Boomer Opinion: On coronavirus, everyone’s just guessing

When it comes to the impact of coronavirus and the warp speed with which it is changing our lives, we’re all in the same boat. This is especially threatening to most baby boomers, who are part of what’s considered the most vulnerable segment of our population. In this Boomer Opinion piece, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs tries to put it in perspective.

Well, now the coronavirus has caught up with me. No, not physically (at least not as of this writing, although this whole mess is moving so fast, who even knows about tomorrow?!). But my wife and I were going to be flying to Northern California this weekend to be part of a memorial for a nephew who died before his time.

Greg Dobbs

Now, we’re not.

Determined as late as last night to get on the plane and downplay the cautionary warnings for people over 60 (which is most of us baby boomers) whose immune systems aren’t as strong as they used to be, maybe good sense prevailed over good motives.

As a longtime foreign and war correspondent, I lived much of my life calculating odds and measuring risks and, as the sub-headline of my book puts it, “Going in when everyone else wants out.” But like so many people all over the country and all over the world, we had to weigh the risks against the rewards. And since the memorial just now ended up being cancelled anyway because of another kind of warning, the one cautioning against good-sized gatherings, the risks came down heavier on the scale than they had seemed before. Alas.

A growing concern over the risk of COVID-19 and crowded airliners.

Yet our decision is nagging at me. A week from now we might look back and think, we should have travelled. But at the speed with which this crisis seems to be spreading, more likely we will look back and think, thank goodness we didn’t. There’s really no easy answer. In an odd way, it’s a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. The tough part is, each of us has to decide for ourselves which is the lesser.

After all, everyone’s just guessing about where this coronavirus mystery is headed and what we should do about it. Even the experts. Some of it is educated guesswork, but guesswork nonetheless. We’ve learned that the hard way, as even the experts’ theories have shifted with the worldwide spread of this virus. But it is as new to them as it is to the rest of us. No one fully understands it and how it works and what we need to do to protect ourselves against it, beyond all the good advice like washing our hands. We could closet ourselves in caves and probably be okay but how do we know what infected us before we went in?

As senior officials at NASA used to tell me when I covered the space program, the only thing we don’t know is how much we don’t know. This virus hasn’t played itself out enough for anyone to be sure— including those aforementioned experts. I’d discourage anyone from letting it rattle them though. My favorite word in any language transliterates as “malesh,” which is Arabic and means, Don’t sweat the stuff you can’t control. In parts of the Middle East where I spent so much time, they have to think this way every day of their sorry lives. But in the case of coronavirus, “malesh” means do what you can to control the risk and just let the rest— the uncontrollable part— run its course because it’s going to anyway.

Out of his depth.

Since the campaign to contain the virus starts at the top, a thought or two now about how that has gone. To be sure, the coronavirus itself is not the fault of President Donald J. Trump. But as its impacts on our everyday lives spread and we all find ourselves living at least temporarily with a new normal, part of that new normal is the president’s fault. He speaks proudly and egocentrically of a few things he did early on to stem the spread. But his own ignorant, incurious, irresponsible statements about the virus over the course of several weeks belie any notion that his administration was ever moving full speed ahead, and likely made the government’s response slower than it had to be. He had his head in the sand, caring more about his numbers than the virus’s. The man who claims to be “a very stable genius,” the leader who goes with his gut no matter what his expert aides advise, the president who means to comfort us with his own “natural abilities” in science by bragging about his “super genius uncle” at MIT— as if his uncle’s intellectual genes had migrated down to him— didn’t have a clue.

Testing kits— which not only would help people’s coronavirus diagnoses but would give us a more accurate picture of its scope in America— have been (despite Trump’s inaccurate assurances) few and far between. The Centers for Disease Control said the other day that 8,500 tests had been conducted since the virus first showed up. That’s in a nation of 330-million people. South Korea is doing about 10,000 tests a day. It is frightening to observe, the virus is moving faster than the government.

As for the financial consequences of coronavirus, which are turning catastrophic, if Trump wants to take credit for the long-running bull market on Wall Street as he has boisterously been doing (as if that bull market didn’t actually get its footing under the predecessor Trump so abhors), then he has to take the blame when it plunges. Trouble is, this is not a president who keeps a plaque on his desk that says, “The buck stops here.” Not when the buck is losing value.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Finally, there is the president’s absolute, if no longer unexpected, abrogation of global leadership. We are neither sharing big ideas nor coordinating effective responses with other countries. And, when Trump announced from the Oval Office his ban on travelers from Europe (a good stroke, although he left some of the fine print out of his speech), he did so without consulting with a single fellow leader in Europe. It hurts their economies like it hurts ours, but he treats them as underlings, not allies. Which will make them less enthusiastic allies when we really need them. An economic development specialist wrote this week, “We may look back on coronavirus as the moment when the threads that hold the global economy together came unstuck.”

Drive-up coronavirus testing is being launched by Kaiser Health and other healthcare organizations… in the face of lack of guidance from the federal government.
This drive-by testing station is in Denver’s Lowry neighborhood.

The numbers on the economy keep shooting downward, just as the numbers on the virus keep exploding upward. In fact in all likelihood, since there aren’t enough testing kits out there yet, they’re probably even higher than reported. The scary part isn’t how big this thing is now. It’s how big it can become.

Beyond prudent precautions, there might not be much we can do now to make the coronavirus go away until it runs its course.

So we can only hope, may it soon be gone. And may this credibility-starved president soon be gone too.

3 Comments

  1. Excellent piece, as always. I’m writing from Italy where we are living the crisis at its peak, with the whole country – 60 million people – in lockdown, from 10 March to 3 April. Eerie. The streets are empty, shops are closed, all events, both public and private, canceled. This is an exact replication of the quarantine the Chinese carried out in Hubei province, with the same number of people: 60 million.

    The whole of Europe is watching Italy to see how it will turn out. We all hope it will work out and slow the spread of the virus enough so that the hospital systems can catch up and get ready to look after the sick. It did work in China, it did slow the spread of the virus enough so that China is now (slowly) climbing out of it. How it did it is documented in a fascinating article by the Harvard Business review.

    So surely that miracle can be repeated. I wrote about it for an article that was published yesterday on our magazine Impakter (if you go online, you can see it). In the course of my research, I realized experts do know quite a bit more than apparently most Americans realize. There’s a fascinating article about it in the medical journal Lancet, comparing COVID-19 with all the other epidemics we’ve suffered in this century (including Ebola of course – far more lethal but much more circumscribed).

    So the outlook is this: It will affect probably 3/4 of the world population because human-to-human transmission is extraordinarily fast and easy. The mortality rate is around 1 percent (that’s much more than the seasonal flu) but it’s very high for certain age groups, baby boomers and above and all those with previous medical conditions (close to 50 percent). A vaccine will be developed fairly soon but it will take at least 6 months (or more) to make it available to everyone.

    So yes, coronavirus is here to stay and you’re absolutely right, the American government better start taking serious measures to contain it first and mitigate it next.

  2. Agree. Excellent article, and though some people may not agree with the political slant, they can’t argue with the facts as presented. Please, please, please, all you GOP/Trump supporters/Fox News watchers that many Boomers are, don’t blame the democrats for this virus. We’re in this same boat as you and just as concerned for our own health and for our families. We didn’t import this virus, even though some people think we did. Follow logic, not what you’re hearing on news and social media.

  3. Another terrific article, particularly “My favorite word in any language transliterates as “malesh,” which is Arabic and means, Don’t sweat the stuff you can’t control”.
    We really need this calming perspective. Thanks.

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