Coronavirus outbreak is testing our patience, but we have to stick together

Things have gotten real in a hurry. 

In a matter of days, we went from normal, everyday life activities to a societal shutdown of epic proportions. COVID-19, aka “the coronavirus,” has paralyzed our very existence, closing schools and universities, canceling sports at all levels, slowing airline travel to a crawl, shuttering bars and restaurants, wiping out events, and forcing people to avoid most — if not all — personal contact.

The only place you’ve been able to consistently find people is at stores, stocking up on food and supplies — most notably bottled water, hand sanitizer and toilet paper, of which there is none to be found anywhere in the Yakima Valley. 

(What’s with the run on TP, by the way? Coronavirus isn’t an intestinal disease that requires Armageddon-style hoarding of Charmin and Cottonelle. All this behavior is doing is causing more people to panic-buy all types of paper products, resulting in a worsening shortage of household essentials. It’s infuriating and completely unnecessary, but hey, welcome to the new normal.)

With nowhere to go and no one to see — if you’re following proper protocols, that is — families have had to get creative to endure the seemingly endless hours at home. Play dates have been put on hold, visits with the grandparents have been postponed (or should have been), internet bandwidths have been stressed, and outings to movie theaters and indoor recreation destinations are no longer an option. 

With relatively few cases in Yakima County to date (53 confirmed as of March 25), you can still find large gatherings at parks and private residences. “It won’t happen to me” seems to be a common refrain around the Valley, as people continue to come together for barbecues, birthday parties, wedding receptions, and pickup basketball games. 

I’m not one to judge — it’s 60 degrees and sunny, after all — but refusing to obey a critical public health order does seem a little shortsighted. It’s not just a matter of you contracting the virus; it’s about you carrying the virus around asymptomatically, passing it on to everyone and everything you touch. This is how coronavirus became an international pandemic, expanding from one Chinese province (Wuhan), to other parts of Asia, to Europe, to the United States, to our own backyard.

At the time of this writing, the outbreak has killed 123 Washingtonians and afflicted roughly 2,500 state residents (more than 65,000 in the U.S. with 931 deaths). Due to a lack of testing availability, those numbers are likely much higher. And because coronavirus can spread in a variety of ways — personal contact, airborne germs from coughing and sneezing, touching infected surfaces — many people (especially kids) don’t even know they are carrying it around.

Even more mysterious is that the virus can live inside humans for up to 14 days and on certain surfaces for 72 hours. You might be going about your daily business, fully unaware that you’re a carrier, and then pass it on to a gas pump or package at the grocery store that eventually falls into the hands of an at-risk individual. 

You may be unwittingly putting someone’s life in danger by carrying out a routine daily activity. That’s what makes this epidemic so frightening.

•••••

Making matters worse, there is no cure and no vaccine for the coronavirus. Despite false proclamations by the president about how certain drugs may be effective in treating the disease, there is no escape if you become infected. You may not die, especially if you’re young and in good health, but many other people could if you choose to ignore the warnings. That’s enough to make me stay home indefinitely.

Unlike many of our friends and neighbors in the Yakima Valley, I’m lucky that I can work from home. But not everyone is as fortunate right now. Many people’s jobs — and livelihoods — require person-to-person contact, and there’s no timetable for when those work opportunities will return.

Bartenders, servers, chefs, hotel and fitness club employees, massage therapists, dental hygienists, and anyone working in entertainment, recreation and tourism all face an agonizingly uncertain future. 

Through no fault of their own, these people might be out of work for a few weeks or a few months. Their places of employment may or may not be around when this whole shutdown subsides. Then there are the businesses whose health depends on a consistently vibrant economy, like construction companies, retail stores, car lots, hair salons and community newspapers (like this one). 

If fewer people are employed, there’s less disposable income to be thrown around. Everyone starts hunkering down, protecting what they have, and before you know it, the economy grinds to a halt, like it did in 2008-09. 

It’s a vicious cycle that has no easy solutions. I certainly hope it doesn’t come to pass, but we could be looking at an economic meltdown that will make the Great Recession seem like a minor inconvenience. Business owners all over the country are currently weighing their short- and long-term fortunes, and without massive intervention from the federal government — forgive me if I’m not optimistic about our current leadership — they may decide to cut their losses.

•••••

But I don’t want to bring everyone down. This is a time for our communities to come together and figure out how to weather the impending storm. We have to maintain hope; otherwise, we will fall victim to despair, which has the power to spread like a pandemic virus. If we expect to emerge from this crisis without the catastrophic damage seen in Italy (nearly 7,000 dead at last count) or Spain (3,600 deaths), we must heed the warnings of our state leaders and public health officials.

That means staying home unless you absolutely must go out. We all need groceries and many of us have to keep up with life-or-death medical appointments. Some still have jobs they need to show up for, like our courageous doctors, nurses and medical support personnel.

We should also show appreciation for big-box store and supermarket employees who are stocking the shelves and providing customer service every day to thousands — people who may or may not be walking around with the coronavirus but need food and other essentials to survive. And we can’t leave out the many restaurant, coffee shop and tasting room staffs who are braving exposure to provide takeout, delivery and drive-thru services so the rest of us can still enjoy a small luxury from time to time. 

Hundreds of small business owners in the Valley are just trying to keep the doors open so they can put food on their own tables, and hopefully, keep their valued employees on the payroll.

I’m sure I am leaving lots of people out, but the point is, we’re only going to get through this unfortunate episode if we work together and recognize a common purpose. For now, that means doing all we can to minimize the spread of this virus and doing our best to one another emotionally and financially. 

No one wanted this to happen and everyone is hoping it will just go away. But battling the coronavirus crisis is going to be a long haul with a series of unpredictable outcomes. We need to lean on our families and friends — many of whom we can’t see face-to-face for a while — and treat our neighbors with compassion and respect. As they say, we’re all in this together.

Things are probably going to get much worse, and we will be faced with challenges that are even more dire in the weeks and months to come. So be good to each other and have faith in humanity. It’s all we’ve got.

•••••

This column appeared in the Review-Independent newspaper the week of March 23 and has been updated to reflect the changing virus statistics in Washington and around the U.S. The photo above shows my family having a backyard campfire to break up the monotony of home quarantine.

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