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The Alaska Native Teacher Upending the Legacy of Colonial Education

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Editor’s Note: In the next five years, most of America’s most experienced teachers will retire. The Baby Boomers are leaving behind a nation of more novice educators. In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. Less than three decades later, that number had fallen to just three years leading a classroom. The Atlantic’s “On Teaching” project is crisscrossing the country to talk to veteran educators. This story is the twelfth in our series.

NOME, ALASKA—It’s early August in the subarctic tundra, and the light winds from the Bering Sea bring cold moisture over the blueberry bushes glistening in the grassy meadows. The arrival of blueberries signals the peak of the short and cool summer season here in Nome—one of the northernmost communities in the U.S., and one of the most remote in Alaska.

The cold defines the rhythms of living in this part of the country’s largest and least densely populated state. September often brings freezing temperatures. By January, the Bering Sea ices over, and remains frozen for nearly seven months. Nome’s roads, houses, and schools are typically covered in snow from November to March. But in June, when the school year ends, the long dark nights and harsh cold are finished. The sun shines all day and most of the night. Many parents allow their children to play outdoors as long as they can stay awake, and locals spend much of their day by the sea or in the tundra.

During the short summer season, the tundra is home to a rich variety of berries, wild greens, and roots, Josephine Tatauq Bourdon, a 30-year-veteran elementary-school teacher, explained while searching for blueberries in one of her favorite spots a few miles away from Nome. Inupiat people like her—who hail from northern indigenous communities in Alaska, Siberia, Canada, and Greenland—have been relying on the tundra and the sea for sustenance for at least 1,000 years. Local plants, fish, and mammals still make up close to half of the Native diet in this part of Alaska, locals told me.

But spending time in the tundra or by the sea is not just about access to healthy food or recreation, Bourdon, who was born and raised in Nome (called Sitŋasuaq in Inupiaq), told me. “Connection to nature is central to being Inupiaq,” Bourdon said as we walked toward the Bering Sea, passing fishing cabins where locals cut, clean, and preserve salmon, seals, and walrus. “The land is our life. The land is our livelihood. It feeds our bodies, minds, spirit, and soul.”

As one of the few Alaska Native teachers in her hometown, Bourdon has worked hard to bring this connection to nature and the Inupiaq culture into her classroom—something that was not a part of her schooling experience in the 1970s and early ’80s. She began her teaching career in the nearby village of Wales in 1988, where she became the first—and at the time, only—Native educator in town, serving 60 Inupiaq students. In 1990, the district of Nome had an opening for a fourth-grade teacher in the city’s only public elementary school; Bourdon took it and stayed there for 28 years, until she retired in 2018.

Even though Inupiaq culture was not a part of her school curriculum growing up, Bourdon was immersed in the traditional system of Inupiaq education provided by the local elders and her kin, designed to help the Inupiat people live a fulfilling life in a harsh climate without hurting nature. When Bourdon turned 3, her uncle took her on a week-long trip to gather salmonberries in the tundra. Every berry-picking trip was an opportunity to learn how to pay close attention to the direction of the wind, cloud formations, and water levels. In a place where winter temperatures can drop to –40 degrees Fahrenheit, observing the weather is a skill needed to avoid fatal accidents. (Alaska still has the highest hypothermia mortality rate in the nation.)

As a child, Bourdon was encouraged to share the first bucket of berries she gathered, and the first fish she caught, with an elder. The custom serves a practical function, and a spiritual one: Cooperation and sharing are imperative for community survival in harsh conditions. And restraining the human tendency to accumulate material goods meant that individuals were more likely to enjoy what they had “to the utmost,” as the late Alaska Native teacher and scholar Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley once wrote.

When Bourdon began the first grade, in 1970, the curriculum of Nome public schools was not focused on living in harmony with nature, but rather on preparing a skilled workforce to participate in the national and global economy. Emphasis was placed on learning how to read, write, compute, and pass tests in English. While Bourdon recalls most of her teachers as caring and invested in engaging their students, she didn’t have any Native teachers, and couldn’t take any classes in the Inupiaq language. The curriculum didn’t include Alaska Native history or culture, except one elective class on Inupiaq culture in high school.

Such schools were a legacy of the education system founded by the American missionaries, miners, and government officials who began to settle in Alaska in the late 19th century. As researchers described in the anthology Alaska Native Education: Views From Within, new schools established by the settlers of European descent were designed to assimilate Native people into the Western system of values by erasing local languages and culture. Until the landmark class-action lawsuit filed by Alaska Native high-school students in 1972, which eventually led to more Native control of schools, and opened doors to a limited number of Native teachers, indigenous people had little say over the design of their own education.

Now researchers estimate that out of about 13,500 Inupiat people who live in Alaska today, only about 3,000, including Bourdon, speak fluent Inupiaq. Across the state, while nearly 80 percent of students in rural Alaska schools are Native, only 5 percent of teachers are indigenous. If Inupiaq language and its oral traditions continue to dwindle, Bourdon told me, much of Inupiaq culture will be lost. The Inupiaq language, for instance, has at least 120 words to describe ice—each term communicating subtle information that is important for practicing local activities, such as safe and respectful hunting practices in the subarctic climates, among many others.

