By Charlie Johnston
Decades ago, when I was managing editor of a group of suburban weekly newspapers, I got into a ferocious argument with the advertising manager (who was also the owner’s son) in the production manager’s office just about an hour before deadline. It just kept getting more and more intense until, finally, the production manager said, “Boys, boys, there will be time enough for recriminations later. Right now, we have a paper to get out.” It was one of the funniest lines on the fly I ever heard – and it stopped us both in our tracks. After a hearty (and somewhat embarrassed) laugh, we got back to getting the paper out.
I have thought the fears over the Wuhan Virus have been vastly overblown. Three of the smartest commenters at this site; Steve BC, Desmond Birch, and Stormtracker Ed think it much more alarming and serious than I credit it. Regardless of who is closer to right, we have entered into a full-blown crisis that will have significant and lasting effects. People have lost their life savings, their jobs, their businesses…we will talk another time about the long-time consequences of that, which is serious and a beginning of some real trials for many people.
I am not a virologist, but I am a more than competent and experienced researcher and analyst. There are a couple of significant quirks to this virus, which I will get to in a moment. I would accept it as much more serious than I do if a few significant questions I have were answered calmly and compellingly. Thus far, I have seen a lot of things that are common to many viruses stated as if they are unprecedented – the rate of transmission being one. Without context, each of these things seems scary. But the thing I always ask myself is, “compared to what?” Thus far, most of the things being breathlessly reported are within normal ranges for other viruses – and not quite as scary as H1N1 or Ebola was. I would like to just believe the World Health Organization (WHO), but in the early stages of Ebola it averred that over a million people were likely to die in Africa alone. The actual number was 30,000.
It has been plausibly, but not certainly, asserted that this virus is unusually deadly to older folks and those with compromised immune systems. If that is the case, it is certainly worth encouraging older folks to stay at home and exercise social distancing – but seeing how normal flus usually kill 18-60,000 people each year and also disproportionately target the same vulnerable populations – that sounds like a practice we could have easily and should have adopted long ago to protect our more vulnerable populations. This is what utterly baffles me about how Italy is approaching all of this. In a population of 60 million people, it has 25,000 known cases at this writing along with 1,809 deaths. Italy has just under 200,000 hospital beds, so I can certainly see how a 12% sudden influx could swamp them. But the nation’s medical service says it is so swamped that it is doing a peculiar from of triage right now: neglecting older, more vulnerable patients and concentrating on younger, healthier ones. Normally in emergency triage, those who are most damaged and unlikely to recover go to the end of the line, followed by those who are most healthy and likely to recover on their own. Efforts are focused on that broad middle who are in serious trouble but most likely to respond favorably to treatment while being at serious risk of perishing without it. Unless I have badly misunderstood, Italy is focused on those most likely to recover on their own while ignoring people who aren’t but are likely to respond well to treatment. That makes no sense to me. Meantime, the WHO has traditionally called the Italian health system the second best in the world, behind only France. That does not instill much confidence in the reliability of the WHO’s pronouncements.
In the early stages of a pandemic, mortality rates are greatly inflated because officials do not have a handle on how many actual cases there are – and those rates will be significantly diluted as more data comes in. It is usually safe to assume that the early mortality rates will shrink to about a third of what was originally reported. Even knowing all that, this virus seems to have wild fluctuations in its mortality depending on which country is affected. This is even after correcting for significant differences in medical quality in a nation. Italy is off the charts with a near 7% mortality right now.
One thing I have read several times is that Wuhan is peculiar in that it picks up and carries other local viruses with it – kind of a virus gang leader. That would explain the wild fluctuation in its mortality rate, but if so, it should cause the American West Coast to take near draconian measures. In the huge, largely unattended homeless encampments in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle, typhus and some other medieval viruses have made an appearance. This could decimate the west coast in a giant wave of medieval infections delivered by Wuhan. But, if anything, the west coast seems to be acting more cavalierly than the heartland about the whole thing.
