“A lot has been said and written about the fracturing of our communities and culture. Perhaps, just maybe, the current public health crisis will be the event that forces us to return to our commitments to humanity, grace, and working together for the common good! Just maybe.”
— Beck A. Taylor, president of Whitworth University, March 12
This was a whirlwind week as our state and nation began to seriously grapple with how to slow the spread of a new type of serious respiratory disease, the virus causing COVID-19.
With public events and schools being canceled, bizarre videos of people in fights over toilet paper at the supermarket, and wild downward gyrations of the stock market, we feel a sense of unease and uncertainty that had me thinking of another challenge that rocked our nation: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Those of us who remember that terrible day will recall fear, anger, pain and confusion as we tried to figure out what was happening and how to respond. We also remember something equally strong, but strikingly beautiful in the face of all the loss. We felt unity, resolve and common cause of Americans rallying together.
I call it the feeling of Sept. 12, 2001.
The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., (and the brave self-sacrifice of the passengers above Shanksville, Penn.) were shocking. We felt lost, devastated, anxious.
In response, Americans raised our flag high and came together. There were lines out the door at blood donation centers. Churches opened their doors for well-attended prayer services.
Both Centralia and Chehalis held memorial services for people on the other side of the nation, people we’d never met, and those services overflowed with mourners.
In our confusion and hurt, we came together.
Today, our communities, nation and global humanity face another challenge. It’s a different type of crisis, but across the globe, COVID-19 has already killed 5,103 people as of early Friday morning. That’s nearly double the 2,977 victims of 9/11.
As I write this, there has been one confirmed case in Thurston County and none in Lewis County. Odds are, however, that the virus is already in our community, and that tests within the next week or two will confirm it.
The novel coronavirus has infected 1,885 and killed 39 people in America, a number that seems small, but will grow.
Our testing capacity has been insufficient, so as we ramp that up and more people are tested, the number of confirmed cases will probably increase even more rapidly over the coming weeks as we more accurately track the true extent of the disease.
At its normal rate of spread, the number of infected people with the novel coronavirus will double every six and a half days, according to the medical journal The Lancet. So far the virus’s global death rate has been 3.4 percent (based on the number of fatalities divided by the number of known cases).
By my rough calculations, that means America could see a million cases of COVID-19 and 34,000 deaths by Mother’s Day, if we do nothing to slow its spread. Go ahead and double that figure every week, and this dad starts to see some truly grim figures by Father’s Day.
Fortunately, the kind of far-reaching precautions that were put into place over the past few days (and are likely to expand in the weeks ahead) have a good chance of really slowing that spread.
That’s important, because our medical care system can’t handle a huge, sudden influx of seriously ill patients (about 20 percent of people infected with the virus require serious medical care.)
This is a time to stay calm and assess the situation with a sober but resolved sense of individual and collective responsibility.
There is good news about this virus. Most people who catch it will be fine. Some might not even know they have symptoms. Children seem to be especially lightly hit. As a parent, that’s the best news of all.
Many of us will be tempted to see the widespread closures of public life as an overreaction, especially since most of us who get the disease will be fine.
However, those over 60 and folks who are overweight or with breathing issues face a much higher risk, with a death rate of 10 percent or more.
A friend of mine, a W.F. West graduate and mother of five who is younger than I am, is battling cancer and has a very weakened immune system from chemotherapy treatment.
“As you reassure yourself, don’t use the argument that only the old and immune suppressed die,” she wrote this week. “We can hear you. I know it’s not your intention, but it feels like you don’t value our lives as you do your own.”
All of us have a role to play in keeping “the least among us” safe during the months ahead.
This won’t be like most disasters. It won’t come upon us and depart suddenly, like a blizzard or storm. We need to keep a good attitude and resolve for the long haul.
We literally came together after 9/11 in gatherings where our shared humanity and the deep meaning of being Americans together was a physical reality.
Our challenge now is that a prudent response to this virus requires what they call “social distancing.” In other words, we’re literally asked to avoid gatherings and to stay at least six feet away from other humans.
How will a Sept. 12 moment look for us? Can we come together in common cause and proud shared sacrifice even as we stay apart?
I’m sure many of us will spend even more time online, which is already a place where discourtesy often reigns. I would urge people to dedicate themselves to civility and generosity of spirit online and off. And remember that fighting about politics during this time is counterproductive. Let’s inform ourselves from responsible sources and try not to make this political.
Even better, give yourself a half-hour limit on Facebook (turn on an alarm — seriously), then turn off the screens and use your phone for its old-fashioned use. Give folks a call. Chat. It might feel strange, like using a muscle that’s been unexercised for a while. But try it. Reach out to a friend, neighbor or relative that you haven’t spoken with in a few months (or years). Don’t talk politics. Talk life. Start with a question like “how are you REALLY doing” and go from there.
Teach your kids board games. Make music. Tell family stories. Read books. Take an online class with your kids at Khan Academy. Send emails to an old friend with a few things you appreciate about them. Set a couple little goals then check them off the list. You’ll feel good.
The Bible calls for a day of rest each week, and the Old Testament calls for a Jubilee year of mercy and forgiveness of debts: literally a “trumpet-blast of liberty.”
What if we treated this long, unexpected pause as a blessing, as an extended sabbath? It’s a chance to reset our relationships within our homes, to restart friendships that have lagged, to practice self-sacrifice and generosity, to step outside into the natural world at a season when spring is exploding with new life.
Look for chances to connect across the “social distancing,” like the citizens of Sienna in Italy who opened their windows and leaned out to sing together across their deserted city street.
Reach out to your elderly neighbor — maybe not literally, since we could all be carrying this virus for days without showing symptoms — but in a meaningful way. Ask how you can help them.
I’d love to hear about how you’re making this a Sept. 12 moment. Send me an email or post about it on social media with the hashtag #OurSept12moment.
This morning my wife, Sarah, who is a fount of wisdom and grace in my life, left me with these words to start our day. I’ll leave them with you as a reminder of how to approach this unexpected season of stress, strain, illness, and — just maybe — a time when we find our best selves again.
“Let’s be joy-filled and trust in the Lord. Let’s try to be lights as we do our work.”
Let’s make this difficult moment a time to shine. This could be a time we’ll remember with pride for the rest of our lives. Let’s do it. I’m with you.
Brian Mittge wants to hear from you despite the social distancing. Drop him a line at email@example.com.