I am writing to you from home. You are just next to me, but somehow, I cannot reach out to you. You are involved in your daily concerns, your schoolwork, your friends, your parties, your day-to-day life, which has been until now, thank goodness, replete with good health.
Sometimes it all changes suddenly. The epidemic of 2020 will stay marked in your memories for the rest of your lives, I am convinced. It will cause major disruption in your lives, it will make some people poor, it might enrich some. You might see someone you know get sick, someone you know, God forbid, might not make it. It all sounds like a nightmare, a work of fiction or even a film you might have seen. In fact, there was such film, “Contagion”, which featured a virus called Corona and which threatened to decimate the world population. Life imitating art? You might think so. Sadly, it has come to this.
The Spanish Flu of 1918 dealt a major blow to the world population, causing extraordinary pain to a world population which was already reeling from the ravages of World War I. The economy suffered a great deal and it probably led to the economic depression, that eventually led to World War II, causing yet more suffering.
Strange things happen to people when epidemics hit next door. Just look at history. In the 14th century a tiny bacterium, Yersinia pestis, transmitted by fleas that lived in the fur of house rats, wiped out a third of the European population. But it wasn’t just the bacterium that killed people. People killed people. Panicking villagers burned ethnic minorities, mostly Jews, thinking that they were the cause of the plague, or worse, that they could, in their superstition, ward off the plague by “offering,” that is, sacrificing the Jews of Europe. You can expect the worst in people when a plague hits home. Collective mentality in sick times, the so-called mob, leads to irrational action.
This will be a major lesson! But I am here to tell you something else. You can help!
Tonight, I had dinner with one of you. You told me: “If there is a state of emergency and my rights are revoked, I am going to act …” I think, my child, you were talking about the civilian defense, which is an age-old concept, and which in some situations is useful. However, here it is not only about what are your rights, but also what are your obligations. The social contract that we sign upon being born, the ability to enjoy the beauty of the world, to love, to see and sense, to inspire and create, that contract comes with serious obligations.
The media has just begun to capture the severity of what is happening in hospitals. I am writing this post because each of you, my children, today, not the government, not the school district, not the mayor, each one of you, my beloved children, has the chance, today, not tomorrow, to take actions that will deter the situation from becoming a worse reality.
The only way to stop this virus is to limit contagion. And the only way to limit contagion is for millions of people to change their behavior today. There are two reasons why the coronavirus has brought Italy to its knees. Firstly, it is devastating for a minority, for the weak, for the already infirm, for old people. When people get really sick they need weeks of intensive care. Secondly, and importantly, this is a terrible illness because of how fast and effectively it spreads. There is a 2-week incubation period.
This letter to you, which I gladly make public, is directed to making you aware that many of those who have the virus, never show symptoms! I can hear you saying, “It’s just a regular flu. It only affects old people with preconditions …”
Just look at Italy. When Prime Minister Conte announced that the entire country, 60 million people, would go on lockdown, the thought that struck most people was “Time has run out.” It might seem like a draconian measure, but in view of the severity, it is real and necessary. What science means is that if the contagion does not wane, Italy could collapse. According to doctors I know, the ICUs today in Lombardy are at more than capacity. They have begun to put ICU units in the hallways! If the numbers do not go down, the growth rate of contagion tells us that there will be thousands of patients who will need intensive care in a matter of weeks. What will happen when there are 100, or a 1000 people who need the hospital and there are only a few ICU places left? There are a finite number of physicians, nurses, medical staff – they are also getting the virus. They have also been working non-stop for days. What happens when the doctors and nurses are simply not able to care for the patients? Your parents are doctors, remember?
And finally for those who say that this is just something that happens to old people, some hospitals are reporting that younger and younger patients – 40, 45, 18, are coming in for treatment. My message to you and your friends: you have a chance to make a difference and stop the spread: it is in your power, my beloved children. Your classes have been cancelled, which was a good move. You will catch up later. Cancel birthday parties, and other gatherings, stay home as much as you can. If you have a fever, stay home.
Do the right thing. You will help the medical system. You will indirectly help doctors, you will help your dad, who will soon be working in the trenches, and if you do these things now, you can buy your medical system time. Act now. Educate. Wash your hands. Keep distance from people. Stay at home. Read. Talk to each other. Love each other. You will have made a difference in the world. Tikkun Olam.
Dr. Misha Pless, formerly of Marblehead, is professor and director of the Multiple Sclerosis Division at the Hospital of the Canton of Lucerne in Lucerne, Switzerland.