“Thought-Provoking Entertainment” isn’t just a This is True slogan, it’s an illustration of my mission in life: to promote more thinking in the world. If thinking was truly valued by society, the U.S. wouldn’t have had such a struggle with the pandemic.
A Story Arc that Perfectly Illustrates
Why I Concentrate on Thinking…
Social commentary is a weird profession, especially the way I do it: while each story has a point, it’s sometimes hard to see the big picture without putting the puzzle pieces together. My commentary on the pandemic came from many different angles, thus this interactive multimedia collection that, all told, covers the progression of the story, particularly in the United States.
Each entry shows its publication date, usually in the (source area) of the story. Unless otherwise noted, all dates mentioned are in 2020. Click each story slug to open the story text. Most of the photos and illustrations on the page get larger when clicked.
The first person to die was a 61-year-old man in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province in China, on 9 December 2019. But, the New York Times reassured its readers the next day, “there is no evidence that it can spread among humans” — at least, according to Wuhan’s Health Commission despite the fact that they had already identified 41 cases of the “mysterious, pneumonialike [sic] illness.” It had first appeared in the city eight days before.
The first Covid-19 death in the U.S. was thought to be in late February, 2020 — an elderly nursing home resident in Washington state. But once medical examiners started to learn what to look for, they realized no, the first victim died much earlier, and much younger.
The first known U.S. death is now recorded to have occurred on 6 February. Patricia Dowd, a non-smoking manager for a semiconductor company in the San Francisco Bay Area who “exercised routinely, watched her diet and took no medication,” died at 57.
As a volunteer medic in my rural community in southwest Colorado, and as a journalist who constantly skims the news looking for commentary fodder, I quickly started monitoring the reports, not wanting to jump in immediately because I wanted the real details, not panic-fed rumors.
It all begins, of course, in China….
- March 11: the World Health Organization finally declares Covid-19 a pandemic.
As the fear of SARS-CoV-2 in the U.S. built, it was clearly time to confront those fears in my 30 March podcast (12 minutes, transcript):
- 4 April: The U.S. exceeds 10,000 Covid-19 deaths, 59 days after the first — an average of more than 169 deaths/day.
The Headline of the Week occasionally was pandemic-related. An example from 5 April:
Put Away Your B Cups
No, You Can’t Make an N95 Mask out of a Bra
A Side Feature in This is True is the Honorary Unsubscribe — an interesting obit which features “The people you will wish you had known.” The 5 April issue brought the first honoree to die from Covid-19, and it hit close to home for me after nearly 26 years as an online journalist:
- 8 April: The first Covid death in our rural Colorado county. My EMS colleagues, who had been briefed on symptoms and safety protocols weeks before, had transported the man to the hospital.
This is True has space for free-form editorials, such as this from 12 April:
This week my wife threw a virtual (Zoom video chat) birthday party for me, which was actually a lot of fun. She invited a lot of old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in quite some time, and the “cocktail hour” party lasted 3-1/2 hours! Probably the last hour was two guys, Matt and Matt, who had a lot in common, chatting. Weird times can also be fun times, especially as folks get more inventive about maintaining human connection.
The scenario discussed in my blog post Stay Put looks more and more likely: that pressure on government officials to let businesses “open back up” is growing, and it’s way too early for that. The badly named “social distancing” (we need to be social; it’s “physical distancing” that’s important!) truly has worked to blunt the rate of infection, keeping the death rate way down while we wait for a vaccine. Stop the isolation too soon and infections will shoot up, as we’ve seen before.
If you’re not already aware of how easy is it for a few sick people to create a huge number of infections, read this article: How a Premier U.S. Drug Company Became a Virus ‘Super Spreader’ (New York Times, 12 April). It’s sobering. If politicians do something stupid like let our guard down too early, I highly recommend “staying put” for a couple weeks anyway to see what happens.
I sure hope readers took the advice.
