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. 

Living History

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If only we had a crystal ball that would accurately foretell the future, we might know exactly how to proceed in any situation and most especially during times like those in which we presently find ourselves. Of course we know that no such thing exists and even if it did we might still find ourselves feeling anxious, uncertain and out of control as we wait for a shoe to drop. In truth there are no magic formulas for making the best decisions in a given situation, but there are ways to consider alternatives and then choose a course of action to follow based on rational data. Of course since nothing is perfect there is always a chance that mistakes will happen, making it necessary to adjust as needed.

Humans are part of an intricate web of differing ideas, philosophies, dispositions. Two people might look at the same problem and see it differently. In the luxury of hindsight we may eventually know who was right and who was wrong but in the moment it is impossible to be one hundred percent certain about anything we do. In truth life is a procession of trial, error, correction, and hopefully ultimate success.

I have always enjoyed reading about history. There are certain events whose consequences were so epic that it’s easy to feel as though I am viewing a horror scene in which I know that the boogey man is hiding from the unsuspecting people who are about to get the scare of their lives. I wonder how many Americans from the south would have seceded from the union if they had known the toll of death and destruction that they would endure. Would the people of Russia have revolted against the Czar had they realized the decades of privation and fear that would follow? How many Germans would have supported Adolf Hitler had they seen what would ultimately happen to their country? Would our founding fathers have allowed slavery to be legal in their new nation if they had realized the full consequences of such a decision?

It is always easier to assess a given moment in history once we are able to see the whole picture. We become aware of how things might have been made better. In the heat of the moment we are all too often ruled by more by our emotions, our needs, our personal inclinations than by rational analysis. We desire to find the easy answers even when they are few or nonexistent. Most of the time the situations in which we find ourselves are not dire enough to warrant much of our attention and so we blithely choose sides mostly with those who think exactly life ourselves without giving much thought to alternative ideas. We find comfort in groupthink because it is never easy to be that extraordinary person who goes against the grain of society.

So here we are with all of our human abilities and talents that are tainted by our frailties and fears. We hear the noise of opposing solutions all around us and we are confused as to how best to proceed in light of a worldwide pandemic. There are so many points of view to consider that we feel overwhelmed. We crave simplicity for a complex question. So perhaps we might take a cue from Mr. Rogers and look for the helpers, the people who are working on the front lines all across the globe to save lives. We need to listen to their stories and learn from them, for they are the ones who are living the nightmare in real time while we are isolated in our homes.

During the early years of World War II the United States was decidedly isolationist. It was only after the attack on Pearl Harbor that our nation went to war. We were quite unprepared and our first forays into battle were alarmingly unsuccessful. I have little doubt that the American people felt overwhelmed but they found ways to change the course of history with their sacrifice and determination. They looked to the brilliance of men like Admiral Nimitz and General Eisenhower and supported those who were on the forefront of the war. It took time and treasure and changed everyday life but they were willing to support those who were on the forefront of the war.

We have been asked to isolate ourselves to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19 that has the potential to send our healthcare system into a death spiral. The men and women of medicine are telling us what they need and far too many of us are questioning them and suggesting that what we are hearing from them is little more than scary propaganda, but in truth they are the experts, the generals and the troops who are in the trenches. They should be a primary source for our decision making for the time being. We can worry ourselves with elections and personal causes later. For now we need to rally around them with everything in our power knowing that our sacrifices are small compared to theirs.

Our food supply continues to flow even if we find ourselves lacking some of the luxuries that we once enjoyed. Our children are still learning from parents and teachers who greet them from a distance. Many are continuing to work from home but there are far too many who have lost their jobs, their sources of income. We cannot forget them but we can reassure them that as we shelter in place for now we intend to care for them now and help them to rebuild their lives once the danger has passed.

It is true that our economy and those of countries around the world are reeling. Our work will not be done even when this epic moment has passed. We have to be ready for the long haul just as our parents and grandparents were in World War II. We can’t get too anxious to return to normalcy. Doing so might ruin all of the efforts we have made so far. This fight is bigger than any single individual. It is about all of humankind and each of us has an important role to play. Let us hope and pray that we are choosing to listen to the right voices, the helpers who are risking their own safety to protect us. Listen to what they have to say and be wary of anyone who appears to be more concerned about their own reputations and popularity.  

We are living history from moment to moment. May God help us to do it right.

A Letter To My Children and Grandchildren (Including My Children From Another Mother)

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March 2020

To My Beloved Children and Grandchildren: (Including my children from other mothers)

Who would have thought as we began this new year and new decade that only months later our world would be so changed? Life often surprises us, but this pandemic is beyond anything that we might have imagined as we each went about our daily routines making our plans for the future. This is certainly not how any of us would have wanted the situation to be. So many of our short term goals have been dashed into unrecognizable pieces in the blink of an eye and many of our long term ones feel more and more difficult to achieve. We each wonder if the world will ever again be as it once was. Perhaps the only bit of optimism to which we now must cling is that so far we are still here and hopefully will remain untouched personally by the virus known as Covid-19.

We have always been participants in the great arc of history but now the events swirling around us feel far more momentous than any that we have hitherto experienced. I sense that each of us will be called upon to be flexible, make sacrifices and use the talents that we have to help rebuild a better society. Every moment of life teaches us important lessons and few provide us with as many opportunities to demonstrate our character and courage as this moment in time. History will tell our stories and I predict that each of you will be judged magnificently because you are all good and decent and bright. I know that no matter how battered your dreams may appear to have become you will resurrect them and accomplish them with even more resolve.

