The Mathematics of a Pandemic

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I had been teaching math all day long to eight youngsters ranging in age from seven to teens. One of my lessons was on statistical data and how to find different kinds of averages. I used Covid-19 as an example for my student. It was a bit of a stretch but he got the idea. We even talked about what exponents do to numbers and how data can be used to analyze situations and make predictions. It got me to thinking of how differently people are reacting the the virus and the restrictions associated with them based on where they live and sometimes even their political leanings. The truth is that many of the conclusions that people draw do not take all of the information and intervening factors into account. So forthwith is a very elementary discussion of what I believe is happening, but first I want to talk about what occured with the Spanish flu of 1918.

World War I was at an end and the troops were coming home to the United States. Since the fighting was mostly confined to Europe it was natural that the ship first came mostly to ports along the east coast. Additionally some cities like Philadelphia were initially rather lax in enforcing rules to keep down the level of contagion. As a result the highest incidence of contagion and death trended in cities in the eastern part of the country first. As the flu moved westward more stringent efforts of social distancing resulted in fewer illnesses and deaths. In other words the people learned from the mistakes of their fellow citizens in the east and profited by being more vigilant. There were still may deaths but the numbers were mitigated by the measures derived from observing the problems in the places where the flu first presented itself. 

Today we have massive numbers of people traveling across the globe with places like New York City, Seattle, and Los Angeles serving as ports of call for cruise ships and air travel. It appears that the first cases of Covid-19 in the United States were travel related, but because there initially were few attempts to change our normal activities the virus soon spread through community interactions. It took a bit more time than it should have to approach the realization that people needed to protect themselves and thereby flatten the exponential curve of contagion by staying at home.

Only a little more than three weeks ago spring break was in full swing. The Houston Rodeo was still packing in tens of thousands of people on a daily basis. My grandson went to New York City with his orchestra to perform in Carnegie Hall. Mardis Gras had attracted massive groups of people. It was already a bit too late to eliminate the suffering that now plagues many cities in the country but the heartland of middle America has been somewhat spared by finally closing down schools, businesses, churches and all unnecessary gathering. Sadly, some people have misinterpreted the slowdown of cases in those areas as an indication that the whole pandemic is nothing more than a hoax, much ado about nothing.

I’ve been looking at pie charts for the Houston area. Rather amazingly the sixty and older crowd makes up very few of the current cases. My guess is that people in that demographic hunkered down rather early for fear of catching the virus so they have mostly stayed well. I for one have been outside of my home fewer than five times for the past month. One time I accompanied my husband to Methodist Hospital for his heart surgery. On another occasion I went to get a Prolia shot for my  osteoporosis and twice I went to pickup  groceries at HEB. Aside from that I have been home watching the world go by from my windows. It’s little wonder that most of the cases in our area are younger than is typical because they often tend to be the ones who seem to think that they are safe from infection or having a serious case.

It is incredibly important that we not get overly irritated about having to stay home. We are the defense against a surge of Covid-19 as long as we follow the guidelines. If we start to get lax we will undoubtedly experience an unnecessary surge in cases that will only result in prolonging any agony that we may be feeling. I sincerely believe that each of us has a moral duty to work together to keep the numbers at a manageable level.

There are a many things that greatly disturb me, but most egregious of all are the people who insist that this whole ordeal is some vast political conspiracy designed to make our president and our country look bad. Many of these folks are refusing to stay at home even as the numbers of infected individuals grow. They don’t appear to notice that even President Trump has finally abandoned his wishful thinking that we will be back to normal by Easter Sunday. So far the facts demonstrate that the medical community has been right on target with both their predictions and their recommendations. It’s time for us to listen to the mathematics of the pandemic.

I’m as worried as anyone about what a prolonged period of isolation will do to our economic well being. I suspect hard times even once we are able to resume our normal routines. Nonetheless I keep reiterating my observation that it is rather doubtful that all the leaders of the world would be willing to trash the global economy on a whim. This is serious or as Angela Merkel said, “Es ist ernst” and we need to treat it as such. It would be even better if we might do it in a spirit of harmony. It’s the patriotic thing to do.

