Guest column

COVID-19 will show you no mercy if you show it no respect

By , Guest Columnist Published: April 02, 2020 11:45 AM CT
David Schwartz
Guest Columnist

David Schwartz

Dr. David Schwartz is a professor and chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology and director of the Center for Health Equity in that department at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

“The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.” -Harry S. Truman

Just over a hundred years ago, America was hit by a flu pandemic that infected one out of every four people on Earth and killed more people than all the recorded fighting during World War I.


7,000 more hospital beds needed for COVID-19 surge, state predicts


Americans unwittingly performed an experiment on themselves, demonstrating how best to weather a pandemic. It all came down to where people lived and how they behaved. One of the roughest places to be was Philadelphia. There, 200,000 people attended a WW I victory parade in late September, despite widespread news of the flu. Three days later, every hospital bed in the city was full. In two weeks, over 4,500 people were dead, and one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious health care communities had collapsed.

If you instead lived in St. Louis, you would have had no parade to enjoy. Within two days of discovering its first case, the city closed all public gatherings and venues. The health impact was stunning. The city nearly completely “flattened its curve” during the first wave of cases. 

Content with its early success, a bored (but alive) St. Louis lost patience with distant socializing and resumed normal life two months later. The city was quickly laid low by the flu’s second wave. In the end, St. Louis’ death rate remained less than half that of Philadelphia’s. But its success could have been far better. People’s behavior, not health care, was the key to limiting deaths.

Memphians deliver countless miracles of grit every day. These have blessed us during our first two weeks responding to COVID-19. I have witnessed medical students, physicians, nurses and staff from University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the state’s academic health care institution, join forces with our city and county fire, police, EMS, public health and civil servants to create a jewel of public service on Tiger Lane at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. 

It took us just 65 hours to stand up a national-level COVID-19 testing center from scratch. And that same grit will build a lot more, making Memphis stronger after we eventually kick COVID-19 to the curb.

But none of this will help you or your family right now, unless you take this pandemic seriously and join in.

If you can, stay home. In your home. All day. Every day that it takes. No play dates. No letting teenagers roam. No informal get-togethers with neighbors. No book clubs. No dog parks. No going out one last time. No test, no doctor, nothing will save your health from a pandemic better than distance from others.

If you must work, if you must go out, then stay 6 feet away from others. Keep it simple. Stick both arms out. Look at your fingertips. They can’t be close enough to touch a stranger’s outstretched fingertips.

If your fingers touch anything that doesn’t belong to you, wash them, a lot, especially before and after you eat or touch your face. Soap dissolves the virus. You may not need a mask or gloves (these are in low supply, carefully discuss this at your workplace). Google the CDC’s website or call your doctor for other questions you think up.

COVID-19 is horrifying. It will show no mercy if you show it no respect. It is three to five times more infectious than the flu, and up to 10 times more deadly. It can infect your entire respiratory tract from top to bottom. It can cause your body to severely react and tear apart your lungs. This is why so many victims wind up in an ICU on a ventilator. This is why young, healthy adults can die from it.

There is peace and profound purpose to be found in the isolation and home time required of us to preserve Memphis’ health. History teaches that prudence now will be richly rewarded with exciting futures to live for.

But for now, please stand with us by sheltering and staying in place. Bored, but safe.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

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