Journal of the Plague Year: Of ponds and water lilies and coronavirus

Posted Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in News

Journal of the Plague Year: Of ponds and water lilies and coronavirus

Courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation

by Gina Hamilton

March 25, 2020

The problem we as a society face is that the president doesn't understand exponential mathematics. He is looking at a society where coronavirus is still multiplying and trying to will the thing away. An Easter timeline would be a disaster on many levels. The disease is still accelerating, and people are so worried that they are fleeing hot spots.  Short of wishing that Trump would simply step back and let the experts deal with this, perhaps a simplified kind of education is in order.

So here is a highly simplified thought experiment that perhaps, someone who has access to the president, can gently explain to him.

Let us say you have one water lily plant in a pond. The plants reproduce themselves once a day. At the end of 48 days, the entire pond is covered. On which day would the pond be half-covered?

The answer is on day 47. Between day 47 and day 48, each plant reproduces itself and the pond is completely covered.

Now, to coronavirus. It, too, is exponential. In New York City, it appears that the number of cases double every third day, and this is despite shelter in place orders, which may yet show a slowing of the pandemic if everyone cooperates, a tall order. To make matters worse, New Yorkers have fled -- to their summer homes on Long Island, to friends on Cape Cod, to winter homes in Florida, to more rural areas of the state and New England.

Governor Cuomo has advised -- because advising is the only tool in our toolbox right now -- that anyone who has been in New York in the last 14 days self-quarantine wherever they are. But no one knows where they are, or who they are.

This has happened before.

When an outbreak of plague occurred in 1592, all the theatres were closed in London. Without any kind of social safety net, hundreds of thousands of people left London, including every major acting company, carrying plague germs into the countryside.  In some towns, desperate for information about what was happening elsewhere, the players were welcomed. In other towns, they were driven off at the point of pitchforks.

The great migration delivered death across England, Scotland, and Wales. In addition, thousands of travelers died -- from plague, but also from illnesses caught from the villagers, and from drinking bad water and having little food.

Now, the last great plague year was a long time ago, but the 1918 flu pandemic year wasn't that long ago, and we know perfectly well that worldwide travel sparked and drove the flu across the world. Fifty million people died in a single year from influenza. The worst situations were when people flouted advice and joined together in celebration, at that point, for the end of World War I. The Philadelphia parade is a case in point.

In 1918, toward the end of the war, despite warnings of influenza, Philadelphia held a parade to sell war bonds, called Liberty Loans. Everyone was there -- every scouting troup, every ladies' auxillary, every high school marching band, every mummer tribe. And everyone who wasn't marching in the parade was watching it from the sides of the city's streets.

Within 72 hours of the parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. In the week ending October 5, some 2,600 people in Philadelphia had died from influenza or its complications. A week later, that number rose to more than 4,500.

This is a novel virus; no one is immune. Social isolating may seem difficult, but it is the best technique we have to prevent the virus from being transmitted. Please. Do your part. Consider the lilies of the pond. They toil not; nor do they spin. All the CDC is asking is that you toil not, nor do you spin, for the next little while.

Celebrate your holidays at home this year, no matter what the president says.

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