Learning From the Past and the Present

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Several years ago I read a fascinating book about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. It was one of those page turners that I was unable to set aside, so I found myself neglecting all of my other duties until I had reached the final page in the hours after midnight. After reading the story of the world’s battle with the unknown disease I had a difficult time thinking about anything else.

I suppose that aside from my fascination with the vivid first person descriptions of the horrific time was the fact that I had never before heard of this event. My grandfather who was a storyteller of the first order had spoken of small pox, the Great Depression, the Cleveland Panic and all sorts of historic events but not once had he even cursorily mentioned the pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide. Sadly, by the time that I had finally learned of this historic emergency Grandpa had died so I was unable to question him about what he might have known.

Today we get minute by minute updates on Covid-19 with our twenty four hour newsrooms and breaking headlines on the internet. We get texts from local authorities with news of what is happening near us. We learn how our friends and members of our family are doing from social media and any number of communication platforms. In 1918, I suspect that the average person was mostly privy to what was happening nearby and only peripherally concerned with faraway events. It’s possible that my grandfather was untouched by the Spanish flu and so he simply went about his work and thought little of it.

On the other hand I have often suspected that my grandmother, Minnie Bell, was more personally impacted by the events of 1918 of something that I found as I was researching my family tree. She had been married to Orville Thompson prior to meeting my grandfather. Her first husband who was still rather young died in 1918, and her son seems to have somehow vanished in the same year. The next thing I know about my grandma is that she and my Aunt Opal were working in a boarding house a couple of years later where she met my grandfather. They had a kind of whirlwind courtship that lead to marriage and eventually the birth of my father.

I knew that my grandmother had been a widow but she never once spoke of her first husband, nor did she ever tell me that she had a son other than my father. Of course adults rarely spoke of their personal business to children back then so I knew very little about the most private feelings that my grandmother may have had, but I have since become intrigued by the possibility that her first husband may have been a victim of the pandemic. I wonder if what she witnessed was so horrific that she chose not to speak of it ever again. Since the official death records of Oval Thompson do not list the cause of death I will never know but I think that my conjecture may hold some truth.

The Spanish flu coincided with the end of World War I and the homecoming of soldiers who had served in battle. The first recorded outbreaks were in military bases. There was so little knowledge of the illness that doctors were uncertain how to treat it. There were no vaccines, no drugs, nothing of particular impact and the numbers of the sick began to rise exponentially especially in places like Philadelphia where the city leaders had decided not to cancel a celebratory parade that attracted thousands of people even though there were credible warnings that such an event would be dangerous. That city would become one of the hardest hit places in the country.

When word of the rapid rate of infection began to spread to middle America many cities and towns essentially locked down just as we are now doing. The incidence of illness and death in those places was considerably less than locales where the people continued as though nothing was happening. Thus the historical precedence that is guiding our activities today.

Back then researchers worked feverishly to understand the nature of the Spanish flu and to find ways of protecting people from its ravages. It would be many years later before they unlocked the mysteries of that virus. By then the world was fighting new battles that would ultimately lead to another war, but the knowledge gained would keep us relatively safe from another such occurrence for a hundred years.

The scientific and medical communities have been studying diseases that affect humans for decades. Since 1918, they have found vaccines for chicken pox, measles, polio and the common seasonal flu. My generation still came down with serious illnesses like the measles, chicken pox and mumps but our children and grandchildren have never known such diseases. I had friends who were struck down by polio but now it is a disease of the past. I suspect that within a very short time there will be a reliable vaccine for Covid-19 along with viable measures for better treating those who contact the disease in the future. 

