Pandemic and Panic: A Teacher’s Perspective

Caveat: I’m not a virologist, epidemiologist, biologist, or a medical doctor. I’ll only speak to the situation from my observations as a history teacher. Furthermore, the situation is ongoing and likely to change.

So the big thing going around now (as of the winter of 2019-2020) is COVID-19 (AKA Coronavirus). You’ve probably heard of it. I can’t speak to the biology or virology of it, but let me give some observations I’ve noticed as a history teacher.

History Repeats Itself

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com
Ever wondered where those funny looking masks come from? That’s a plague doctor.

This isn’t the first time the world has seen major outbreaks of disease, either as epidemics or pandemics. I won’t haggle over the death tolls here, but many of us remember the H1N1 “Swine Flu” in 2009 and SARS in the early 2000s. If you study history, then you may have heard of something called the Spanish Flu of 1918 that immediately followed WWI and killed far more people than that war to boot. Those are just respiratory illnesses. Going further back, there was this little event called the Black Death (AKA The Plague) that ravaged Eurasia in the 1300s. It wasn’t really a big deal, but it killed anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the population of Europe. Yet, those are just a few examples. Many other diseases have spread around the world or large regions throughout time. This will definitely not be the last time.

Thankfully, our medicine and information technology is sufficiently advanced to the point of where we can be far more educated about disease prevention and treatment. There’s a big push right now to curb the spread of COVID-19 through the frequent use of hand-washing and social distancing. Yet, in many ways, we’re seeing the same kind of hysteria and panic that we’ve all seen before in just about any crisis. It basically serves as another case study in the psychology of fear, hysteria, and panic.

Panic Shopping

Speaking of panic, I’ve seen a good amount of panic shopping going on here in Oregon. Nothing new about that, but for some reason, lots of people are buying up bundles of toilet paper.

Huh?? Why??

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com
Unlikely to help that much.

I was shopping, as usual, the other day and noticed that 8 out of 10 people must have had toilet paper in their carts. I can understand people panic buying hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, soap, etc. Additionally, experts generally say that those masks don’t stop viruses, provide minimal protection at best, are to be used only in certain situations, and the N95 mask that does protect you needs to be properly fitted. So don’t waste your money buying tons of them. But why toilet paper? Diarrhea is not a common symptom of COVID-19. I can only conclude that people are using it in lieu of tissues and paper towels to blow their noses and cover their coughs. Apart from that toilet paper has no disinfectant properties and it’s too porous. Do people really go through that much toilet paper in a week or a month?

One such explanation from psychologist Mary Alvord says that toilet paper relates to a primal need. That is: everybody poops. Thus, “there’s comfort in knowing that it’s there. It’s about being clean and presentable and social and not smelling bad,” (as cited in Kluger, 2020). Additionally, Baruch Fischhoff of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University says that, “Until very recently, many people heard assurance that this was not a major problem. Then, suddenly, they were told to stock up, for an indeterminate period. If people did not find the food that they wanted, they could buy other food. For toilet paper, there are no substitutes,” (as cited in Kluger, 2020). Well, I guess that makes sense. We don’t know when Coronavirus will subside, and this isn’t like a blizzard where there’s a more predictable timetable for the duration of the event. Hence, all the “flatten the curve” graphs you keep seeing. But still, it’s not like your life depends on toilet paper. I’m not sure I agree with Fischhoff because there are substitutes, and if you’ve ever roughed it out in the woods, then you know a few alternatives, they’re just not as comfortable or double ply. Where there’s a will there’s a way. HeHe! It makes me wonder if toilet paper hoarding has been a thing in past crises.

Naturally, the hoarding includes lots of people buying perishable foods. Meat, veggies, etc. I hope they have lots of freezer space for the meat! Fruits and veggies are only good for a few weeks, so you better eat them up! I’ve always wondered about people who panic shop and whether or not they have any regrets about their purchases after the crisis has abated.

I looked in the camping section of my local store and noticed that the dehydrated food was still there. If I were panic shopping for food, then that’s the stuff I would buy. The dried foods that you just reconstitute with water. I’d probably get boxes of MREs, too. Yes, even the disgusting ones that nobody likes (i.e. the omelet ones). The point is, I’d want stuff that keeps and has a long shelf life. It could still be useful in another disaster.