Obviously, not everyone was rendered stupid by the pandemic. My 13 April podcast features two women who stepped up to help their neighbors stay healthy (16 minutes, transcript):
The 19 April podcast took a bit of a contrarian view: An American company that makes masks and other PPE chose not to ramp up production to help with the Covid pandemic. That sounds like a decision to be criticized, but it’s actually a true example of Uncommon Sense (14 minutes, transcript):
Everyone says they want to “go back” to “normal” rather than have the constant uncertainty of the pandemic. But what “normal” do we want to “go back” to? In my 27 April podcast, I argued it’s time to think about a new normal — what do we want to go to as this craziness ramps down? (11 minutes, transcript):
The Honorary Unsubscribe from the 17 May issue:
- 27 May: The U.S. exceeds 100,000 Covid-19 deaths just 54 days after hitting 10,000 — an increased average in this span of more than 1,666 deaths/day.
This Randy’s Random item was set to run on 8 June after I made it a couple of days earlier. I had to remake it that morning just before publication to adjust the second line, which is to scale with the first — by then it didn’t fit inside the box:
The Headline of the Week from 21 June:
The City Plans an Online Meeting to Address the Matter
The Internet Is So Bad in this Community Some People Drive to Zoom Meetings
CBC (Halifax, N.S., Canada) headline
My 3 August podcast tells the story of a conservative man who “believed the virus to be a hoax.” He found out the hard way that it was anything but (18 minutes, transcript):
Editorial from 9 August:
I Got a Note This Morning from a 20-year Premium reader — I’ve always noticed him because of his name: Mr. J.D. True. Really. If you thought I was Mr. True, nope! It’s him. I had noticed he let his Premium lapse this summer, and with his note today, I found out why.
“My Premium subscription recently lapsed,” he wrote, “but has now been renewed. I am just out of the hospital after spending weeks there with Covid-19. It was during my hospital stay that the subscription lapsed, as at my sickest I really had no interest in anything at all. But I look forward to getting back to reading your newsletter. I still have a long recovery ahead of me, and it will be a great comfort to look forward to each and every week.”
Well, the first thing I did after wishing him well was to send him the seven issues he missed so he could catch up. I also asked J.D. if it was OK for me to both run his note and mention his last name because, well, it makes it all so much more on point! I also asked if he had anything he wanted to add, knowing his note would be in this issue.
“I don’t really have any details to add,” he replied with the thumbs up to use his full name, “other than a plea to everyone to PLEASE practice social distancing and wear a mask in public. Too many people think this virus is no worse than the flu, and while that may be so for a lot of people, there are also a lot of people for whom this virus can be devastating. The mask is not to protect you, it is to protect anyone you might come in contact with. It is truly worth 30 minutes of the discomfort of wearing a mask in a store to get the virus under control.”
Boy, is he gonna love the seven issues he missed! 🙂
- 22 September: The U.S. exceeds 200,000 Covid-19 deaths, or more than 66 times the toll of the “9/11” attacks. It took 119 days to get here from 100,000 deaths, making the rate during this span more than 840 deaths/day. We were coming off the peak …until Thanksgiving.
11 November: revisiting the Randy’s Random post from 8 June (above) was so sobering, I don’t want to do it again as I post this retrospective in late December:
Also in the 15 November issue, a short editorial that leads to a long explainer response:
A Long-Time Friend and True reader complained — in the context of today’s Randy’s Random post — that she was “tired of the state telling me I have to wear a face diaper as a method of control. That is what is at stake here.” Happily, she ended her paragraph with “I would like to hear your opinion on all of the above.”
Well, I started to reply by email, but then decided that her thoughts, which are held by many, needed a more public reply. Thus, it all went on my blog instead: Covid: Think for Yourself (Dammit!) As you can probably already tell, I was not reserved in my comments. The post also includes today’s lead story (“Blatantly Obvious”), since it directly applies, though Terry didn’t see that story before she commented.
The 22 November podcast is about resilience vs burnout in these trying times. The irony: it was late largely because my research for it was interrupted by a tough ambulance call that took hours from our sleep (11 minutes, transcript):
The Honorary Unsubscribe from the 29 November issue:
A Premium reader actually canceled his paid subscription over this one, claiming it was partisan politics. I just don’t quite see it that way:
Headline of the Week from 13 December:
See? It Could Be Worse
Hitting Quarantine Violators with Sticks ‘Not the Best Way to Address Pandemic’
Philippine Star headline
- 14 December: The U.S. exceeds 300,000 dead from Covid-19. The rate is much higher than the previous 100,000: it only took 84 days, for an average of 1,190 deaths/day. In the 313 days from the first death on 6 February, an average of more than 950 men, women, and children have died per day, not counting an unknown number who died from Covid without it appearing on their death certificates.