Nonetheless those on the forefront of medical science tell us that we will face new challenges as viruses and bacteria mutate in their natural tendency to fight for survival. It would be good for us to learn from the Covid-19 experience just as our ancestors may have done with the Spanish flu. Each family, state, city, country and organization must include the possibility of a worldwide pandemic in their risk management plans so that the mistakes that we have made this time around will not be repeated in the future. I suspect that there will be many discussions as to how to successfully prepare for any health eventuality once we are clear of our current danger. We need to take such conversations seriously and be willing to respond to honest critiques. It is imperative that we prioritize such efforts rather than becoming so relaxed that we dismantle programs designed for readiness because they appear to be unneeded. 

It would be a grave mistake to simply bury this event in the pages of history. Instead it is an opportunity to honestly reassess our responses and our institutions. If we are very lucky we will never again witness such a thing, but we must nonetheless be cautious about becoming complacent. Just as we sometimes grow weary of fire drills we do them anyway lest the practice session becomes a reality one day. So too must we adapt to the new emergency requirements that Covid-19 has revealed. The first step will be listening intently to those whose life’s work is to know more about these tiny microbes that lurk among us. They will tell us how to proceed. 

The Line I No Longer Want To Cross

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I was brought up in the Catholic faith. My mom enrolled me in Catholic school from the first through the twelfth grade. I was baptized at All Saints Church by Father John Perusina and my Aunt Polly was my godmother. I partook of the sacrament of Holy Communion in the second grade at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church. Shortly before that grand day I made my first confession. In the fourth grade at the same church I was confirmed as a Catholic. I think that my Aunt Valeria was my sponsor. My husband Mike (also a Catholic) and I were married in a ceremony conducted by the same priest who had baptized me. There are two more sacraments in my religion and one of them is Holy Orders which is used to ordain priests and the other is the Anointing of the Sick which used to be known as the last rites. 

I’ve remained a believer for all of my life but admittedly slacked here and there with regard to attendance at mass on Sundays, particularly during my hectic working days. Sometimes I  needed a day to sleep in and relax around the house just to be able to face my students with energy and enthusiasm on Monday morning. I’m a cradle Catholic who became a bit lazy at time but always returned to the fold even when I differed with some of the teachings. For example I think it’s well past time to allow women and married persons to become priests. I’ve also been rather liberal in my thoughts regarding birth control and I think that gay and lesbian folk should be able to marry and enjoy their lives. 

I learned the ten commandments when I was little more than seven years old. During my twelve years of Catholic education my teachers went more and more into depth with explanations of the scriptures and foundational tenets of the Church. My high school theology classes were rather adult in content and in the questions that we asked the priests who taught us. I learned that there was a bit more flexibility with regard to how I should live my faith than the black and white reasoning that guided me as a child. I fudged now and again with “little white lies” but did my best to avoid those that mark one as dishonest and hurtful. I suppose that I self guided my behavior by referring to all that I had learned in those twelve years of my youth.

I once stole fifty cents and felt the sting of guilt for that transgression for years mostly because I had taken from a dear friend. I changed my ways after that and never again took anything that was not mine. I’ve been faithful in my friendships and my vows to my husband. My imperfections come mostly from anger, jealousy, self righteousness. I do my best to be the kind of person I want others to be and admit that I fall short of my high minded ideas more often than like. I’ve crossed a few lines and felt the sting of culpability after that fact but there are some things that I can never do.

Murder is the ultimate sin and for me it takes more forms than the obvious one of killing another person. I have witnessed the destruction of an innocent individual’s reputation and I believe such is a kind of murder in its own right. It is a foul thing to do and I abhor such an act. There is also a form of emotional murder that abuses with words that kill someone’s spirit, leaving them to feel as though their souls are dead. I have seen parents and spouses who taunt a person that they should love until the victim is emptied of all joy.

Our country is presently engaged in a debate over abortion that I view as being cloaked in dangerous semantics. The pro choice side speaks of rights, women’s health, protection of individuals. The pro life advocates see the taking of the life of an unborn child as murder of a human being. I’ve thought long and hard about this issue and I have come to the conclusion that abortion is not a form of birth control but is indeed murder just as my church teaches.