There’s even panic buying of water. Why? Water sources aren’t contaminated. Instead, buy special filtration devices (like Life Straws) and water purification tablets. Thankfully, I haven’t seen people panic shopping for fire-starting equipment nor have I seen gasoline rationing, yet.

The whole idea here is to be prepared in advance, and not reacting at the last minute. Most of this stuff is what you’d get in preparation for a major disaster, particularly where infrastructure is heavily destroyed and services are totally paralyzed.

All I can say is, “Morons!”

In some ways this panic shopping reminds me of what I saw during the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. I was there in Fukushima and I remember it like it was yesterday. I literally saw entire towns get wiped off the map! Thousands were killed. This was no little shake, but a massive seismic event (magnitude 9.0) that moved the island of Honshu 8 ft east, shifted Earth’s axis by about 15 cm, and slowed the rotational speed of the planet ever so slightly. The aftershocks went on for several weeks, and some nights I just didn’t sleep for fear that I would never wake up. One of my worst fears (and nightmares) was the thought of the building collapsing on top of me during the night and the horror of being alive, but trapped underneath rubble; unable to escape. It’s an event that is burned into my memory and the aftermath sucked even more. Lots of panic shopping, gasoline rationing, and fears of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. All of this went on for roughly two months (give or take, depending on the location). The big problem was that the earthquake and tsunami heavily impacted infrastructure. Trains stopped, power went out, communications were down, and some towns were physically cut off from supplies. I had to ration my food and didn’t know exactly when my next meal would be. Keeping up precedent and tradition, the mass media stoked the hysteria. It was a very unique experience to live in fear of my life and the prospect of it ending in the near future. I came out of it with a newfound appreciation for the things that I do have.

Of course, the Coronavirus is a very different situation, but the survival odds seem much more in my favor and far less immediate. Yes, many things are disrupted, but this hasn’t stopped the world from turning. A number of stores are closing or limiting their hours for a period of time, but at least they’re still standing. The lights are still on, and water and gas are still running. I can still go outside without the fear of dying. The governor has cancelled school and all large events, but I’m not facing an immediate existential threat. Even if I do catch the virus, there’s a roughly 80% chance that my symptoms will be fairly mild and non-life threatening. Quarantine yourself for two weeks at the minimum. The simplest advice from the authorities is literally to wash your hands frequently, don’t touch your face, cough and sneeze into your elbow, and maintain social distancing. The point is that this time my level of personal proactive agency is different. While I can’t control the virus, I can control my ability react to it and take preventive measures to protect myself from it. That is a luxury I did not have in Fukushima where I was practically helpless and forced to be reactive 24/7 to a natural disaster.

I don’t mean to imply that this pandemic isn’t a serious problem, but as with any crisis like this, the best thing to do is stay calm and exercise caution and prudence. Listen to the experts. Don’t be lazy and believe all the hearsay. Check reliable sources and educate yourself. When you start panicking, you immediately make the situation worse. Don’t let yourself become a victim of fear. Yes, you will be scared, or at the very least “concerned.” Anyone who says they’re not is a damn liar. The trick is to just take things one hour and one day at a time.

School Rumors

You gotta love the way teenagers interpret reality. Sometimes it’s just plain weird and so much is based on hearsay which gets contorted and blown out of proportion.

“I heard this, that, and the other,” says a student. Yet, they don’t remember the source, any of the important details, or even if it’s authoritative.

On March 13, Governor Kate Brown ordered all public K-12 schools closed from March 16 to April 1*. Yes, ALL districts in the state, including the ones that had no presumptive or confirmed cases of the virus. One of the issues here, apart from losing school days, is that some low-income families rely on free/reduced meals to feed their children. However, some districts will continue to have this available. Another issue is that households with working parents have to find daycare or supervision for their children now, given the extra week of no school. So basically, I’m out of the job for about a week while the kids get an extended Spring Break. The week before this announcement, I heard some students saying that they “wished” they would get the Coronavirus so they could cause a scare and force the school to close. Yeah…Morons! Well, part of their wish came true. Others were kind of upset, not because of the lost school days, but because lots of school/sporting events were cancelled. *On March 17, Gov. Brown ordered schools to remain closed through April 28.

