1. Why Take It Seriously
I face a dilemma. I do not believe a thing coming from CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, MSNBC, the Washington Post, or the New York Times. They have lied to me so often, and particularly these past three years, that I do not watch them, do not hear them, do not bother with them. I do read the headlines of the daily Washington Post and sometimes open a story, but rarely. Even a broken clock is correct twice daily.
Likewise, when I watch Fox News, the only American news I can bear to watch on my TV, I do so mostly with a grain of salt. Some of them have my confidence: Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, Bret Baier, Brit Hume, Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, and the occasional appearances of Victor Davis Hanson and Mark Steyn. And, except for his adoration of animals and some of his salty references, Greg Gutfeld probably is the closest thing there to me.
As it happens, I watch one hour of Israel news every night. I do so because, although my mastery of Biblical Hebrew is strong, my day-long immersion in and love for the quirks and nuances of the glorious English language impel me to listen to an hour of spoken contemporary “street Hebrew” daily in order to maintain that added fluency. I also have come to enjoy the news coverage there because they cover Mideast, European, and Asian developments better and more objectively than does American news, and because it enhances my perspective on what’s cookin’ in Israel. This has proven to be particularly valuable for me as I follow the coronavirus scare because it affords me an in-depth second perspective. For the past month it has seemed to me that they are three weeks ahead of us. If so, we all will be expected to stay indoors by April, on pain of arrest and fine.
On one hand, I am like so many supporters of President Trump who are so disgusted with the Corrupt Journalist Corps and their nonstop lies that I have no patience to watch or hear their “coverage” of COVID-19, which basically can be summarized as, “Trump is to blame for the disease.” Trump failed to foresee it when he was born. Trump should have had everyone wearing gas masks. All deaths are Trump’s fault. Oh, and did we mention that he is a RACIST!? How can he call it the Chinese virus? Because of Trump, we do not have enough test kits, enough masks, enough toilet paper. Impeach! If only we had Joe Biden right now in the White House, he would know what to do.
I have no patience for that garbage. When I watch and compare what is going on in Israel, and their coverage of Europe and Asia, I see that President Trump has led very effectively. All countries were unprepared — in some same ways, in some different ways. Israel also did not have enough test kits and also is trying to line up more masks and ventilators. In Italy and Spain, they really messed up. Sure, it is easy for the perpetual Trump Haters now to say that he should have done more before. But when he closed down air travel from China, the same garbage-heavers went apoplectic: RACIST!
Now the governors of more and more states are imposing serious quarantines that are requiring all residents of their respective state to remain indoors, alone with family, allowed to exit only for the most urgent needs: seeking urgent medical care and buying toilet paper. In Israel, the country now is “b’hesger” — closed down. The only exceptions are for life’s urgencies: again, medical needs, shopping for food and pharmaceuticals, and — because it is Israel — attending political demonstrations (but staying six feet, or two meters, apart). Can you imagine what the Trump Haters would have said if he actually had ordered quarantines and businesses and people off the streets during the earliest days? CNN and MSNBC would have been hosting mental-health “experts” saying that Trump finally broke and now is like Hitler preparing to impose martial law and to impose the dictatorship-for-life that CNN’s and MSNBC’s crack commentators have been predicting insanely since he traveled down the escalator.
Meanwhile, objective history will record forever that, as the rest of the world was coming to grips in January 2020 with the realization that we had a pandemic brewing, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats were focused on souvenir pens, impeachment to nowhere, and tearing up speeches throughout the month, bogging down the president with a Senate trial that required huddling with legal counsel when the Congress and the country instead should have had eyes on Europe and on the newest China virus.
Regardless of the politics, I take this thing very, very seriously. My law students are in a safer age cohort, but my congregation includes several beloved families who are over age 60 and 65 and beyond. Some live very dynamically but with chronic health conditions that place them in the higher-risk categories. Some take meds to control those conditions and assure them longevity, but these meds compromise their immunity. Even though the death rate or any severe results from this newest China virus among people under 60 is minuscule, those are precisely the sweet and kind people who unknowingly can transmit death to those in the higher-risk categories. So I do not regard this thing as an “overblown exaggeration.” My people do not eat bats, snakes, and dogs, and we do not have an established tolerance to China viruses.