One often used argument in favor of abortion implies that pro life supporters are willing to endanger a woman’s life over that of her unborn child. I learned long ago from the priest who taught me that the stance of the church is to save the mother in such situations which are generally somewhat rare. Nobody has ever said that a woman must sacrifice her own life and I know this because I have heard many such discussions in my high school theology classes as well as with the priest who baptized me.

We are presently concerned about a virus which poses the possibility of killing a significant portion of the world’s population unless we keep it at bay. Everyone is working hard to do everything possible to contain the spread of the disease. Worldwide society values life including that of our animal kingdom and our earth itself. Somehow many have convinced themselves that an unborn life is not worthy of our concern. They proclaim that a being unable to take care of itself without human intervention is not really a person. Such logic flies in the face of all that I believe and it pains me to think of the millions of babies that have needlessly died. To me the evil that has perpetrated this crime is as bad as the one that found no harm in slavery or the genocide of millions of people based solely on physical traits or beliefs. How can we twist the truth to the point of making villains of those who would protect the unborn and heroes of those who see fetuses as little more than cells? 

There was a time when I had a laissez faire attitude about abortion. I felt that it was wrong for me but I was unwilling to publicly take a stance. I viewed the issue as one that should be decided quietly by each individual. To my horror I have watched as our laws have become more and more lax regarding how and when abortions may occur. I have heard people argue that it should never really too late to end a pregnancy right up to the moment of birth. I have seen that by my silence I have been complicit in the growth of the acceptance of abortion as a good and humane way of allowing women to enjoy control over their own destinies. When I said nothing I allowed the popular attitudes to lean in favor of an act that I believe to be harmful to all of society. The genie is so far out of the bottle that I worry that we may never be able to put it back. I helped in the crossing of a very dangerous line because I was unwilling to stand up for something that I believed to be wrong. 

I still do not wish to judge others but I think that I need to let those who make our laws know how many of us there are who firmly believe that abortion is an abomination. It is my duty to work to find viable alternatives for women who find themselves bearing an unwanted child. They need those of us who abhor abortion to support them in compassionate and practical ways. It should be my duty to help end this barbaric practice with kindness, love, and workable solutions. I can longer hide behind silence. Acting as though it doesn’t matter one way or another is the line that I no longer want to cross.

Get Busy Writing Now

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I am always fascinated by the long, lovely, highly descriptive letters and journal entries from important historical times that were somehow saved by the sentimental people who found them. They became treasures because they opened a window to a moment when an ordinary soul took the time to vividly speak of the happenings, the privations, the fears and the hopes that they were experiencing. My mother-in-law had one such heirloom from a relative in the United Kingdom who communicated news about World War II to the family members who had emigrated to America. The words are so poignant and give voice to how the lives of ordinary folk were touched by the unfolding drama. The personal aspect of what the author conveys makes the letter all the more compelling in bringing the realities of daily routines under the duress of war to life. There is a special kind of voice in such first person communiques and luckily their existence traces it’s way far back into history.

I often write in the hopes that my words may one day resonate with my descendants. I know that my grandchildren are presently so busy building the foundations of their own adult lives that they rarely have the time to sit still and read my insignificant tracts. They are instead mastering mathematics, learning of the history of the world, enjoying the genius of the world’s greatest authors. They toil from dawn to the late hours of the night studying the fundamentals that will ready them for the future.

I have been in their position myself when I had little time to tarry and ask my grandparents or any of my elders to describe their lives. I was all too often impatient with their recitation of tales from their youth. It was only as I aged that I began to enjoy hearing what life had been like before I was even born. By then I had more questions than time to ask them. There is so much more that I would like to have known. Their knowledge, wisdom, and accounts of the past are forever lost. Because their educations were limited no written outlines exist. I will never know the full details of their experiences because I foolishly undervalued what they had to say.

