Two or three times a year, falling trees knock out power at my home, in a heavily wooded section of Central California. When outages stretch over several days food in our refrigerator goes bad, cell phones run down, and flashlight batteries fail. Sometimes roads are impassible and my wife and I are stuck in our chilly, candlelit house.
Big deal? Nope. But if I project that scenario over several months and add to it a raft of deeper concerns related to widespread illness, a picture forms that novelists and late-night radio hosts have been painting for years. Is that how things will look if the COVID-19 outbreak affects, say, 70 percent of the population and remains unchecked?
My office is closed and most of my colleagues are taking meetings only via Skype. I’m writing at the kitchen table, just a few feet from a well-stocked fridge, with music provided by Google Home. It’s quieter than usual since the high school down the street is shuttered. Mail arrived on schedule and newspapers were in the driveway. The TV works fine and on it President Trump said, “Relax. We’re doing great. It will all pass.”
However, I did notice that toilet paper is sold out all over town. When I checked Amazon I was surprised to find that it, too, was, uh, wiped out — except for one offer of four rolls for $72. Minor inconveniences are how it starts, almost laughably at first, until things turn serious.
Shelves are empty now because of hoarding. They’ll be restocked until cracks develop in the production process, in the delivery chain and at retail outlets themselves. As the first wave of workers takes ill, replacements will step in, until there aren’t enough replacements. Folks won’t just be hoarding toilet paper, they’ll be scrambling for basic necessities. Lines of cars will form at gas stations.
The local cable-TV company that I rely upon for phone, internet and television, will suffer breakdowns, manageable at first, but then too great for skeleton crews to handle. People trying to practice social distancing will suffer emotionally as communication is cut.
As of today there is not a single confirmed coronavirus case in our county, but what if before long every other mask-wearing stranger one passes when venturing out in search of supplies is infected? Walking down Main Street at midday will be as unnerving as being out at midnight.
Our community hospital erected a tent in its parking lot to accommodate the expected flood of patients. What happens when that space is filled? When medical supplies run out? When doctors and nurses fall ill?
Maybe I should have paid closer attention to late-night radio ads for a month’s supply of freeze-dried food and gold coins to use when the banks fail. Perhaps I should have ordered that hand-cranked flashlight.
OK. Enough! The scenario doesn’t have to be worst case.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a voice of reason among federal officials grappling with the pandemic, said Sunday, “I think we should really be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting.”
So, forgive me for overwriting. It’s just that we need government — as well as our fellow citizens — to spend more time preparing for the worst case, so we can avoid actually having to live it.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.