Why is covid-19 a big deal? After all, it seems a lot like influenza — a nothingburger for some, an unpleasant experience for many, and a deadly threat to the elderly and vulnerable. We live with flu, so why are people getting their knickers twisted over this? An epidemic of Trump Derangement Syndrome, perhaps?
No. Covid-19 is different from influenza because it is new. And any new stress on the health-care infrastructure is a potential national emergency. You see, developed societies such as the United States have a certain number of doctors and nurses staffing a certain number of hospitals and clinics. These resources (whether allocated by a centralized government health service or by the wisdom of the marketplace) reflect expectations about the number and type of illnesses and injuries the society will face at any one time.
You don’t have to trust me on this. Just look around your own neighborhood. You won’t see many empty hospitals full of doctors and nurses and medical supplies, just waiting for some new virus to emerge.
Actually, should you visit a hospital or clinic at this time of year, you will likely find the staff already quite busy treating — among other maladies — influenza. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu season places a large burden on the U.S. health-care infrastructure: more than 10 million visits to health-care providers in an average year and hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations. Flu season is to the health-care industry what Mardi Gras is to the cheap plastic bead business.
With this in mind, imagine that you are a public health official and someone tells you there’s another flu in town. You’re maxed out treating the flu cases you already have. You will want to do everything in your power to make the outbreak as small as possible.
This unexpected strain on resources — not media hype — is what inspired China to take extraordinary measures against covid-19, even at a steep cost to the national economy. In Hubei province, the new virus swamped the existing health-care system. Tens of thousands of hospital cots have been crammed into repurposed convention centers. Entire hospitals have been built overnight. Armies of doctors and nurses have been imported to fight the disease, while movement in or out of the province has otherwise been forbidden.
The same thing is happening in Italy. “In an effort to cope” with covid-19, “Italy is graduating nurses early and calling medical workers out of retirement,” reporter Loveday Morris wrote in The Post. “Hospitals in the hardest-hit regions are delaying nonessential surgeries and scrambling to add 50 percent more intensive-care beds. ‘This is the worst scenario I’ve seen,’ said Angelo Pan, the head of the infectious-disease unit at the hospital in Cremona.” On Monday, that scenario moved the Italian government to take the astonishing step of shutting down the entire country.
Think about that for a moment. According to the World Health Organization, Italy had three confirmed covid-19 cases three weeks ago. Yes, three — as in the number of contestants on “Jeopardy!” Now the entire nation of some 60 million people is essentially quarantined, at an untold cost to the economy of a highly developed nation.
That kind of decision is not made in response to overheated media.
As Pan’s remark suggests, a disease does not have to be the worst ever seen to produce a scenario that is the worst ever seen. It only needs to pose additional burdens on health-care resources beyond the capacity of those resources. Suppose a city’s hospitals have a total of 10 ventilators and suppose seven of them are in use, keeping victims of familiar flu and pneumonia alive. The eruption of a new disease that causes a mere four people to need a ventilator poses a crisis for that city. And the crisis becomes unsustainable if similar outbreaks are happening in surrounding cities as well.
Unless Americans — young and old, healthy and vulnerable — take covid-19 very seriously, it can spread here just as it has spread in China and in Italy and elsewhere. And if the president doesn’t like today’s news, he is really going to hate those headlines. The reporters who are trying to awaken the public are — in this case — the best friends he’s got.
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