My mother-in-law was a keeper of personal history. She researched genealogy and saved seemingly meaningless trinkets and correspondences from members of her family. She reveled in telling their stories and her own. I recall a time when she described her final year of high school when rationing was the rule and the young men who had been her classmates had gone to fight World War II. She showed me her yearbook which looked more like a thin magazine with its paper cover and lack of pages. She brought out a ration book that had once belonged to one of her aunts. She read that letter from a distant relative in Britain whom she had never met but with whom she felt a strong connection. I was fascinated by her dialogue and somehow felt that I had an understanding of those war years that no textbook or college lecture might ever have given me.

Each of us has a story, a history that might become a book. We may think our lives to be dull and unworthy of describing on paper but in truth our everyday thoughts and actions may one day become a treasure for some distant descendant intent on finding roots and knowing the people who came before. I am always thrilled when I discover even a kernel of evidence about my ancestors. I suppose that there comes a time for each of us when knowing such things becomes quite important. The more help we get from those voices from the past, the more exciting our search becomes.

We are now in the midst of a moment in time that will no doubt become a topic of discussion for years to come. We are part of history in the making as we navigate through the unknowns and unprecedented restrictions of the world’s battle with Covid 19. I find myself thinking that keeping a daily journal of what I witness happening across the globe and how I feel about it may one day prove to be an extraordinary gift to my great grandchildren who are yet to exist. What a glorious find my account may one day be even if I never get personally involved with the illness (and I pray that I am saved from ever actually knowing it). I can be a reporter of what I see unfolding in my tiny slice of the world. Surely there will be a future someone like me or my mother-in-law who will be curious enough to want to learn about the very personal aspects of the outbreak.

The very word history indicates that all that happens to us is a personal tale outlining how we react to unfolding events. The books that our descendants will one day read to learn about this moment will speak in more general terms without explaining how our own families endured. Keeping a journal of our thoughts will not only give us something to do while we self isolate but may also become a priceless heirloom of the future. Get busy writing your story now. It’s a worthy and important task.

Staying Apart To Come Together

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I am admittedly impatient. My personality is such that I prefer taking control of situations. I don’t like to like to wait around to see what is going to happen. I want to make a difference right now, do something to make things better not just for me but for others. When things take too long I become indignant and do everything possible to fix them immediately. Suddenly I’m caught up in a worldwide flood of uncertainty along with millions of my fellow humans while a tiny virus, invisible to the naked eye, is wreaking havoc and spreading fear. I’m watching life as we have all known it being put on hold. I am forced to reach deep inside of my psyche to find patience that I don’t always have.  Already the waiting challenges my normal need of control. Enforced social distancing leaves me to my thoughts which are racing in their usual breakneck pattern that tends to occur with or without a worldwide emergency. 

I am an empath, someone who literally feels others’ pain. I worry incessantly about how events will affect the people that I love. In all honesty I’ve had a very good run of seventy one years on this earth and if I were to contract the coronavirus and leave for heaven I’d want everyone to celebrate the wonder of my life and not waste tears. It’s the young folk and the future that concern me and I understand how tough and confusing this must feel to them, and even a bit unfair. I know all too well that you don’t always get what you want and that a bit of adversity toughens the spirit. I’ve been there done that more times than I care to remember and I’ve survived quite nicely, but I would not wish what is happening on any of our youth. Nor would I ever want them to know the bitter disappointments that have impacted my own life even though it is certain that they will have their own trials.

My seasonal allergies are causing my nose to run and my throat to hurt. I have no fever but I wonder if that weight on my chest is only evidence of the anxieties that have arisen in my mind or a sign that I’ve somehow contracted the virus. I know that I am overthinking this situation, but it is the way my mind operates. I am a teacher. I am trained to plan ahead, to see a thousand different things happening all at once, to know what my students are feeling, to be able to shift gears in a nanosecond, to be ever alert and protective, to take charge when danger lurks. I’ve already turned a room in my home into a virtual classroom. I will continue to work with my grandchildren and the little group of home-schooled children to whom I teach mathematics. I will keep calm and carry on, but I think about the impact that all of this will have on the youngest among us and I know that we will have to remember them and comfort them.

