Closing the schools was a great idea on paper. (Even though, as a Brookings Institution report concluded in 2009, it could cost up to $47 billion in parent-worker absenteeism—particularly that of health-care workers.)
Everyone knows children are prime flu vectors. Once infected, they can take six days to show symptoms as they traipse from the playground to your kitchen and back to school before anyone notices a problem. Look at the 1918 mortality rates in St. Louis, where they quickly closed the schools, vs. those in Philadelphia, whose authorities ignored the plague. Philly’s peak was more than four times higher and ran far longer. Nonpharmaceutical measures made a difference.
Highs and lows in the pandemics of 1957 and ’68 corresponded to the academic schedule, presumably because crowds of kids with fledgling immune systems help flu reach critical mass. Not to mention Wave II of the Great Influenza of 1918, when barracks of young soldiers exploded with disease, camp-by-camp, state-by-state. (Then they gave it to the German Army, which collapsed and lost the war.)
Today a ragtag army of bored students roams New York’s streets, trading germs and viruses like ringtones. They can’t shop in empty stores. There’s no work. No one’s organizing volunteers. (Everyone’s too busy waiting on the government.) Teens hang.
Kids and cops are the only people I spot from my window. I’m like a retired shut-in, thrilled when some delinquent wanders past with a cranked-up boom box. Most whippersnappers wear earbuds.
So some spirited college students decided to put on a campus show, an outdoor hip hop concert that would deliver pandemic education in the form of handouts and a speech or two. Typically, the police cut the power before this permit-less event could begin. Some mischievous performers started rapping peace lyrics, without amplification. The cops stood by.
Suddenly one of the singers quietly collapsed in the sunlight. The silence that followed turned into a long whooping roar.
Before the authorities could figure out that the rapper suffers from asthma, the audience had scattered for miles. At least 26 kids were injured in the panic. (Two passersby on the street freaked out and got run over.) A sophomore tumbled over a wall, broke her neck, and died before anyone spotted her crumpled like a doll on a pile of cinder blocks. Count her as the city’s (forever unofficial and uncounted) 37th bird flu fatality.
Lost iPods, tablets, and cell phones lay scattered across campus and down the streets, marking that sad stampede. Lots of shoes, too.
I fear it would be easier for New Yorkers to adapt if more of us were dying. All that’s happened so far is that a lot of people are laid-off, schools shut. The viral pace is too slow for a city that likes to get down and move on, to confront problems fast. I feel it myself, and I’ve always predicted a slow climb to catastrophe. This was a sad warm-up.