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EDITORIAL: Imagine the future


If you want to understand why social distancing and quarantines matter now, read accounts of the flu pandemic of a century ago. U.S. cities that ignored the warnings that crowds were dangerous suffered the greatest loss of life in 1918-19 outbreak. That virus disproportionately killed otherwise healthy young adults.

My grandparents survived that pandemic and died half century later. It wasn’t until they were gone that a relative recounted a story about my maternal grandfather I hadn’t heard. He was a young doctor, just a few years out of medical school and a “general practitioner,” when he joined the Army in 1918. He was transferred from Kansas to Georgia and was boarding a troop ship bound for the “Great War” in France. But just before the gangplank was pulled up, someone shouted his name and handed him new orders to disembark.

I never heard my grandfather speak about that incident or anything else related to the pandemic, so it’s only guesswork to imagine why he was needed thousands of miles from the front lines. But one fact of that time can’t be ignored: more U.S. soldiers died from the flu than were killed in combat.

My great aunt outlived them all and did tell family stories. She must have been about 20 years old in 1918 and far away from that Georgia pier, doing her part for the war effort as a government clerk in Washington, D.C. She told me the flu had come suddenly to Washington. She paused. “You have no idea,” she said. “You have no idea.” She spoke slowly. Her eyes were veiled. Usually a talkative person with a career in healthcare, she was unable to describe the memory. She said nothing more about it.

These are slim threads between distant times, though these memories in particular remain as vivid as today’s cellphone video of frantic efforts to save ICU patients. Together they make Covid-19 feel all the more menacing.

Just as threatening are the demands by groups around the country–here too, judging by some of the small gatherings at the state Capitol in Albany—whose members insist businesses be allowed to reopen right away. And now some states with apparently low rates of infection are gambling with innocent lives. Other states are simply “opening up.” This is a sign of madness not compassion.

It’s different here. Supervisor Matt Murell (R-Stockport), chairman of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors, has appointed a “Columbia Comeback committee” led by co-chairs Jeff Hunt, president of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, and Columbia Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Michael Tucker.

The committee has about 28 members so the Zoom video meetings could get a little squirrely. But the chairman has set modest goals: “… to serve as a resource for county businesses to ‘navigate the new normal and develop initiatives to help business owners adapt and respond.’” It’s an acknowledgment that Governor Cuomo has adopted a plan for allowing businesses to reopen that minimizes the potential for a new, local outbreak of the pandemic.

No county in New York has tried to get out ahead of the governor’s cautious, data driven plans. No one of stature has challenged the state. That may change as the “new normal” takes shape and both public funds and personal resources are rapidly depleted. But bet on the governor to prevail.

Chairman Murell has laid out specific tasks for his new Columbia Comeback. That’s helpful but also risks arriving at solutions before the scope and nature of the problems have been more clearly defined. Of course, businesses are closed and a lot of people have lost their jobs, tax revenues will drop. We need help.

Go a step further. What’s the impact on the housing market and how will that affect land values and property taxes? What are the scenarios? How many people have joined the ranks of the food insecure? How will the county address that? How would a second wave of coronavirus impact the county’s recovery?

These assumptions are the necessary coordinates on a template for preparedness. Our first-responder agencies undoubtedly have addressed pieces of this puzzle. Now that information has to be reassembled and reassessed in terms of what the new normal might bring.

The Columbia Comeback committee is an excellent idea and its members are well-suited to the tasks outlined by Chairman Murell. But it will hamper the good work this committee could do if the county fails to construct models of the alternative futures we face. To prepare for the future we have to imagine it now.

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