All of the tomorrows truly belong to each of you. Do not fret or worry about what you may have lost or the “might have beens” that never happened because of this interruption of your lives. There will be times of great rejoicing ahead. There always are for individuals with enough grit and ingenuity to remain focused and optimistic even when things appear to be falling apart. The world will need your intellect, your charisma, your work ethic, your compassion.

The days of my generation are not quite over yet and contrary to some thinking we are not totally expendable, but the truth is that you will soon be taking the reins to steer the course of the future. Your talent and beliefs will shape the world for years to come. I have every faith that you will be magnificent caretakers of this earth and its people. While it appears to be in a bit of a shambles right now I have confidence that humankind will rise up just as we always do to make things right. It is in our natures to sometimes need the shove of a disaster to realize the things that we have been doing wrong. Be ready to help to repair those mistakes.

In our days of isolation and solitude we have been reminded of what is most important. There is nothing more precious than our relationships and the love that feeds them. If we have learned nothing else, we should all be more intent on nurturing the beautiful connections that we have always shared. Family is the bedrock of who we are and ours is and always has been so very strong. We have models of inspiration both living and gone whose stories should guide and inspire us. Our ancestry speaks loudly of strength and purpose and the ability to survive. We’ve got the DNA that we need and when we bond together we are unstoppable.

I mostly want each of you to know how much I love you. There is never a day when I do not think of you. I am proud of who you are mostly because of your goodness. You have many accomplishments and no doubt many more are to come, but it is in your sense of honor and duty for your fellow human that I am the most profoundly moved. I do not worry that you will be overcome by the challenges that will come your way and while the present one may feel a bit overwhelming you will find a way to defeat it.

I am looking forward to the coming years and sharing in the triumphs that will come your way.

With deepest love,

Mama/Gammy/Aunt Sharron/Mama B

Living In the Twilight Zone

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Do any of the rest of you feel as though we have been caught in an infinite loop of The Twilight Zone? I know I do. I find that I awake each morning feeling rather good until my brain reminds me that nothing is exactly as it was only a couple of weeks ago. I won’t be planning a camping excursion any time soon nor will a trip to the grocery store be as unremarkable as I had grown accustomed to it being. As long as I am in the quiet and safety of my home I don’t feel anxious at all but as soon as I turn my attention to the outside world I am stunned by the extent to which we are all grappling with the unknown and my cockeyed optimism is rattled just a bit more.

I keep thinking of Rod Serling’s greatest stories and how they have stuck with me even though they seemed to be only the stuff of science fiction, unlikely to ever transpire. There is the tale of the young woman stuck in her New York apartment as the world is slowly and painfully coming to an end. Then I remember episode featuring a man who is a lone survivor of some cataclysm making the best of the situation by planning to read away his loneliness only to drop and break the eyeglasses that allow him to see. When I see the photos of empty shelves in grocery stores I am reminded of Serling’s take on the effects of panic in a cautionary story of a once friendly neighborhood that turns on itself at the first sign of trouble. Those shows had a way of stunning us with their shocking endings but we never thought that any of the creative scenarios might possibly come true.

Let’s face it. Despite all of our past grumblings about the unfairness of the world most of us would be more than happy to rewind to September 2019 if only we might never have to face the unraveling of the world that has slowly enveloped all of us in fear. It’s difficult to go the the dark possibility that maybe things will never be quite the same again. If there were indeed a way to undo all that has happened would we remember how it felt to be threatened with loss and privation? Would we be more willing to be appreciative of our good fortune and then share it with those who have not been as lucky? Would we be more attuned to working together to solve problems. Would we always be generous and less wasteful, eager to slow down to enjoy our families and our friends? Would we treasure life more now that we have seen how fragile it and our institutions can become? Would we be able to see how destructive our hubris can sometimes be and begin to value our differences?

The human experience is riddled  with instances of grave mistakes as well as stunning victories over injustice and evil. We seem to slowly work our way toward better versions of ourselves as long as we don’t get lost to temptations that interfere with our focus. We work best together when we are willing to tap into our more enlightened natures by a willingness to admit that we rarely have all of the answers. Perhaps we have been moving too quickly of late. Maybe we have been to busy competing with one another and building resumes of our accomplishments that are not particularly important. We have scurried about too quickly, forgetting to take the time to be still and hear the beating of our hearts and see the simple beauty that surrounds us.

This is indeed the most incredible event of my lifetime and I have seen quite a bit in my seventy one years. It has the potential to define us in the long stretch of history. We will eventually move on from this, but will we have learned from it? I know that I have been continually reminded of the wonderful people who are part of my life during the last few weeks. I have felt their love surrounding me. I want to cherish that feeling and never forget what it has meant to me. My hope is that the whole world will find renewed pleasure in the simple act of spreading kindness and understanding every moment of every day.

I am not so naive as to believe that this is a kumbayah moment in which humankind will shed every aspect of its darker side. People have endured plagues, wars, economic depressions and holocausts many times in the past and yet we still haven’t found a way to prevent those things from ever happening again. We fall back into our bad habits again and again which is why I find it somewhat hypocritical to denounce our ancestors when our own modern track record is not free from sins. Instead we must attempt to learn from mistakes and rectify them as best we can.

We’ve seen hoarders and thieves and individuals who have attacked Asians in the misplaced belief that they are somehow responsible for our present woes. At the same time we have witnessed even more signs of generosity, courage, brilliance and understanding. When all is said and done these are the qualities that will remind us of who are and should be as the human race.  Our questions right now should not dwell on judging others, but rather on how each of us might help. These are the things that will provide us with the optimism we need to build the future and take us out of the twilight zone.