All of this compelled Bourdon to become the first person in her family to earn a college degree so that she could be a teacher. After graduating from the University of Alaska at Anchorage, it took her several decades to shift from teaching mostly in the Western style she experienced as a student to one integrating both worldviews and languages in her lessons. When Bourdon was a student, and later a new teacher, she said, Native knowledge was treated as an occasional curiosity—there might be a brief lesson on how to build a sled or make traditional ice cream using local berries and seal oil. In the late ’90s, Bourdon and her colleagues designed lesson plans that were far more in-depth and holistic, rooted in the local culture and in themes of the tundra and ocean cycles, and integrated throughout the entire school year across core subjects of reading, writing, math, and social sciences.

At the time, Bourdon and her colleagues were a part of a growing movement across Alaska, led by other Native teachers, who worked to upend schools’ devaluation of their culture and expand the role of Native communities in defining notions of “legitimate knowledge” and “rigor in education.” “Learning how to provide for the family, staying connected to nature, and speaking your own language is just as important as learning how to compute, write, read in English,” Bourdon told me.

The new systems that Alaska Native teachers like Bourdon, Kawagley, and others have built are not a rejection of Western education, Bourdon emphasized. Instead, they are playing to the strengths of both Western and Native models—helping students learn how to thrive locally while participating in a global society.

One sunny August morning last year, Josephine Tatauq Bourdon was recording her mother speaking Inupiaq in the living room of their small, two-bedroom house decorated with family photographs, Inupiaq art, and pictures of blueberries. Bourdon’s mother, Esther Aġunaat Bourdon, who turned 90 last year, belongs to the last generation of Inupiat people who were raised primarily in the traditional Inupiaq education system—and are more fluent in Inupiaq than English. As part of her efforts to preserve Inupiaq culture after retiring from the classroom, Bourdon uses her recordings of her mother to teach her native tongue to children and adults in Nome through classes and a column in a local newspaper.

Esther Aġunaat grew up in the village of Wales (Kiŋigin in Inupiaq), one of the oldest and largest Alaska Native communities, located about 55 miles from the Siberian coastline. One of her earliest memories is watching her father on the Bering Sea, towing a whale behind his boat. In those days, people looked to the sea and the tundra for most things they ate and wore. The hardest-working person who shared the most held the highest status in society. Everything was recyclable or biodegradable.

When Esther Aġunaat was growing up, Inupiaq education was designed as a holistic, interdisciplinary system that integrated core concepts in math, biology, and meteorology with technical skills, and social and emotional competencies such as empathy and ethics—all taught in a deeply local context. Education like this that integrates academic, social, and emotional domains would today be called “teaching the whole child.” Many Native researchers believe that this system of traditional education was responsible for the survival of northern indigenous communities in the harsh environments they call home.

While there were no formally scheduled classes, textbooks, or libraries, every seasonal activity was accompanied with specific stories—refined through generations over hundreds of years, as an Inupiaq teacher and researcher, Paul Ongtooguk, has documented. These tales, myths, and activities contained explicit directions on how to make a living—avoiding frostbite, building a fishing rod, finding medicinal plants—and provided guidance on how to live a purposeful life rooted in collective and environmental responsibility.  

Oral traditions and games also emphasized key dispositions for living a satisfying life in challenging weather conditions. Building resilience, for instance, meant accepting the impermanence and uncertainty of nature, as Kawagley documented. Pride in individual accomplishment was condemned in the stories that Bourdon’s mother heard and later told her daughter, the reasoning being that arrogant people would be more likely to make lethal mistakes in the subarctic temperatures.

When Esther Aġunaat turned 7, in 1936, her parents sent her to a one-room Western schoolhouse run by the U.S. government. Her teacher was the only white person in Wales. Even though Esther Aġunaat and her siblings didn’t speak any English, they were not allowed to speak their native language at school. All lessons and texts were in English and contained stories about faraway places and people. Whenever Esther Aġunaat and her classmates said anything in Inupiaq, they were asked to stand in the corner, facing the wall. Esther Aġunaat left school in the second grade to help her parents with hunting and fishing—and never returned to formal Western education.

By then, missionary and government schools like this had been opening up across the state for five decades, as the U.S. continued its expansion and settler colonialism. This process was led by a Presbyterian clergyman, and the head of the U.S. education agency in Alaska, Sheldon Jackson. In his report to Congress in 1892, Jackson described Native communities he encountered as “uncivilized” and in need of instruction not only in “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” but also in “everything that elevates man.” In the new schools that Esther Aġunaat and, later, Bourdon attended, the values of European settlers, such as speedy answers, competition, and individual achievement, were elevated over Inupiaq values of consensus-building, sharing, and cooperation.

Schools were among some of the first colonial institutions, Kawagley wrote, and they left in the “previously self-directed Native people a sense of subordination, confusion, and debilitation.” Similar efforts in forced assimilation of young indigenous Americans took place all over the U.S. As part of this ideology, many Alaska Native children were removed from their families and placed in faraway boarding schools to eradicate Native culture, including rural life and reliance on a subsistence economy. As one 1966 government study stated, “The ideal high school … should reflect an urban technological society,” and would help “accelerate the breakdown of old village patterns, patterns which may retard the development of rural folk into a disciplined and reliable workforce.”

