Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He was trying to calm the nation by pointing out that fear was making things worse as people struggled to find a way out of the Great Depression. His words are certainly applicable today. We need to calm down!
Yesterday, our university announced plans to move all classes online for the remainder of the semester and all meetings and events were cancelled due to fear of the coronavirus. Parents were jamming parking lots to gather up their (adult) children to move them home, and in the events office, we spent the afternoon cancelling arrangements for the many spring ceremonies, symposia, meetings, conferences, and donor gatherings that would normally take place between now and semester’s end. The consolation for students who will now miss the final weeks of their college careers including awards recognitions, opportunities to compete in once-in-a-lifetime sporting competitions, and possibly even commencement, is knowing that one day their children will be able to earn master’s degrees by studying the panic of 2020.
On Monday we will report to work in an abandoned campus, but are being told to stay in our offices and not interact with others in person. As events planners, preparing for the unexpected is a routine part of what we do. We make and practice contingency plans for a wide variety of situations so implementing these measures is not a stretch. This problem will pass.
While prudent preparations to prevent disease are essential, what disappoints me is the hysterical response of many Americans to the situation. I thought we were made of sterner stuff. People aren’t really to blame, however, because irrational behavior is being fueled by fear-mongering out-of-control cable TV broadcasters and the non-stop distribution of social media disinformation. Print media is no better. In Thursday’s edition of “USA Today” it is not until 16 column inches into a front-page story with the terrifying headline, “We Have Rung the Alarm Bell” that we learn, “The new coronavirus, or COVID-19, causes only mild or moderate symptoms for most people, such as fever and cough, but can progress to serious illness including pneumonia, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. WHO says mild cases last about two weeks, while most patients with serious illness recover in about three to six weeks.” The same description applies to seasonal flu from which the Centers for Disease Control tells us that so far during the 2019-2020 flu season, 16,000 people have died and 280,000 have been hospitalized. There is a vaccine for flu, yet if you asked most of the sky-is-falling types whether or not they bothered to get a flu shot this year, the answer would be no. Statistics say only 43.5 percent of Americans did so.
This morning I went on my usual Saturday grocery run for sushi and cat litter and was surprised to find jammed parking lots, masses of frantic people and bare shelves. Someone started the rumor that “they” want “us” to stock pile 45 days of groceries! People are rushing to do so. Why? A sign limited purchases of giant bricks of toilet paper to no more than five per person. Each brick contains 30 rolls, if you purchased the five-brick limit, that’s 150 rolls of toilet paper. Astonishingly, they were disappearing faster than Tickle Me Elmo the week before Christmas. This is perplexing since there is no shortage of toilet paper in the U.S. In fact, Green Bay, Wisconsin is the toilet paper production capital of the world. What’s more, the U.S. imports only 10 percent of the annual TP consumed, mostly from Canada and Mexico. Psychologists say this hoarding behavior is similar to squirrels stashing nuts for the winter. It pays to play it safe.
Shoppers were smearing handles, carts, hands, and anything else they might touch with sanitizing wipes. I overhead one man on the phone trying to ascertain if white vinegar would kill the bug. Mounds of used wipes were piled on the floor and there were signs on the doors saying the store would close at 8 p.m. to give workers a chance to restock shelves. I live in a community that has the highest percentage of Ph.Ds. per capita of any city in the southeastern United States. Obviously, advanced education does not correlate with common sense.
Now we are all hunkered down in our houses, confined with our pets and relatives, surrounded by boxes and cans of shelf-stable food that no one really likes, and what’s worse, has to be cooked. There’s nothing to do but perhaps build a fort with all those rolls of toilet paper. Since I wasn’t one of the lucky ones who arrived in time to purchase TP, I’ll take comfort in knowing that I can rip up my hard copy editions of “USA Today” to serve the purpose in case of emergency. I’m not sure what happens next. I guess we wait until Glenda the Good Witch appears to tell us munchkins it’s safe to come out from our hiding places. In the meantime, I’m going to pour a cup of tea and re-read Edgar Allen Poe’s “Mask of the Red Death.”