Our opinion: Coping with a crisis amid scarce information

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It wasn't a question of if, but when.

The Northshire found out it had its first confirmed case of COVID-19 coronavirus on Sunday night, a member of the community at Manchester Elementary Middle School. The case is a "community spread" case, meaning it was transmitted person to person here, and not due to travel to another country.

Neither the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union nor the state Department of Health is characterizing the patient — male or female, adult or student. While privacy concerns are the explanation for that lack of basic, non-identifying information, that's of little comfort to MEMS parents who are now left with more questions than answers as a result. For the peace of mind of all, the state and the BRSU should reconsider.

But there's a new reality afoot: the likelihood that you have been exposed to coronavirus is higher than you'd like to believe, regardless of whether or not you have a connection to students or staff at MEMS. Your behavior should reflect that likelihood. Do not panic over that sentence, but take it seriously, and let it guide your behavior, no matter what foolishness the president spouts.

Rather, let this be your guide: "At this point, the number of people who have interacted [with] someone who is positive for the virus is in the many hundreds, if not the thousands," David Englander, senior policy and legal advisor to the state Department of Health, said in an email which state Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan of Dorset shared with the Journal. "Individual follow up would be impossible. We must rely on our own good sense and the sense of fellow Vermonters to keep us safe and well."

It's time for all Northshire residents to do what all residents of New York City have been asked to do: Assume you have been exposed, socially distance yourself and stay home unless it's urgently necessary.

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Stay 6 feet away from others. Monitor yourself for symptoms such as a fever and cough. Wash your hands frequently. Cover coughs and sneezes and isolate yourself from others if you become symptomatic. Wash and sanitize frequently handled surfaces.

This is not the time to congregate at the basketball courts or the skatepark. And it's certainly not the time for a party or social gathering of any sort — not adults, not teenagers, not anyone. Instead, do what many musical artists, church groups and schools have done with their activities, and move them online.

On a related note, in recent days and weeks there have been opinions expressed about the recent arrival of second homeowners in the midst of this crisis, and whether they should be welcome here, given limited resources of our medical system.

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It's a tender topic, because the Manchester area and its second homeowners have always had a complicated relationship, sometimes long on stereotypes and anecdotes and short on facts. It's a two-way street.

Second homeowners pay property taxes that help fund the services full-time residents rely upon every day. They do more than spend; many are generous with their support of arts and cultural organizations, as well as nonprofits providing human services. As for whether they'll overtax our rural health infrastructure, which is built to our smaller scale: That's a valid concern, but it would also be true for a disaster on any summer weekend. No hospital system is built for this set of circumstances, in Vermont, New York City or anywhere else.

Do second homeowners sometimes misbehave, or drive as if Sunderland Hill Road were the Cross Bronx Expressway? Sure, but long-time residents do those things, too.

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We humans can be a superstitious lot, prone to what's known as "magical thinking" — what happens when our brains make connections based on nothing but conjecture.

It's magical thinking to presume that someone is carrying COVID-19 just because they're from another place where folks have the virus. It's something worse to then scapegoat that person based on that non-factual conclusion. Sadly, it's a xenophobic American tradition to claim newcomers are "dirty" or carry diseases, and that has been used against every group of immigrants that have come here seeking opportunity — while conveniently forgetting that's precisely what white settlers did to this land's native people, to horrific effect.

Unfortunately — thank the president for this — there aren't enough tests to determine whether anyone has COVID-19, or if they're even sick. That only fuels magical thinking and creates panic. And panic is how we get to mob rule, witch trials, concentration camps and other acts of inhumanity. That's not what we want.

A calm, measured response to a crisis demands facts.

The truth is that neither a fine vacation home and the money to pay for it, nor lineage dating back to the Republic of Vermont, are grounds for selfish behavior. Nor will such considerations immunize you and your family from COVID-19, or protect the community at large.

It's not who you are or how long you've lived here that matters. It's how you act. And we are all in this together.


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