That reality hit home on Saturday as a string of fat bikes properly social distanced rolled down a glacial moraine onto the sun-washed surface of Knik Lake, and the thought came to mind “that this is just like those folks who rush out onto the vast, new tide flats to dig clams just before a tsunami comes rolling in to kill them.”
Only this was nothing at all like that. There was no physical danger here.
The ice on the lake was still feet thick. The Knik Glacier, relatively inactive to begin with, was a mile away to the east. The weather was friendly. The temperature in the 20s and warming with not a hint of hypothermic winds.
By the norms for Alaska wilderness travel, this was about as safe as it gets.
But in a world dominated by a drumbeat of warnings to stay in the house to shelter against a potentially deadly, pandemic coronavirus, it felt oddly uncomfortable to be enjoying an Alaska wilderness adventure no matter how benign and ordinary so far from the safety of home.
This is what happens to your brain in the Age of Information. The gray matter is captured and carried along by the unstoppable power of a tide. Turn on the TV or the radio, and the programming starts to program you.
Turn off the news
Except it is impossible to avoid hearing about the pandemic. In the midst of watching the cooking show “Chopped” tonight, up pops a public-service announcement from a local TV station warning one should “wear a mask; save a life.”
A mask is appropriate in some situations, but wearing one in your own home or in areas free of other people is pointless. The mask is for when you’re spraying spittle that could descend on those in pursuit.
“New study shows that following in the slipstream of another runner puts you most at risk of catching COVID-19,” Runner’s World reported. That wasn’t quite what the study said, but it was close enough in a world where you can’t even read esoteric sporting news without pandemic panic creeping in.
And, of course, if you look at the mainstream media you’ll simply be bombarded.
More than 10,000 are now dead in New York. An estimated 3 billion people are under lockdown and economies are teetering. Being overweight has been found to make you a target for the disease. Some who suffer from the virus may never fully recover. Children and teenagers and mothers and a“perfectly healthy, 44-year-old father of six” are dead along with the tens of thousands of old people around the globe.
Little of this news offers any context. Whether the people dying in New York today are in addition to or part of the 145 people per day, more than 1,000 per week, more than 4,000 per month city records indicate were dying before COVID-19 is unknown.
That doctors have been warning about the health dangers of obesity and the leisure lifestyle since not long after the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute began the Framingham Heart Study in Massachusetts in 1948 goes unmentioned.
“Avoiding a sedentary lifestyle during adulthood not only prevents cardiovascular disease independently of other risk factors but also substantially expands the total life expectancy and the cardiovascular disease-free life expectancy for men and women,” researchers who crunched the Framingham data warned 15 years ago. “This effect is already seen at moderate levels of physical activity, and the gains in cardiovascular disease-free life expectancy are twice as large at higher activity levels.”
That an infectious disease can be expected to hit hardest at the physically most vulnerable is not explained. Nor is the fact that for some, health problems always bring long-term complications.
One should not, however, judge the nature of anything from the outliers. All that will do is make you fearful.
Psychiatrists writing in the Journal of the American Medical Associaton last week praised “unprecedented efforts to institute the practice of physical distancing (called in most cases ‘social distancing) in countries all over the world,” but warned that “while these steps may be critical to mitigate the spread of this disease, they will undoubtedly have consequences for mental health and well-being in both the short and long term.”
Comparing the mental trauma to that of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center or mass shootings, they warned of “substantial increases in anxiety and depression, substance use, loneliness, and domestic violence; and with schools closed, there is a very real possibility of an epidemic of child abuse.”
Pushed over the edge?
Social distancing can be “expected to reduce the rate of new infections,” they wrote, “(but) the potential for adverse outcomes on suicide risk is high. Actions could be taken to mitigate potential unintended consequences on suicide prevention efforts, which also represent a national public health priority.
“There are fears that the combination of canceled public events, closed businesses, and shelter-in-place strategies will lead to a recession. Economic downturns are usually associated with higher suicide rates compared with periods of relative prosperity. Since the COVID-19 crisis, businesses have faced adversity and laying off employees. Schools have been closed for indeterminable periods, forcing some parents and guardians to take time off work. The stock market has experienced historic drops, resulting in significant changes in retirement funds. Existing research suggests that sustained economic stress could be associated with higher US suicide rates in the future.”
And that was just the beginning of their list of warnings of what is destined to go wrong if the lockdown continues much longer.
Maybe it’s time for Americans to take a deep breath and recognize that though COVID-19 is a great risk to some, it’s not a great risk to everybody. Then figure out how to get on with life.
Iceland – a hub for airline travel between the U.S. and Europe and thus a potential coronavirus hotspot – has now randomly tested 9.7 percent of the island’s population of 364,000. Just over 1,700 of the tests (4.8 percent) came back positive, but about half of those infected suffered no symptoms.
Of the 1,711 confirmed as infected, 933 (54 percent) have recovered; 770 (45 percent) remain in isolation; 49 (2.9 percent) have been hospitalized, 9 of them in intensive care; and eight (0.46 percent) are dead.
In the big picture, eight of the 35,488 people randomly sampled as of this report (0.02 percent) have died. That’s a death rate about twice that of the flu.
Iceland is somewhat unique in that it is a sparsely populated country – something like Alaska as a state – and not dense-packed New York City. It has also been extremely aggressive in identifying COVID-19 infections and then tracking down all those who had contact with an infected individual.
More than 2,700 Icelanders who encountered someone with COVID-19 are at this moment in quarantine waiting to find out if they have the disease. Almost six times as many have, however, been released from quarantine as healthy.
COVID-19, like other infectious diseases, doesn’t infect everyone, and some people – for reasons unknown – are much better than others at organizing an anti-body response to fight off the disease.
The risk of COVID-19 and the precautions that can be taken to prevent infection are matters of which everyone should be aware, but the disease shouldn’t terrify any of us.
This isn’t like smallpox which raged in the U.S. colonies for more than 100 years.
“Visualize, if you can, what the death of 250,000 of the 2,000,000 people in Metropolitan Boston of one disease in one year would mean to us, and you picture what our ancestors endured during those twelve months with what courage they might,” Dr. Samuel Bayard Woodward told the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1932.
He offered a history of smallpox in the colonies, the 1697 epidemic being but the worst of many battles with the disease, as part of call for vaccination of children in private and parochial schools.
“The (smallpox) death rate is at present in most countries low, but its virulence may at any time increase as it has repeatedly done in recent outbreaks in the middle west,” he warned at the time. “Forty-eight thousand died of smallpox in India in 1930, nobody knows how many in China, and while virulent exists anywhere in the world smallpox in an unvaccinated community is always a danger.”
Smallpox was eventually eliminated, but we are again an unvaccinated community in danger thanks to COVID-19. Maybe instead of being fearful, we should be thankful this virus isn’t nearly as deadly as some that have come before.
Unfortunately, it seems the more comfortable our lives become the easier it is for the unknown and unexpected set fire to our fears. At some point, we’re probably going to have to rise above them to avoid being consumed by them.
Correction: This is an updated version of an earlier story. It was edited to clarify the risks of spittle.