Unless you have been living in a well-ventilated cave with no internet, you have heard about novel coronavirus or COVID-19. While coronaviruses have been around for a long time, this newly discovered version has no cure and can be fatal, particularly to the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. While some may find this analogous to the flu, this novel virus is serious enough for some cities and even a country to quarantine their entire population in order to try to control the spread.
It has caused a global panic. While I have tried to stay calm, educate myself, and even joke about the virus, I must admit that it is starting to concern me.
I am not scared of the virus itself. I have done my best to minimize the chances of exposing myself to the virus. That means spending more time working from home. I have encouraged clients to send paperwork via email and the cloud. For those who prefer the old ways, I accept regular mail and offer to reimburse them for postage. Since this is tax season, I and other tax professionals have voluntarily self-quarantined ourselves for the next month and a half.
Despite the precautions, I have accepted that I will eventually be infected. This is not because I have eaten at four Chinese and two Korean restaurants in the last week and a half. It is not because I didn’t purchase 36 rolls of toilet paper. Most likely it will simply be because I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I might be strolling at an empty park and Patient Zero just happens to jog past me.
If I do get infected, I take solace knowing that statistically, I am likely to recover. But for the sake of others, I have made plans in case I need to quarantine myself. This mostly involves renewing my Playstation Plus and Disney+ subscriptions.
So what scares me about the coronavirus? The chaos it has caused.
First, it has turned social media into a trainwreck. People are posting pictures and videos of the long lines at Costco. Or the empty shelves where bottled water and toilet paper used to be. Or the rushes to stores that are reminiscent of midnight on Black Friday. Or you might see crowded emergency rooms where people are treated by people in full protective gear. Or stressed out health care workers complaining about the lack of resources and giving ominous warnings. All of this might give some the impression that the rapture is upon us. I get that most people are posting these things with good intentions, but it might not have the effect they desired.
Also, we are getting conflicting opinions, even from health care professionals. Some are saying we should shut down everything and quarantine everyone as they did in Wuhan and Italy. Others are saying to simply wash your hands for twenty seconds, stay home if you feel sick and be careful of your surroundings. I am willing to blow off tirades from internet armchair immunologists, but when credentialed, impartial (hopefully) professionals give differing opinions, it is hard to determine who is credible.
Finally, the timing of this outbreak couldn’t have been worse. As this is a presidential election year, the media has been sensationalizing information and have entertained farfetched accusations and conspiracy theories. Media personalities are saying and doing whatever they have to do to ensure that their candidate or political party controls the government. For the good of the country, of course.
As lawyers, we are trained to advocate for our clients. And while I won’t get into details, I am sure some of us are using the coronavirus to our advantage.
But we are also trained to search for the truth, even if we are not medical professionals. This means detecting bias and speculation, qualifying experts before allowing them to give their opinion, and generally rejecting hearsay.
My hope is that we as lawyers will calm the panic and help people make educated choices by calling out the liars, profiteers, and opportunists, all of whom are taking advantage of this panic for their own personal gain. In these divisive times, we might not change many peoples’ minds, but it is worth a shot. And we should do our best to keep politics out of this. Lives are at stake. There will be grave consequences for any politician who maliciously tries to prevent the public from getting the help they need.
The coronavirus is not only becoming a pandemic, but also a “panicdemic” which is as scary as the virus itself. While the pictures of the long lines at Costco might be informative and even funny, they can unintentionally keep the panic going. To this day, I am still not clear how toilet paper became the new hot commodity item. While lawyers are not medical professionals, I am hoping that we can help those in our sphere of influence see through the lies and sensationalism. We will still debate on what is the proper response to the coronavirus, but as long as the smoke and mirrors are out of the discussion, I can feel less scared about the future.
Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolve tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people with large student loans. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.
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