I urged readers to listen to December 21st’s podcast episode “before you get the Covid vaccine or, perhaps even more importantly, decide not to get one.” (12 minutes, transcript):
- 27 December (the day this page was posted): Worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, 1,754,493 have died of Covid-19 as of today, from a total of 79,232,555 cases. Since the first death in China on 9 January, an average of 4,956 people have died per day. The WHO data show that newly diagnosed cases are currently coming in at the rate of more than 430,000 per day, and more than 7,300 are dying per day.
The 27 December podcast reflects my surprise at getting vaccinated for Covid-19 two days before Christmas. It recounts “My ‘Reaction’ So Far” (16 minutes, transcript):
Not the End
When there’s a significant amount of untimely death, statisticians have an interesting way to look at the loss to help put it into perspective: YLL, or “Years of Life Lost” — a “more insightful measure than death count,” says a researcher from the University of South Florida in the Journal of Public Health.
The idea: pair the statistics of the gender and age of the individuals in the group who died with the life expectancy each of the people of that age using data from the U.S. Social Security Administration and the U.S. Census Bureau. They then add it all up.
“While death counts are a vital initial measure of the extent of Covid-19 mortality, they do not provide information regarding the age profile of those who died,” said Dr. Troy Quast, a professor of health economics at USF’s College of Public Health, the lead author of a study on the idea. “By contrast, years of life lost tell us the extent to which deaths are occurring across age groups and can potentially help healthcare providers and policymakers better target clinical and governmental responses to reduce the number of deaths.”
The team used data from February 1 to July 11, a period with about 130,000 confirmed Covid-19 deaths.
The result of their number crunching: the pandemic had caused 1.2 million Years of Life Lost in that timespan.
The study came out in September. Now that we are reaching the end of 2020 — and will probably exceed 350,000 lives lost from the pandemic by then — let’s extrapolate the numbers. Assuming a similar assortment of age ranges and gender, we’re rapidly approaching 4 million Years of Life Lost …and counting.
Who wouldn’t give just about anything to have even one more week with a deceased parent. A dead spouse. A lost child? Yet we’re well over 200 million Weeks of Life Lost …and counting.
We Americans could have granted a huge percentage of those extra weeks or years to our family members, neighbors, and friends if we had simply all followed the scientifically based guidelines common to any contagious disease: wear a mask, stay home when feeling ill (or tested positive!), maintain distance from others. Wash your danged hands!
But hey: “Freedom!”
Many chose that freedom for themselves, but so many others paid for that choice without having the same freedom to make that choice for themselves.
“Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins,” said a theoretical judge in an essay by legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee Jr., published in the June 1919 Harvard Law Review. Yep, Americans certainly have rights. But the other side of the rights coin is responsibility, and so many insisted on the former and ignored the latter.
Meanwhile, as the vaccine rolls out, politicians — including those who downplayed the seriousness of Covid-19 (or sowed fear of the vaccine) — pushed themselves to the head of the line, taking priority over front-line medical workers, and those most at risk of dying if they contracted Covid. I’m not referring to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President Mike Pence getting their shots on TV: that’s a great way for each to demonstrate confidence in the vaccine to their respective sides of the political spectrum. That’s a bandwagon other pols didn’t need to ride on. (Example source)
But they did it anyway because they are fully assured from past experience that by the time they come up for reelection, most voters will have long forgotten.
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3 January Update: The CDC reported a record one-day high of 3,764 Covid deaths in the United States on 30 December, a total of 347,795 dead through 31 December, and more than 350,000 on 1 January — uncomfortably close to my prediction above.
The European Union beat the U.S. to 350,000, but it took the EU’s 27 countries combined to do it. The New York Times reported on the milestone on 27 December.
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