes back to school, work and church. It's also obvious that snuffing the virus with this isolation is going to kill our roaring economy. The policymakers have picked their poison; they prefer what they're doing to a couple million dead. The American people are just going to have to say they will rebuild and that they will learn from South Korea and Germany that there is an aggressive way to wage war when under attack from a virus to cut your losses.”