No perspective in an online world

By Randall Poulton | Apr 30, 2020

For the last two months, Mainers have been beaten down with a 24/7 media bombardment of corona doom and gloom. To make matters worse, our American way of life, including freedoms enumerated in the Constitution, has been compromised in favor of “flattening the curve.” I believe history will show this was a huge overreaction to a relatively minor threat. How did this happen?

Part of the answer to that question lies with how we get our “news.” In this country, there has been a dramatic revolution in the distribution and consumption of information. It is hard to believe that in 2001 there was nothing like the internet we have today. People watched the events of 9-11 on TV and read about the destruction of the twin towers in newspapers. Getting the news delivered to our “smartphones” would not happen until 2008. Today, we get much of our “news” online and in real time with little perspective.

Here is a perfect example: Around noontime April 15, there was a spectacular explosion at the Androscoggin paper mill in Jay. By mid-afternoon, I had been online and seen the unedited trucker-cam video and heard the accompanying, rather colorful, narrative. I had also watched (live?) an aerial survey of the damaged mill conducted by a gentleman flying a drone. Via the internet, I had seen the whole thing firsthand. I knew the story. Or did I?

What I did not get that afternoon online was any perspective: Why do digesters explode? Does this happen often? Should we shut down all paper mills to avoid another explosion? Can the mill operate without the damaged digester? If not, how long to replace the digester? Will people lose their jobs? Will the mill’s owner, Pixelle, still be able to pay taxes? If not, will Jay become another post-paper mill ghost town like Millinocket? What I saw online was great video of the big bang and that was it. No perspective.

So how does this apply to the Corona Crisis? What we are going through is the first national emergency occurring during the age of the widespread internet connectivity and the coverage is all about the body count. There is no perspective offered. Now, I do not want readers to misunderstand what I am about to say: the three S's: social distancing, severe hand washing and sleeve coughing are important. I am practicing those three S's and we all should. But I think the fourth and fifth “S's”, shutting down and staying home, are wrong. To understand why, I offer this perspective.

In Maine, so far, the coronavirus has been blamed for the deaths of 36 people. That sounds bad and, of course, if you lost a loved one to this virus, it is tragic. But the fact is, dying is part of life. Every day, in Maine, an average of 40 people die. So, let me put the 36 COVID-19 deaths in perspective: Maine recorded its first COVID-19 death 25 days ago on March 27. That means since that day, about 1,000 Mainers have died, only 36 of them from COVID-19. And there is more.

Based on the information released by the state CDC and other online sources, I count only three people in Maine under the age of 70 who have died of COVID-19. Many victims were living in nursing homes like Tall Pines, where apparently at least five residents have died. Exactly how many Mainers have died in nursing homes might offer some additional perspective, but so far that important information is not forthcoming.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, now considered the gold standard for coronavirus modeling, forecasts a total of 51 people in Maine will die of the virus by Aug. 4. This forecast assumes we continue with social distancing, severe hand washing and sleeve coughing. Of course, there is uncertainty, and the IHME says it could be as high as 137 deaths. To be blunt, even this higher number of deaths is not a big deal. Consider that in 2017, according to the CDC, the seasonal flu killed 301 Mainers. This perspective is important.

So, did we have to close the state, putting at least 90,000 Mainers out of work, to combat the coronavirus? Maybe, but maybe not. Did we have to build field hospitals inside the Cross Center in Bangor and Portland? Clearly not. More perspective and less panic would have been very helpful. I get very nervous when the government starts nullifying my constitutional rights.

Telling some businesses to close and allowing others to stay open is the government picking winners and losers. And for many small businesses, it is the government stomping on their dreams. And that is wrong. As a good friend of mine put it: “They may be trying to save my life, but (in the process) they are killing me.”

Randall Poulton is a columnist for The Republican Journal. He lives in Winterport.

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