Brian Gongol Show | Cheerfully Intense | March 1, 2020

Brian Gongol

Podcast: Updated weekly in the wee hours of Sunday night/Monday morning. Subscribe on Stitcher, Spreaker, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or iHeartRadio

Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.

Segment 1: The opening essay

Masking the problem

To anyone who hasn't taken up permanent residence under a rock, it's clear that coronavirus or "COVID-19" is a powerful lead actor in the world's news and a major shaker of the global economy.

Aside from giving the American stock markets a remarkable $3 trillion sucker punch, it has probably done vastly deeper and more lasting damage to the Chinese economy.

The Financial Times reports: "Based on migration data, ANZ said the Chinese economy was operating at 20 per cent capacity". That's a truly unbelievable figure. Manufacturing has collapsed, and everyone knows that's the lifeblood of China's economy. China-watcher Christopher Balding noted the other day that "[I]f the Chinese economy doesn't get back to normal pretty soon, these financial fires aren't going to be campfires but infernos". His assessment of the situation is grim, and there's not a lot of reason to doubt it. The powers that rule China have been counting on sustained economic growth to preserve their power structure, and this could do more for the cause of revolution than anything humans have done in a while. And you don't have to like the Communist Party there to have some unease about what this all could mean: It's not that the powers that rule China deserve to do so, it's that there's so little clarity about how they might peacefully be replaced.

But here in the United States, the reaction has been unpleasant for some of our own reasons. The Surgeon General has come out saying you should fight coronavirus by getting the flu shot. He's not wrong about that: Resistance to diseases like the flu keeps your immune system strong enough to fight back against novel threats if you need, and that resistance reduces the burden that might otherwise fall on the health system around you. If you can keep from getting sick from the stupid stuff like the flu, that can save the resources of both your own immune system and the broader health-care system to take care of the big stuff.

But advice like getting the flu shot and washing your hands sounds too basic for a situation that can be spun as a global health emergency. The authorities don't want you hoarding masks, they want you using soap and hot water. Yet the masks have been flying off the shelves nonetheless. I saw it myself when I needed to get a package of them earlier this week -- not because I was panicked over the virus, but because I needed to do some spray painting in a difficult environment. The shelves were bare.

And that's a problem if it means there's no supply available for doctors and nurses and EMTs and anyone else on the front lines of health care. We obviously cannot afford for them to get sick in overwhelming numbers. But ensuring they have access to masks while Joe and Jane Public are clearing the shelves is a tough order. (There's still plenty of soap left on the shelves, by the way.)

The need for health-care workers to get priority on good-quality masks is obvious, but you know who else is going to need masks if this disease breaks through? Wastewater collection and treatment operators.

That may not seem obvious at first, but here's the big idea: Viruses don't just escape the body when you sneeze. They go down the toilet as well. And they can persist where they are flushed for a very, very long time. Anyone who comes into the proximity of where that water goes is potentially at risk of exposure.

People in the United States all too often look at what happens to our water and think it's a matter of the environment. After all, the main regulatory agency that presides over issues like water quality is the Environmental Protection Agency. But that's a mistake: We clean and treat and disinfect our water not for the good of the birds and the bees, but for the human beings who need it. The problem is that public perceptions drive public priorities, and what we do with our water isn't very high on that list.

And that's where -- maybe, just maybe -- a little good might be drawn out of this otherwise nasty situation. From time to time, we get the picture that societies descend into chaos pretty quickly if clean drinking water and safe sanitation go away. Well over half a million people got cholera in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake rattled their water supplies. If all goes well here in the US, coronavirus won't be transmitted via water, nobody who works with public water will become infected, and we'll all go on our merry way. But if water-sector workers start getting sick, or if illnesses were to start cutting into the available workforce needed to keep the water flowing, then we might start getting an urgent reminder that infrastructure has to be more than a campaign buzzword floated by opportunists looking for votes.

We take infrastructure for granted. It's a lot like washing your hands with soap and water, or getting the flu shot: Unglamourous. Totally un-sexy. Entirely boring when done right. And yet, it's a critical element of one of my four main rules: Clean up after yourself. We don't do enough of that one, yet it's high time we did.

Coronavirus is getting all kinds of attention right now because it's the new thing, and in being new, it has people shaken. It may even have us looking at old things like travel and large gatherings in new ways. But what it really needs to do is remind us of how important it is to get the basics right, and to do them consistently, not just when there's a panic afoot. Wash your hands. Use soap and hot water. Get your immunizations so you don't become a burden when the hospitals are already stretched thin. And pay willingly for reliable, robust infrastructure that can take the abuse we sometimes throw at it.

The moral of the story: Coronavirus might be a flash in the pan, or it might be here to stay. But what we already know of it says rather conclusively that we shouldn't be looking for extraordinary measures to save us. Instead, we need to recommit to cleaning up after our lives might depend on it.

Segment 2: This surprised me

Segment 3: Looking ahead to the coming week

The violence and rioting in India -- and the government's attempts to disassemble the country's longstanding secularity -- deserve to be huge news.

Segment 4: Quote of the Week

"So far as each individual is concerned all he can do is to take the abilities he has and make the most of them. His power over the past is gone. His power over the future depends on what he does with himself in the present. If he wishes to live and progress he must work." - Calvin Coolidge


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