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People Aren't Just Statistics

Taking a Gander: It's a small world after all



New Year's Day 2020. I woke up that morning, opened the back door and watched my best friend wander through the yard, looking for just the right spot to pee on the dormant grass; I grabbed her a bowl of food and pulled a reward-treat from the shelf. Then, I poured myself a cup of extra-dark roast and sat down to read the news—a mostly disappointing deja vu of the past three years.

Only a few hours earlier, the Big Apple's giant ball had descended to Times Square, and, except for the White House's ongoing dark comedy/reality show, I felt mostly optimistic about the future. Along with my fellow 350 million largely entitled Americans, I enjoyed the clueless innocence that comes from a lifetime spent in a world that operates the way it should.

But that was on New Year's Day. Only a couple of months later, I would develop a more compassionate feeling toward the millions in our world who live every day in fear, or who have no concept of what it's like to actually feel good. And there are many: refugees who may live their entire lifetimes in fenced camps; children who catch insects every day to ensure sufficient dietary protein; legless fishermen who were unlucky enough to find unexploded ordnance from forgotten wars; children anticipating the next rocket attack; and populations cursed by famine, earthquakes and mudslides that regularly wipe out the unlucky. Sure, most Americans can be thankful that life is, typically, not so hard.

Early in 2020, the coronavirus—or the "kung flu," as Trump dubbed it—was spreading like wildfire, though it had been largely contained in China. Then, it became apparent this virus was on the rise. Even as news of the virus was announced in China, it had made its way past our borders and to diverse other countries.

Then, the numbers were not so daunting. Precautions were rolled into place; cruise ships where the virus was present were turned away by cautious ports, and people began to question the safety of mass transit. It turned out that their concerns were valid.

Considering pandemic events of the past, the potential has always been there for a disease that kills hundreds of millions—like the 1918 Spanish Flu. Just because we haven't seen anything that ominous in our lifetimes, it's jarring to think that it can still happen today.

Over the years, I've reflected how nature, in her own special way, has the weaponry to either substantially reduce the world's population, or utterly destroy it. (Great party conversation! Mentioning this theory to friends gave me some status as a thinker; but, as much as I believed that such a scenario was possible, I suspected it was—particularly in view of modern medical advances—very unlikely.)

I've always been aware of—and respected—nature's ability to come up with a real-doozy-killer pathogen. It's frightening to contemplate how some organisms can make their own adjustments to our DNA in order to fool the body and elude its immunological defenses. We saw it with AIDS, a virus that adapted and re-adapted to ensure its devastating power. That both fascinated and disturbed me, even though AIDS and HIV did not touch my life or those near me, making me think it was someone else's misfortune.

Multiple times during my lifetime, a potential pandemic has arisen—like Ebola, Asian flu, SARS or parrot fever. But they hardly gained a foothold in the U.S. homeland; essentially, these were other people's problems—not ours. Each disease fizzled and retreated back to a state of dormancy or went into hiding in some unknown animal host organism. In a sense, disease was much like our assumption that America couldn't be attacked on its own soil. Epidemics were always breaking out somewhere—mostly in Africa or Asia—and relatively few have significantly impacted our country.

Now, I'm looking back at the first day of this year and asking myself how I could have ever maintained such a smug indifference to our world community. Today, I can comprehend and appreciate that there's really no such thing as "someone else's" problem. In a real sense, every one of the world's problems is my own. Reminded of just how small our world is, I can never again say to myself, "Phew! Lucky we don't have to worry about that."

It wasn't that I'd never given any thought to the what-ifs of life. But, like most of my fellow citizens, risks to life and limb, the specter of financial ruin and the extended pain of personal and family tragedies were, at most, a negligible speck on the statistical charts. But today, the relatively tiny odds of having world tragedies impact me personally have changed that naive promise of life to a new understanding: that our bliss can suddenly be dashed uponreality's rocks. Statistics are only numbers. People—human, connected and vulnerable—are not.

Today, we cannot bask in the notion that America's isolation provides us with safety. We've had our terrorist attacks. We've seen a monster pandemic stumping medical expertise by its aggressive determination to spread. We have finally noticed just how small a world we live in, and that the causes of suffering and fear have very long arms.

This year has been an awakening for me. Our dog died March 18th—the same day a 5.8 earthquake shook the Salt Lake Valley—and COVID-19 continues its vicious assault. The reality of life's fragile balance has been shoved in our faces, and we may never again have the same secure view we once enjoyed.

Who'd have thunk it—the idea that humankind could find brotherhood and commonality against a common enemy. Hopefully, we Americans now will realize we're not alone in this world.

The author is a former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and one mongrel dog. Send feedback to