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GREG HARTON: Fear harder to battle than the virus itself

by Greg Harton | March 8, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

Is the COVID-19 the Y2K of communicable diseases?

For those of us born in the last century, it's perhaps hard to believe anyone 20 years old or younger wasn't even around to stress out over the Y2K (Year 2000) and the widely held fears that all our computers were going to malfunction as soon as Dec. 31, 1999, rolled over to Jan. 1, 2000.

Remember how we were warned that the computer programmers of the 20th century had only written a two-digit code into their software for the year? For example, "1984" would have been represented by just "84." The Y2K scare arose because some people theorized moving into a new century would confuse the computers -- the two-digit "oo" would be interpreted as 1900 rather than 2000.

Government and businesses spent billions to be prepared (maybe) for the possibility that a single tick of the clock was about to trigger electronic Armageddon, a digital doomsday that threatened to disrupt communication, power plants, airlines, government services, banking, transportation, hospitals and, maybe worst of all, coffee makers.

And then, nothing. The world did just fine. A few people tried to claim it was because of all the preparation, but most people considered the scare to have been blown way, way out of proportion.

Is that where we are with COVID-19, the disease caused by what's called the novel coronavirus?

By late last week, at least 11 deaths in the United States and more than 150 cases were attributed to COVID-19. Those deaths have gotten the attention of Americans more seriously than the 80,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths in China because, you know, we tend to not see things as a problem until they arrive on our shores.

Our president has said his "hunch" is that the problem isn't as bad as the World Health Organization is making it out to be. That doesn't quite seem reassuring.

NPR reported a Texas-based manufacturer of face masks reported it had received requests for "maybe a billion and a half masks." Other U.S. manufacturers said they couldn't keep up with demand.

The Washington Post reported 300 million children around the world face the potential of school closures.

The threat is affecting stock markets, which in turn could affect the political world.

On Thursday, University of Arkansas System officials told trustees its campuses are ready to move fully online should COVID-19 force the shutdown of any campus. Also, officials at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport predicted reaction to the virus will have an impact on people's willingness to fly and the airport will take a financial hit.

Who can blame anyone for taking the coronavirus/COVID-19 seriously? Unlike Y2K, this isn't a theory to be determined later. People have died. The virus and illness, without question, exists. Preparing as though it's a serious, global health risk is why we continuously invest billions in having experts ready to respond at a moment's notice to a breakout.

This is real.

The question is just how freaked out we should be. It's still pretty good advice to stay reasonable. The Centers for Disease Control reports most COVID-19 illness has been mild, with data out of China suggesting serious illness in 16 percent of cases. As with the flu, older people and people with other health conditions -- heart disease, lung disease and diabetes -- are at greater risk of serious illness.

Take precautions. Don't get close to sick people. If you're sick, don' get near others. Everyone should wash their hands regularly. Evaluate whether a large gathering of people should be avoided. Sick folks shouldn't tough it out by going to work anyway. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work and school.

But staying calm and reasonable is highly prescribed.

Commentary on 03/08/2020

Print Headline: Fear harder to battle than virus

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