With COVID, we were right to listen to the experts

It’s all personal, it turns out, a global pandemic. Personal, like when your friends and neighbors get killed by it. That kind of brings it all back home, what?

Personal, like the realization that, as an older person, you, too, could very much be killed by it. Focuses the mind, does the immediate fear of death.

That early March of three years ago, I had just returned home from the giant writers’ conference AWP, 10,000 poets and novelists gathered each year in one place — in 2020, it was San Antonio. There was this thing out there called COVID-19, and some of the whiny academics involved didn’t show up, and some chastised organizers for persevering in person, rather than going “virtual” — whatever that might mean.

We were writers, and so we went to bars. My cousin drove over from Austin for a River Walk barbecue lunch and we bumped elbows in greeting, laughing at the new ritual.

Back here on March 11, my lifelong friend’s birthday, we gathered as always for dinner. Phones were on the table. “Wait — Tom Hanks has got it, down in Australia?” OK, so Everyman can get sick. “Wait — they just shut down the NBA.” When billionaires throw in the towel, there’s your sign everything in our world had just gone south. And that no one really knew what to do, other than hide.

And so, we hid. It was the logical thing to do. You don’t have to be a virologist to understand that. You just have to be a parent. When our kid got a cold, caused by a coronavirus, we got a cold, too, unless we were incredibly diligent about the hand-washing and the not-kissing. And here was a novel coronavirus that could, and did, kill.

Then, the experts so many Americans unaccountably love to hate, the people with degrees, concurred: hide. Wear a mask when you can’t hide. The bodies were piling up in New York City, where it’s hard to hide. They were piling up in our suburban nursing homes. Schools were closing, because, you know what? Lots of people who weren’t resilient little germ-spreading kids who do recover quickly have to go to schools, too. Teachers, custodians, other old folks. The schools weren’t closed to save the kids. They were closed to not kill the adults, thousands more of whom would have died from COVID if we had not closed the schools.

Even so, over 1 million Americans have died of COVID. A disease we’d never heard of is now our third-highest cause of death. No one knows how many more would have died absent the restrictions — but certainly in the hundreds of thousands. We all do the arithmetic in different ways. To me, those lives were worth it. Oh, and that “working paper” you’ve read about that claims lockdowns did nothing? It was written by economists, not physicians. It redefined “lockdown” for its own purposes. It is politicized bunk.

Was it a perfect world, the one of lockdown? It was not. Were scientists right about everything from the get-go? They were not. But if that makes you a habitual mocker of “the science,” then go and fly yourself to the moon. Is it weird that the vaccines that were supposed to stop the disease instead just made it a lot milder? Sure — but I’ll take it. I got COVID, and my only symptoms were two days of sniffles. Does it bother me, just as much as it bothers you, to see people driving solo wearing a mask? It makes me nuts. But, you know what? Maybe they’re on their way to pick up Granma. Maybe, like friends of mine, they’ve got the hell of long COVID, which we still know so little about.

But we do know lots more than we did three years ago, which will inform protecting future public health. Because one thing we know for sure: There’ll be another pandemic. And doing nothing will not be the answer to beating it back.

Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board. lwilson@scng.com.