Coronavirus: Personal responsibility, public responsibility, truth and vetting

It’s been a crazy couple of months, right?

It’s so difficult to vet information about something as confusing and fast-moving as a new virus — that’s what this new coronavirus, COVID-19, is — and knowing what to do and when to do it is tough.

The most level-headed discussion I’ve heard so far is Joe Rogan’s podcast with Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota. Keep in mind that the up-to-the-minute facts will be outdated, but you can’t avoid that when you’re just having an off-the-cuff conversation.

There are a few things we should consider, and some things that will be interesting in retrospect.

We talked about vetting good information on JKWD a bit ago, so let’s start there.

I will admit that I have no concept of what the “average” person is getting for news about coronavirus. I work closely with 10 newspaper-affiliated websites for 40 hours a week. I probably see 100 coronavirus-related stories per shift, in addition to the items I seek out in my preferred local, state and national media outlets, my Twitter feed (including the governor of Georgia, the CDC and WHO) and whatever else happens to cross my eyes and ears while I’m not working.

Most of you probably aren’t getting 750-plus pieces of information a week unless you’re sitting there glued to it at all times, and if you are, you should probably stop that immediately. It’s exhausting, and it’s going to be around for a while.

But I did talk to someone at a local business recently, who had no idea that Italy was entirely shut down and had thousands of deaths.

If you want to be informed about this — and I think you should be; I’ll address that when I discuss personal responsibility — don’t go overboard, but choose wisely. Read your local newspaper website, and maybe a couple local TV websites. Check the website of the biggest newspaper in your state, and, if it doesn’t have good capital coverage, the site of the paper in the capital area (in many states, the biggest market is the capital, but that’s not true across the board — Illinois and Pennsylvania are two examples). Check traditionally reliable sources like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

If you want international coverage, the BBC is always a good place to turn.

Find places that report the facts. If they make recommendations and/or criticisms, make sure they’re backed up with reported facts, not viewpoints from politicians. For example, “three people died in such-and-such city” is a fact. “Only a few people died in such-and-such city” is a viewpoint. Tell the families of those three people that it was “only a few people.” Now extrapolate that to the hundreds that are dying a day in some places.

It’s easy to get people to freak out too much or not enough by putting a viewpoint on our facts. But people are smarter than we give them credit for — let’s give them the facts and let them make informed decisions.

Let’s talk responsibility, and two types, which I’ll call personal and public.

Personal responsibility pertains to the things you owe yourself — information gathering, self-reflection, good habits, etc.

Pubic responsibility pertains to the things you owe to others — to not infect your neighbors and family, to tell people the truth as you understand it, etc.

Most adults will probably get this virus, even if they show mild or no symptoms (that’s important because you can have no symptoms and pass it along to people you come in contact with). Flu pandemics seem the model we can learn from (long read: a NIH workshop summary on Spanish flu of the early 20th century). Some 1.4 billion people tested positive the H1N1 flu (about 20% of the population of the world, including minors) a little over a decade ago, and at the high end of estimates, killed about 575,000 people (about .04%).

If you figure that you didn’t get tested if you had no symptoms or only had mild cold-like symptoms, a lot more people had it.

With COVID-19, we’re also having a problem with getting enough tests, so our current numbers are underreported because technically, if you can’t get tested, you don’t have it.

As I’m writing this, Georgia’s (USA, not the country) reported cases are increasing between 40 and 50 percent per day. I know of one person who said she couldn’t get tested at a local health center despite being immunocompromised and showing symptoms because they didn’t have any tests. The local health department said they were waiting on tests, and the local office of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was also waiting on tests. So if some high-risk people aren’t able to get tests, you can see how most people who are asymptomatic or only get mild cases (which is about 80 percent of people who test positive, by the way) won’t get tested.

No matter how high the numbers climb, we won’t be reporting all cases.

Centers for Disease Control info & guidelines | World Health Organization information

Even health professionals don’t seem to be able to predict how the virus will hit any one individual. We know that the respiratory repercussions seem to be really bad, so people with COPD or asthma or who are smokers are likely to get hit pretty hard, but sometimes they’ll get a mild case.

Which means that no matter how health you are, you can’t predict how it will actually hit you if you get it. So try not to get it.

And in case you are asymptomatic, you can’t predict how it will affect other people if you pass it along, so try not to. You’re probably going to pass it along to people you live with. But there are some easy steps you can take to make sure you don’t give it to anyone else — steps like stay the heck away from them.

We have an elderly neighbor. She has adult children who stop by and check in on her, and I imagine they call her, too. When we go to the grocery store, we call her to see if she needs anything.

Our responsibility to her in delivering things to her should be to wash our hands, wipe down the goods we’re bringing her, put them in a separate bag, place them outside her door, and ring her bell or call her to let her know they’re there.

Our responsibility to ourselves in that case would also be to wash our hands again after touching her bell.

It’s not that difficult, but it’s important.

We also owe it to ourselves, if we wish to stay healthy, to only go do important things, like getting food and medicines. Yeah, it stinks staying home. But think about things like going out to eat. Do employees at your favorite restaurants have paid sick leave? Are they likely to stay home if they’re mildly symptomatic — say a little sore throat and a sniffle, like if they had a cold? Probably not, if they don’t have much in the way of sick days.

Our trusted officials (such as elected and appointed members of government, but also the heads of organizations like hospitals and urgent cares and shopping malls and the sorts of places people gather) also have a responsibility to us. We’ve asked them to lead in times of crisis, and this is most certainly one. Give us facts. When you give us directives and/or suggestions, back them up with facts, because people will be more compliant if they understand why.

Viruses aren’t partisan — they don’t stop outside your mouth and ask who you voted for before deciding whether to infect you — so neither should the directives handed down by particularly government.

When this pandemic ends, there will be some interesting things to study, from a social science perspective (we know that biologists and virologists and geneticists will do their thing).

• What traits of leaders did the best and worst at containing the virus? China, where the virus started, was slow to admit its existence. The US, fairly far away from the epicenter of the pandemic, didn’t take it seriously at the start.

• What cultural traits did the best and worst at containing the virus? Did people stay home when told more in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures?

• What cultural and leadership traits correlated with the least economic interruption and quickest recovery? What measures had the highest impact, both positive and negative?

• From a media perspective, how does this new era of reader-driven content selection and bottomless news hole affect coverage, especially deep reporting?

Stay healthy and safe, folks, and don’t overwhelm yourself with too much information.


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