Newt Gingrich wrote an alarming piece about how serious Wuhan is, extrapolating numbers from Italy to suggest that if America is hit as hard, it could see between 5,000 – 15,000 deaths. I was prepared to be convinced by him until I got to the hard numbers. What it means is that if Wuhan hits the U.S. as hard as it has Italy, we could see as many as 1/12th to one-quarter as many deaths as are normal in a severe flu season. Say what?
The hardest thing to deal with is the intentional misinformation being spread routinely. I am having a hard time getting numbers that are anywhere near reliable. I am accustomed to seeing economists all over the board based on their ideology, politics and training. But while you have a few outliers, top medical personnel usually come up with a rough consensus and can explain in a way so that a trained researcher can verify the rough trends. Not so, here. I have come to trust Dr. Anthony Fauci from the National Institute of Health (NIH). He seems steady, takes it seriously, and is not given to panic – and his stuff is internally coherent, no wild swings. The media has been shameless in trying to maximize fear in hope it will politically hurt Donald Trump. Democrats have tried to use the crisis as an excuse to vastly expand government funding for abortion. The Mayor of Champaign, Illinois, asserted that this crisis gave her the authority to confiscate people’s guns AND even their homes and real property. She asserted more authority than most medieval kings dared to assume. She did have to issue a clarification saying that she only meant she has that power, not that she is going to use it. Bizarrely, several high-ranking Democrats have asserted that this proves that America needs exclusively government-run health care. I say bizarrely because the nations hardest hit so far; China, Iran, and Italy all have exclusive government-run health care systems. Meantime, Joe Biden has adopted as his chief health care advisor the main architect of Obamacare, Ezekiel Emmanuel – who thinks people have a duty to die once they reach age 75. One would think this virus would be a godsend for him.
I suppose it is hard now for young people to believe it, but folks in this country used to rally round whoever was president during times of crisis while working with him to solve it regardless of party. Such unity in crisis used to be routine – and anyone who used such a crisis as a moment to make political “gotchas” would quickly be rebuked or retired. I guess we are long past that – at least for the time being.
If normalcy bias prevents people from seeing a serious threat that is out of the ordinary, many will suffer needlessly who need not have if decisive action had been taken earlier to meet the threat. The corollary is also true. If irrational panic is unswayed by actual evidence, far more people will suffer than is necessary. It is why judgment is so critical – and why, however we approach a situation, we should make allowance for the possibility our judgment might be errant. It is not a competition for a gold star, but an effort to keep people both safe and confident in how to get through whatever challenges we face.
Throughout salvation history, the Church has weathered its way through many crises and disruptions. When a crisis came, rarely did Church officials have a good response ready to deploy immediately and sedately. They gathered themselves, considered the challenge in front of them, and pressed on as they could after careful deliberation. It seemed ironic to me that while people were arguing whether they could rightly be denied Communion on the tongue in the midst of an emergency, Mass was suddenly cancelled entirely for at least several weeks. In times of crisis, we don’t have the right not to be inconvenienced or forced to accept things that would be unacceptable in normal times.
I have seen some just blasting the Bishops who have suspended religious celebrations for a few weeks. Step back a minute and into their shoes. Who saw this drastic measure coming even a week ago? Many of our Bishops were faced with orders by secular officials limiting public assemblies of all types. Even those who, like me, did not think the actual virus was near as dangerous as it was being presented, had to consider the very real possibility of serious liability if they were wrong and just continued with business as usual. I have been the right hand man to several prominent public officials – and I have a healthy awareness of the real responsibility that comes with their authority. I give a lot of early latitude to officials, particularly in an unexpected fast-moving crisis. I actually don’t warm up easily to those officials who don’t exercise their authority in crisis without giving due regard to all potential consequences. For a lot of these Bishops, to continue business as usual would have meant forcing a legal confrontation with secular authorities on short notice – and the potential to bankrupt their Dioceses with liability. I do think we are called to prudence and deliberation before jumping to decisions that can have deep and existential consequences. Give them some time to get their footing. I really don’t doubt that even those Bishops I don’t have much regard for are mostly busy coming up with plans and provisions for the feeding and nurturing of their flocks without making any unforced errors before a hostile secular world.