Prior to this happening, lots of colleges and universities in the state were closing and moving their classes online. However, that’s difficult to do in public K-12 schools because they need to account for the socioeconomic differences in their students, make the learning equitable (that is: accessible to all), and they can’t presume that all students (and families) in their community have access to a computer (even though all these kids have smartphones). Furthermore, schools need to account for students with accommodation needs, special education needs, and English Language Learners. So, even if you could shove a laptop or a tablet in front of all of them, it still wouldn’t be “equitable” given their needs for Specially Designed Instruction.

That being said, I have seen some teachers say that they’ll be assigning online extra credit, and some of the more prepared teachers printed out hard copies of all the assignments for the “extended Spring Break.” So not every class got off homework free. I told the students that we’ll just have them make up the lost days in June. They got a longer Spring Break, so they get a shorter summer vacation. HaHa! (I doubt the district will actually do that.)

I showed a video to my classes on Friday before the “extended Spring Break”. I jokingly said to another teacher that we should show the 2011 film Contagion because it has a fairly realistic portrayal of the scientific and governmental response to an outbreak of disease. But we obviously decided against that because it would probably scare the students and be a little bit too relevant.

Anyway, I showed a generic history video to my classes because I didn’t want some classes to get ahead of others and have a two week long break in-between lessons for them to forget everything. Also, I knew that students wouldn’t be paying any real attention and most would be fidgety and itching to go home.

So, I decided to do a little social experiment.

The video was about 50 minutes long which left roughly 40 minutes of class before the bell. What I noticed during the video was that the kids quickly lost interest and turned to their phones. Literally, all of them were heads down and staring at their phones or computer screens. My experiment was to let the video repeat once it ended and see how long it took before any students noticed that they were watching the exact same thing. The average time was about 10 minutes before someone raised their hand and said, “Wait, didn’t we already watch this?”

😞 This is what we call a lack of situational awareness.

These kids are so tuned out of their surroundings and into their screens that they’ve forgotten to pay attention to what’s going on around them!

What if?

My little social experiment got me thinking. In light of the spreading Coronavirus and the public health push for hand-washing and maintaining “social distance”, imagine for a second that this virus is not biological, but technological. What if it was a computer virus? Imagine that it’s rapidly spreading over numerous networks and it specifically targets social media. I doubt this is how computer viruses work, but let’s imagine that the more you use social media per day, then the more susceptible your device(s) is to getting infected. Current antivirus software has no known fixes, so your device gets corrupted and acts all screwy or shuts down completely.

I’ll bet some of these kids use social media for hours upon hours per day. They’d be at serious risk for infection. Better put down that phone before it catches the virus!

I wish I had video footage of classes when I was in high school in the early 2000s. We didn’t have smartphones or laptops for every student. Yes, he had some small toys and electronic devices, but nobody was toting their TV and gaming console to school with them. I remember carrying a portable CD player and a booklet of CDs with me (then I got an iPod). The point is that we didn’t have as much to distract us from class, so we paid attention to the teacher! True, older generations were saying the same thing about us that we now say about the current generation.

“You kids never pay attention in school and are only getting dumber! Hope you like working at fast food joints.”

The difference now is that smartphones, portable devices, and social media have changed the fabric of society at a speed and way that we’ve never really seen before.

I would shed no tears if Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, etc. were to horribly crash for a year or two.

I wonder what my students who do if social media crashed or if our hypothetical virus infected their devices. Would they actually stop using their phones/devices, turn them off, and start paying attention in class? Would they start actively socializing more with their peers face-to-face? Would they read more books? Would they develop more empathy from having genuine social interactions with others?

Who knows.

The Upshot

I suppose if there’s any bright side to all this this pandemic and panic, it’s that people are washing their hands more frequently, making efforts to stay clean, and not violating each others’ personal space as often.

I’ve smelled body odor from teenagers that made my nostrils burn. I swear that some of them literally don’t know how to bathe or what a washing machine is. Anyone who has worked in a school knows that they’re filthy places and teenagers are disgusting! I’ve seen them actually dump their cheetos/doritos/whatever out of the bag and eat them right off the desks! They’d probably lick their energy drinks right off the floor if they had too. Yuck! I wipe down the desks and chairs at least once a week, but that’s still not nearly enough.

Let’s hope these personal hygiene campaigns turn into personal habits that stick. It’s just a shame that we need a disease with so many deaths to get it through people’s thick skulls.

References

Kluger, J. (2020, Mar. 14). In the Wake of the Coronavirus, Here’s Why Americans Are Hoarding Toilet Paper. Retrieved from https://time.com/5803273/hoarding-toilet-paper/.

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