COVID-19 both is less serious than the flu, and it is far more serious than the flu. On one hand, coronavirus numbers are a minuscule splotch compared to the annual numbers of American and worldwide flu infections and deaths. We Americans lose 30,000 to 60,000 Americans annually from the flu, and no one pays much attention. By contrast, almost everyone under 60 who contracts coronavirus comes out pretty solidly. So that makes the China virus seem milder. Even the 60–69 group sustain fewer than 10 percent dead. Even the overwhelming majority of the septuagenarians and octogenarians who contract come out alive and kicking. More than 80 percent in those age groups survive, even at that age. All that is one perspective — that the whole thing is way overblown, aimed at taking down Trump now that the Democrats and their Corrupt Journalist Corps failed with FISA and with Christopher Steele, with Blasey Ford and with Avenatti and Stormy, with Michael Cohen and with Omarosa, with Mueller and with impeachment.
But here’s the thing. People under 60 and without high-risk health conditions know pretty quickly when they have the flu, but do not know for two weeks when they are carrying coronavirus. This difference is critical. When someone has the flu, within two or three days they are sneezing, coughing, red-eyed, and a mess. You know to stay away from them, or you know you also are going to be so sick in two days. Moreover, if you are among the half of Americans who are sensible, you even can pursue partial precaution by getting a flu shot, even a multi-spectrum one for people more at risk. That immunization does not cancel every flu bug, but it helps a bunch and even mitigates flu’s worst symptoms for many who nevertheless get stricken.
The problem with COVID-19 is that it takes a long time — two weeks, a fortnight, even longer — before the carrier knows he is infected. That is why they quarantine for 14 days, not two or three days. And carriers tend to transmit it more broadly, to more people than flu carriers, perhaps because they are oblivious to their own infection. So all these robust and healthy people kiss a spouse, hug a kid, visit a grandma or grandpa, shake a hand, place hands on a coffee-shop table, borrow or lend a pen, hand-pick some fresh produce at the store, and transmit the bug. And then — two weeks later — it turns into a 1960s “Star Trek” episode, where everyone on the planet except for Kirk, Spock, Bones, Sulu, and Uhura ends up dying before the first commercial.
Unlike flu, we do not yet know for sure what we are dealing with because, except for Andrew Zimmern, who eats bats? The flu season often ends in the warmer months, but Australia now is in summer because everything there is upside-down — lucky for them there is gravity! — and they have the China virus spreading there, too. Not only do we not fully know what we are dealing with here, but we also cannot be sure whether or not next winter the thing will mutate into a variant. So it is a real concern. Look dispassionately and objectively at what has befallen Italy and Spain to grasp what could be.
Which raises the next epidemiological concern: Let’s say, based on some people having stronger natural immunities and some being more susceptible, that this newest China virus eventually will hit “X” number of Americans in each of the various age and health categories. Even if the ultimate number of people stricken cannot be avoided, there is an enormous premium on slowing down the rate, the tempo of the spread so that not everyone gets critical at once. By reducing the speed of the spread, the public’s health system may avoid becoming over-taxed. We have a finite number of oxygen-generating equipment — ventilators, external oxygen machines — a finite number of hospital beds and intensive-care beds, a finite number of health-care workers, doctors, and nurses. If all whom the coronavirus will strike get sick during the same time frame, the system will be forced into the ultimate “Medicare for All” nightmare: not enough resources to treat all the older, the immunosuppressed, and the chronically weakened — so hospital administrators and medical personnel will have to make life-and-death choices as to who gets the ventilator and who is selected to die.
