I’ve watched with growing concern the reports about the coronavirus morphing from an outbreak local to a region of China into what health experts are warning could become a full-blown pandemic. It’s important to state up front that the risk of contracting the virus in the Valley remains low, but that doesn’t stop any of us from being worried about how prepared we are in the event of a local outbreak.
This week’s cover story represents a look at what health experts and disaster preparedness officials are thinking through as the virus continues to spread worldwide. The virus does not appear to have a very high mortality rate in comparison to other concerning recent outbreaks, like that of ebola in 2014 and 2018, but the growing number of cases in an expanding list of countries shows that it can travel readily from person to person.
What has been lacking, and what continues to be in short supply, is information. An unfortunate early focus by national media on the financial impacts of the disease rather than the human ones (count me as unsurprised at the outsized interest in money at these elite institutions) seems to have led to a delay in useful health information. But it is finally becoming available. Late last month, the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams let the public know that the popular face masks people have been buying in droves are “NOT effective in preventing the general public from catching coronavirus.” However, we are still learning how the virus is spread and we don’t have antiviral medication or a vaccine to fight it.
In many ways, our medical advances and modern hygiene practices (20-second hand washing!) have insulated us from a great deal of the kinds of disease-based scares experienced in our human history. But they still happen. The HIV epidemic ravaged many communities in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and is still with us today, though a lot less deadly. More than 700,000 people with AIDS have died since the beginning of the epidemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In the 1600s and 1700s, smallpox ravaged the country, decimating Native populations, and claiming more lives than any other cause, according to the Massachusetts Medical Society. That began to end in 1796, when a vaccine was produced. Bacterial tuberculosis was a major killer in the 18th and 19th centuries, and even up through the early 20th century. The Spanish Flu killed 50 million worldwide in 1918 and 1919 — more than died in World War I.
All that is to say that disease is something to take seriously. That’s why so many are dismayed that the Trump Administration disbanded the team poised to respond to global health crises in 2018 and has proposed funding cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though up to now those cuts have not been approved by Congress.
One bright spot in Chris Goudreau’s reporting in this week’s cover story is the preparation undertaken by Easthampton resident Kathy Harrison. The Advocate highlighted Harrison’s work as a published author for disaster preparedness in 2018. At the time, she said an emergency of her own led her to always try to be prepared for anything she could think of in advance. But she’s not what most people would think of when they imagine a “prepper.” Far from the creation of a fortified bunker, Harrison’s approach is to stockpile human necessities — food, toiletries, medicine — so that she can be a resource for her neighbors who might be less able to prepare than she is.
Neighbors helping one another is an important message, especially with a virus poised to disconnect us from one another. Already, racism against Chinese people has been reported as news of the virus has spread. Yes, disease can spread person to person. But it is important to remember that our collaboration and reliance on one another have helped us assemble the knowledge to fight disease and prevent its spreading. Even in the face of communicable disease, we are more powerful as a community.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at email@example.com.