There are all of those youngsters who have spent months raising livestock to show at the Houston rodeo. I have two grandchildren who do such things. I know that they arise before dawn so that they will have time to feed and care for their animals before going to school. In the evening when they are tired and have mountains homework to do they must return to the barn again to repeat the process. They shortened summer vacations and Christmas visits with relatives because the animals depended on them. They spent a fortune in feed and veterinarian bills. The experience taught them to be dependable and no price can be placed on that, but the culmination of their hard work is to show their goats and pigs and steers and get recognition and money for their efforts that they set aside into their savings accounts for college or to purchase the next animal. What will happen now?

Hopefully there will be kind souls who make things right for them, but what about the other teens who have worked hard on projects about which most people are unaware?I’m talking about someone like my grandson who has been running since he was a little tyke in elementary school who earned the record for speed in his physical education class. Now he is a junior in high school at the peak of his skill. He runs all year long, even in the heat of summer to be ready to demonstrate his prowess in the spring track season. This is his junior year. If he is to catch the notice of a university that might be willing to offer him a scholarship it needs to happen now, but there may be no now for him. He’s been consistently winning in the few competitions that have already been held but what will happen to the rest of the season?

There is my granddaughter whose Vet Tech team was almost certainly headed to the state competition. They have worked incredibly hard and getting to the finals is more than just an honor. It is a way of getting FFA scholarships which require winners to have made it to at least one state run off. She worries that the opportunity for which she and her teammates have been working may never come.

Then there is another grandson who has been staying at school until well after nine at night to practice with the indoor percussion group of his band. They were slated to perform at a national competition in Ohio and the odds were rather good that they would earn a prize. Now that trip and future performances have been canceled and their efforts are in limbo.

Two other grandsons were supposed to receive their Aggie rings from Texas A&M University on April 18. This is a grand tradition celebrating thousands of hours of studying and learning. Now the rest of the semester on campus has been suspended. All classes will resume online. They must return home to uncertainty and a way of learning that doesn’t always work well for everyone.

So it is for our young all across the nation. Stories like those of my grandchildren’s are being repeated again and again. Not just disappointment but missed opportunities are suddenly the rule when only a week or so ago their plans seemed so exciting. While these sacrifices are nothing compared to the tragedy of those who are sick and dying, we should not minimize the impact that this will have on their futures.

To make matters worse we know that an even more pressing question concerns what will happen to the millions of working people who cannot earn a living from the solitude of their homes. What will happen to the hairdressers if the clients fail to come? How will the service industry stay afloat while social distancing becomes the norm? What will happen in my city, the energy capital of the nation, if the price of oil continues to tank? When will those 401ks stop bleeding form loss? Will the Teachers’ Retirement System be able to weather the disruption? Will the economy collapse in our effort to save lives? It’s suddenly a whole new world, a mind boggling reality unlike anything we have experienced, but it would be familiar to our grandparents. We need to remember their stories and the ways that they approached life. There is wisdom in the way they lived.

I have every confidence in myself, in the young and in the people of the world. We are a resilient lot and we will endure and overcome the challenges wrought by our current state of affairs, but I do not fool myself into believing that it will be easy. We are in for some difficult times and each and everyone of us will need to be ready to help and to rethink the way we have always done things.

I’ve already witnessed some promising ideas. There are school districts that plan to offer food service pickup to the families of students who need it along with online classes. There are good people who are already offering to purchase the livestock from those kids who were literally caught off guard by the cancellation of the rodeo. Teachers are revamping their lessons. Companies are finding alternative ways of doing business. Schedules are being redone. I even heard of a way to help our local business owners by purchasing gift certificates from them online to be used when this disruption has finally blown over. The important thing is to remember to check on your neighbors, call your friends, find out what members of your family may need. Be patient. Be kind. We are in for a bumpy ride and impatient souls like me will have to learn how to wait but with efforts by most everyone I believe we will ultimately be fine. As someone has said this experiment in social distancing may be the very thing that we need to come together.