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About the author

This observation on the handling of COVID-19 comes from Charlie Gay, the former editor and publisher of the Shelton-Mason County Journal in Washington, where his family ran the weekly newspaper for 42 years.

Gay commented, “I don’t consider myself an expert on anything, only an observer. I will only say that I’ve read about coronavirus for a few hours a day for the last three weeks. (One has time on one’s hands when one has been on lockdown in a 380-square-foot apartment in Paris since March 17).”

He added, “I feel like I did in 2003, when I felt compelled to do two jobs – put out a newspaper for 10 or 12 hours a day and read about the disastrous war in Iraq for two hours a day.”

Gay is now retired and has lived in Paris for five years. He wrote this for the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, and it is reprinted here with his permission.

I guess I fall into the “ignore the scientists’ explanations at your own peril” camp, because I have read a couple of scientific papers that explain the mathematical models showing how coronavirus infections grow exponentially instead of slowly like the normal flu.

There is an R factor that we need to reduce, to keep the medical system from being overwhelmed. The R is the number of other people that the average coronavirus carrier infects. It is somewhere around 1.0 for the normal flu, and was 2.2 for the Spanish flu.

Early research has shown it is 3.0 or more for this coronavirus, which makes it nastier than the flu; it is particularly virulent and can grow exponentially with that R factor. Surely everyone has seen the stories about people carrying it and spreading it without knowing they have it.

There was a very strange and scary case in my home state of Washington, epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. before New York was overwhelmed.

When the outbreak was still “confined” to the Seattle area and centered around the Kirkland nursing home that lost 27 residents to the virus, the Skagit County Chorale — about an hour north of Seattle — decided to practice. Sixty singers showed up. Within a few days, 45 people were sick and two later died.

It raised questions about how in the world the virus spreads through the air. Methinks whatever asymptomatic singer went to the rehearsal played havoc with the R factor by gathering with a huge group rather than just a few co-workers or family. But that’s what mathematical averages are about.

In late February, when the coronavirus was basically a foreign news story here in France, my wife and I went to the Porte de Vanves flea market in Paris. The country had recorded its first coronavirus death (a Chinese tourist had come here without knowing he was sick, entered a Paris hospital on Jan. 27 and died there Feb. 10), but people in this city of 2.3 million were still living normal lives, including riding in the sardine cans known as subway cars.

We met a vendor at the market who said he couldn’t greet my wife with a kiss as normal, because he had a cold. We joked that maybe he had the coronavirus. He played down the day’s coronavirus news by saying, “You know, 1,400 people died of the flu in France last winter.”

If I saw that market vendor today, I could say to him, “But, Monsieur, 1,417 people died of coronavirus in France today.” France’s death toll so far, on April 7, is 10,328.

My point about the mathematical model was supposed to be that the scientists are saying, “The worst is yet to come,” because they have studied the numbers.

What they have warned about has come to pass, and they are happy that most people have been isolating themselves because a virus left unchecked would allow it to spread exponentially.

Why do I think things will be worse in a week than they are now, on April 7? Because I look at the graphs with 200 deaths in the U.S. on March 24, 400 on March 28, 800 on March 31, 1,200 on April 4 and 1,600 today.

Maybe the doomsday stuff is too outlandish to believe, but as a layman, I’m not going to sit here and tell the scientists they are wrong when they predict 2,000 deaths a day next week. I pray they’re wrong, but I have no reason to believe they’re wrong.

There is no “good” solution to end the coronavirus outbreak. There’s death and economic pain in all proposals.

It should be obvious from the 53,000 deaths in a few weeks in Italy, Spain, France and the U.S. that the virus will take a devastating toll on life if everybody just goes back to school, work and church. It’s also obvious that snuffing the virus with this isolation is going to kill our roaring economy.

The policymakers have picked their poison; they prefer what they’re doing to a couple million dead. The American people are just going to have to say they will rebuild, and that they will learn from South Korea and Germany that there is an aggressive way to wage war and cut your losses when under attack from a virus.