Verbum Ultimum: Wash Your Hands

Campus must take precautions without causing panic, insensitivity or xenophobia.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 3/6/20 2:00am

The coronavirus is here. What for so long seemed like something far away — in Wuhan, then the rest of China, then Korea and Italy and Iran — has made its presence clear in the Upper Valley. Two employees at DHMC have come down with COVID-19, the new coronavirus that has the world watching with bated breath. What’s more, New Hampshire’s patient zero ignored advice to self-quarantine and attended a Tuck School of Business social event last Friday, meaning that some number of community members may have been exposed to the virus.

It’s easy to get nervous as the statistics slowly creep up hour by hour and day by day. The United States has now seen over 100 confirmed cases and 11 deaths from the virus — and the coronavirus now seems to be spreading through the community.

Around campus, students seem to alternate between two reactions: dismissal and panic. Neither one is especially useful, and it’s on all of us to deal with this outbreak responsibly. We’d be wrong to dismiss the coronavirus outbreak — it’s approaching a pandemic, and many health experts reason that 40 to 70 percent of the world’s population could contract the virus. Though mortality rates remain hard to pin down, they may exceed one percent even when undiagnosed mild cases are accounted for. For context, the infamous Spanish Flu of 1918 — the worst pandemic in recent history, which left at least 50 million people dead — had a mortality rate of around 2.5 percent. Of course, that’s a worst-case scenario, and the coronavirus will in all likelihood prove far less lethal. At this stage, predictions are hard to make with any accuracy.

For Dartmouth students, the implications of the outbreak are numerous. Notably, several foreign study abroad programs are in danger of being cancelled, leaving students unaware of their spring term plans with just a week left of winter. For many, this puts them in the impossible situation of deciding between a last-minute off term or another term on campus and the hope that enough housing can be made available to compensate for their adjusted plans. 

Regardless of which way it plays out, the uncertainty catalyzed by the outbreak is a serious difficulty in and of itself. But since we can’t control how the virus spreads or predict it with much accuracy, what we can do is exhibit common decency in the wake of potential widespread disfunction. Part of that means taking simple precautions. Health experts emphasize constant hand-washing, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, avoiding physical contact with others and taking precautions when you feel sick. It can’t hurt to stay in and do work during reading period rather than going out with your friends. 

Part of it also means remaining aware that creating a paradigm of susceptibility based on age is not accurate or helpful. While the elderly are more likely to get the virus, people with compromised immune systems or other medical conditions are also uniquely vulnerable, and these people span all ages and are on this campus. Joking about the fact that “some of us” will most likely be fine if we’re infected is not helpful for people who are actually at risk. The best thing to do is to be mindful of the fact that you could be a victim or a carrier, and that maintaining your personal hygiene is good for yourself and those around you. Exhibiting common decency and avoiding selfish decision-making is critical for mitigating the spread of the virus, especially within such concentrated quarters as a college campus.

In the end, one of the most detrimental effects of the novel coronavirus is the potential for fear to motivate bigotry and hatred as the virus spreads. Asian Americans have been harassed in public and online, including a Los Angeles middle-schooler who was beaten and hospitalized after classmates accused him of carrying the virus. A fake flier pretending to come from the World Health Organization warned community members to avoid Asian American restaurants in order to stay healthy. One man in New York City was aggressively sprayed with Febreeze simply for standing too close to someone else on the train. None of these incidents had any legitimate grounding, but we must be wary of the potential for fear to be directed toward people who are different from us.

Ultimately, the coronavirus is something that we all must take seriously. But sincerity and panic are not equivalent, and neither are precautionary measures and xenophobia. We have a duty to ourselves and our communities to not only take care of ourselves but to look out for those around us and be mindful of those who are at risk. This is true for all places around the world, but starts in smaller communities like our campus.

The editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the executive editor and the editor-in-chief.