This is a time to bear with each other, to lift each other up in mutual charity. The last thing we need is to complain that things are not how we would prefer or not how we would do them when a leader of ours is trying to find his way. I made clear that I prefer the approach of, say, Poland, but in crisis, surely our leaders deserve some forbearance as they try to figure out how best to go forward. If some just surrender to secular forces without defending the faithful, well, as I noted at the beginning of this piece, there will be time enough for recriminations later. For now, let us just give it a few weeks to get a better idea of how things are shaking out. Everybody sometimes needs – and deserves – a little breathing room.
Some have said that we cannot be harmed by the Body and Blood of Christ. I actually happen to agree with that in my personal approach. Shoot, I’m the guy who spent over a year drinking from streams and rivers and never used a filtering device. Yet I know that the Divine True Presence is contained in the equally real form of bread and wine. It has long been my practice to receive on the tongue from a Priest, Deacon, or consecrated religious, while receiving in the hand from laymen acting as Extraordinary Ministers. Even so, when I am under the weather, I receive in the hand from Priests and refrain from the cup so that, if it makes them nervous, they may be soothed. I simultaneously believe that I will not be hurt by the Body of Christ and that others may have a legitimate concern that the forms could carry unwanted physical contaminants. So, I act as charitably as I can. I certainly have the right to receive as I wish, but it does me no harm to receive in a way that comforts others during a period of emergency. If I can do something that is more charitable to others without compromising my duty, I will choose the more charitable route every time (unless I am having a particularly crabby day – which, alas, I get from time to time.)
When my son was a teenager, we had a cool deal. Everyone has a day when they are just crabby and ill-tempered. Being asked what’s wrong just aggravates it. We decided that we were each entitled, every once in a while, that we were to give each other breathing room on a day when that one was just irritable. We agreed not to abuse it – and that the crabby one had to specifically invoke it. But then the normal one would just leave the crabby one alone to stew in his discontent for the day…and get back to it the next day. I gotta tell you, if I’m being a jerk, and know I’m being a jerk, and just can’t help it that day, it is like a spring of cool water to be left to my own devices and given the breathing room to regroup for the next day.
Bear with one another, lift each other up, give each a little breathing room. If necessary, there will be time enough for recriminations later. But for now, let us avoid “who is the most holy of them all” competitions.
My dear friend who comments as John McFarm here, sent me a fabulous note on something he did. He is in a Diocese that has not yet suspended Mass. Let me quote his note verbatim: “Well, we are charging into the storm my friend…I have been heading your advice…take the next right step, defend the faith and the faithful and bring hope. This morning I brought 120 two ounce bottles of my own “hillbilly sanitizer” to Church and spread them out in each pew. When Father mentioned it to the congregation (half of normal ) he asked me to explain. So in haughty voice and smile I explained that there is no rubbing alcohol left to be found, no Aloe Vera gel or coconut oil. This sanitizer is two thirds Everclear 190 proof and one third baby oil. The parishioners all smiled and that was my intent. Give them confidence we each can figure things out, have compassion to share with others, and enjoy the moment. I feel I succeeded. Don’t mean to brag but I know you will enjoy hearing that. Wednesday I intend on rallying my fellow knights into truly becoming just that…not a club for old men. I hope to set up a team to sanitize the pews at least once a week. Another team to call Parishioners isolated, especially if they are ill, and bring Jesus’ joy and grace to those poor souls.”
I spoke with a dear friend in Alabama who told me that a Priest he knew chose to compensate for the empty Holy Water fonts by sprinkling the congregation with hyssop. My friend told me it was deeply meaningful to many in the Parish.
My brother got a group of fellow public safety officials to publicly offer to come out and help the elderly with shopping and small tasks that they can’t get out for.
Ah, doing small things with great love for those around you. Sounds like the next right step to me -and your Bishop deserves a little breathing room, too, as we figure this out together.
A few weeks ago each of us chose a little cross to carry through the desert of Lent. Surprise! Our Lord has decided we will carry a different cross than we planned on. Let us live solidarity with each other, building each other up, giving little signs of hope and, if we’re feeling crabby about something, keeping it to ourselves for a while. We will find grace in this desert greater than what we could ever have expected. The Lord is at hand. Give Him thanks and praise.