Donald Morrison: A plague on all our houses

Workers produce face masks recently in a textile company in Shandong Province in eastern China.

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BECKET — I lived in Beijing for two years and Hong Kong for seven, and never came down with anything more lethal than a head cold. But now, a decade after quitting the Middle Kingdom, I am compelled to report that my immediate family has been hit by the Wuhan coronavirus.

Oh, everybody's fine. No symptoms, no positive test results. But close readers of this space may recall that my wife and I still have a couple of grandkids in Hong Kong. Their school closed last month, as a precaution. It won't reopen until after Easter. Maybe.

Two little coronavirus refugees have turned up on our doorstep, along with their parents. Unlike the Pittsfield family who returned from a China trip recently and were ordered to remain "self-quarantined" for two weeks, my travelers were released from JFK after a one-question screening: "How do you feel?"

They still feel fine. As do my wife and I, especially about having so much quality time with our far-flung offspring. Our home is a petri dish of infectious laughter.

Every weekday, the grandkids' school emails them homework assignments. We've turned the dining table into a temporary classroom. It's surely not as efficacious as a real school, but I'm learning a lot — about jellyfish with our second grader and, with our seventh grader, about the use of metaphors in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Unlike those doomed lovers, we are weathering the storm — metaphorically and otherwise.

Wish I could say the same for our country. Of course, the U.S. is in far better shape than China, which has struggled with 80,000 cases of the virus so far. Or even Italy, at almost 900 and counting. But our government isn't exactly inspiring confidence.

Just weeks ago, even as the virus was seeping beyond China, the president proposed a 16 percent budget cut for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 10 percent for the Department of Health and Human Services, both of which deal with epidemics. He also wants to chop America's contribution to the World Health Organization by 53 percent.

The president has eliminated the National Security Council's epidemic-fighting Global Health Security team. He has caused about 1,600 government scientists to leave their posts. Some of these experts say they quit because the administration is hostile to science.

Also, evidently, to truth. Barely a week ago, as domestic cases were rising, the president declared that "The coronavirus is very much under control in the USA." He said we were down to only 10 infected persons. Even as he was speaking, CDC officials raised the number to 65. It continues to climb.

To his credit, the president held a coronavirus news conference a few days ago. He said that he'll ask Congress for $1.25 billion in emergency funding, that a vaccine was imminent and that Vice President Mike Pence will coordinate federal efforts against the virus.

Alas, that show of decisiveness failed to calm the stock markets, which plunged more than 10 percent before the week was out. Investors may have noticed that Trump's predecessor had asked for $6 billion to fight the 2014 Ebola outbreak and that congressional Democrats were offering $8 billion. Also that health officials didn't think a vaccine would be available for maybe 18 months.

Nor is it clear that Pence is the best choice for the job. His scientific credentials include assertions that climate change is a hoax, evolution is a myth and smoking doesn't kill you.

He got off to a shaky start by ordering federal health officials not to talk to the press without his permission — unless, presumably, they declare that the virus is God's punishment for legalizing gay marriage.

Let's hope the vice president, and his boss, start focusing more on our public health than their public image this election year. The coronavirus is wildly contagious, spreads unusually fast, is about 20 times more lethal than the flu, and doesn't distinguish between scientists and science-deniers, Montagues and Capulets.

Symptoms don't appear right away, so, infected people go around spreading the virus unknowingly. Without early containment, the thing spins out of control, as it has in China.

Even the CDC is now saying the epidemic will get seriously worse — a prediction all the more credible because it came before Pence's gag order.

So, don't be surprised if you find yourself with a houseful of kids whose schools have been closed and whose educational needs give a whole new meaning to parental involvement. At least you might learn something, which will put you several grade levels ahead of our country's leaders — metaphorically and otherwise.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and advisory board member. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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