That concern is at the core of Israel’s response, as they have moved increasingly from the more relaxed early steps we have taken here. By now, they are enforcing home stays, except for limited exceptions. In their latest move, they actually are at the edge of the envelope of personal privacy, having engaged technology that, until now, they have employed only to track, monitor, and surveil potential terrorists. They have technology that enables them to go back and track retroactively to determine where an infected guy had been days earlier, and to identify and locate every person with whom he came into contact back then. And then they text those people to go into 14-day quarantine. The Knesset and Israeli Supreme Court are actively monitoring the implementation to assure that this desperate life-saving mechanism does not turn into our corrupted FISA court system.
2. Dealing With It
I am not hoarding. Hoarding is so foolish and socially evil, causing artificial disruptions to an ample supply chain. We are a land of plenty. Shelves are bare because supermarkets, proceeding as they do every other day, do not maintain in back storage room a million rolls of toilet paper, a million hand sanitizers, and a million cartons of milk. If they did, in normal times, the milk would spoil, and the toilet paper and sanitizers would crowd out the food items that normal consumers come to buy. So the store managers know how much of each thing to have on stock based on experiences with buyers’ normal patterns. At some point, those who have hoarded toilet paper are going to figure out that (i) they have no more room at home to store any more of it; (ii) they have no room for food in their refrigerators because the cold shelves, vegetable bins, and cheese racks are jammed with toilet paper; and (iii) if they having nothing to eat, then — d’uh!— they ain’t gonna need so much toilet paper anyway!
For me as an Orthodox Jew, there is another dimension to all this. All my life, I have lived a 25-hour period every week, from Friday sunset to Saturday nightfall, observing the Holy Sabbath (Shabbat) in the manner of our tradition. For 25 hours, we do not activate electricity or electronics, do not drive a car, do not transact business, do not write, do not use phones or computers. Outsiders hear of an Orthodox Jewish Sabbath and ask compassionately, “You poor person, what do you do all day? Sit in the dark?”
No. When you cannot watch television or email or text and tweet your thumbs off and cannot do clothes washes or write checks to pay bills, you instead slow down and take a breath for a day. You eat a slower, longer multi-course meal that you prepared before Shabbat, with no rush, no worries. You talk with your spouse, your kids, your parents, your invited friends, and you share a two-hour meal. You sing soulful songs at the table. The kids update you on their week at school, and you them on your week at work. Afterwards, you read. One person reads Team of Rivals. Another reads the weekly Torah portion with English-translated medieval Hebrew commentaries written by Rabbi Rashi of France, Rabbis Ramban and Ibn Ezra of Spain, Rabbi Sforno of Italy, perhaps something more contemporary like Rabbi Hirsch of Germany or Rabbi Soloveitchik of Boston and New York. The kids play board games: Apples to Apples, Settlers of Catan, chess, Ticket to Ride, Scrabble, Taboo! — or my favorite, 221B Baker Street.
When I was a little boy, I harbored mixed feelings about Shabbat because my non-Jewish friends and my non-observant Jewish friends would run off to the movies on Saturday afternoon; I could not go. The years have passed. If someone today were to ask me whether I wish I could go to the movies on Shabbat, I would look at them as though they were crazy.
It is going to be challenging for Americans to get used to living more indoors, slowing down the pace a bit, attending class and lectures via Zoom instead of in person, watching streamed movies at home instead of traveling the world. This will be different and at times isolating. And it may go on for a year, not just three weeks. But some may look back a year from now and concede that it was a little bit nice to experience what June and Ward Cleaver and Ozzie and Harriet had — nuclear family. In Israel, where not every Jew is Orthodox, this Shabbat will be the first time in the 71-year history of the country that there will be a Shabbat when all public transportation is closed down, all sports events are closed, all theaters, restaurants, beaches, and shopping malls are closed. Maybe some will appreciate what they have been missing.
Here, too, maybe we all can calm down a moment and realize that, in a world where an infinitesimally minuscule microbe can drive an entire planet into pandemonium, we do not and cannot control everything. We are incapable of destroying G-d’s planet because we are not omnipotent. And we also should think about whether anyone in our orbit is so isolated and shut in that they need a phone call or help in having food delivered to their door. That omnipotent we can be.