[Read: Death by civilization  ]

While Bourdon didn’t have any Native teachers as a student in Nome public schools in the ’70s, she was still fully immersed in the traditional ways of Inupiaq learning at home, through the daily presence of her large, extended family, who mostly spoke Inupiaq and lived near one another. “It was a very tight-knit family and we did everything together,” she recalled.

At the same time, her mother and father emphasized the importance of Western education. “My school and homework was very important to my parents,” Bourdon explained. “My mother had to learn English on her own. She understood the barriers to opportunities in a modern world without Western education.”

Bourdon with her mother, Esther Aġunaat. (Brian Adams)

In 1928, the federal government published a scathing report documenting harsh conditions in schools educating Alaska Native students, including corporal punishment and malnutrition. Later reports documented alcohol, drug abuse, and suicides among Alaska Native students, linked to trauma endured in the boarding schools.

Such findings led to successive rounds of federal and state reforms, but despite these efforts, Native students continue to post low performance outcomes by most measures. In 2016—the most recent available data—only 72 percent of Alaska Native and Native American students graduated high school, the lowest rate of any demographic group. In the past two decades, scores on national tests for Native American and Alaska Native students have been stagnant or falling.

Many Alaska Native educators and researchers have argued that such outcomes are the result of a top-down educational system that for more than 100 years blocked indigenous communities from participating in the design of their own education. They argued that the Western educational system is based on many unspoken assumptions, including a preference for knowledge derived from Western tools of data collection and record-keeping. Knowledge that has been passed down over millennia through oral traditions is often dismissed as inferior. Information that can’t be quantified, such as cultural autonomy or community wisdom, is typically overlooked in conversations about the purpose of public education.

“I think that the educational outcomes and social ills that we see in my community today, such as high rates of alcoholism and suicides, is caused by the lack of connection to our land and Native culture,” Bourdon told me.

[Read: The schools that tried—but failed—to make Native Americans obsolete]

In 1994, citing the dismal outcomes of Native students in the system founded by outside experts, the Alaska Natives Commission, a federal and state task force, called for all future efforts related to Alaska Native education to be initiated from within the Native community. This prompted a variety of Native-led projects, such as the Alaska Native Curriculum and Teacher Development Project, Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative, and Alaska Native Knowledge Network, that developed and disseminated culturally responsive curricula, oral histories, language materials, and relevant research. Alaska Native educators and scholars created “cultural standards,” which were adopted by the state, and provided guidance on how traditional wisdom, including environmental responsibility, can be integrated into formal Western education systems.

As a result of these efforts, in the late ’90s, Bourdon and two non-Native fourth-grade teachers at her school were encouraged by their administrators to develop their own culturally relevant lesson plans. From 1997 to 2000, Bourdon and her colleagues met every weekend to design science-driven lesson plans that they then implemented during the week, all rooted in the local geography of Nome, its history, and its culture. Fall lesson plans in math, reading, writing, and science focused on the theme of insects and their life cycle. In the winter months, students investigated the ocean. Spring was all about edible plants, and in the summer, students would learn about fish, berries, and land mammals.

In all these lessons, Bourdon and her colleagues aimed to incorporate both Western and Native knowledge. When students studied local fish, for example, Bourdon invited a community elder to her classroom to teach students how to split and clean the fish using a traditional cutting tool called an ulu. When students studied the traditional practices for preserving the fish, they also learned about science and math by discussing the processes that took place in the cutting, drying, smoking, and storing of the fish. While students were learning cultural content and history, they also had to improve their skills in taking notes, collecting data, writing reports, and presenting research papers. Thematic myths, dances, and songs were incorporated into every unit, to teach the key social and emotional skills that Bourdon learned as a child.

Bourdon thinks of this period as a highlight of her career. “We didn’t care that we spent every weekend working without pay for months,” she said. “It was such a rewarding experience for us, because our students were so engaged in these lessons.” The new lessons erased the distance between abstract ideas in the textbooks, nature, and the community life. Most important for Bourdon, she told me, the process helped her and other educators begin to erase a damaging assumption that Native students can’t become writers, inventors, and participants in a global community if their education includes traditional ways of learning.

Then the No Child Left Behind law was passed in 2002 and swept across the country, pushing the idea that better outcomes on standardized tests are the best way to achieve the nation’s goals of preparing a skilled and successful workforce. As the journalist Sarah Garland documented for The Atlantic, in 2012, the Obama administration invested $2 million to support culturally relevant instruction in Native schools across the country, but also sent $3 billion in grants to push for increases in student test scores in struggling schools.

This discrepancy in resources allotted to different reform strategies meant that many educators were pressured to focus on test prep at the expense of less measurable forms of instruction. As administrators in the Nome school district turned over, Bourdon said she and her colleagues were gradually asked to abandon the place-based curriculum, projects, and visits by the elders, and focus more on preparing students for the tests. (School officials didn’t return our requests for comment on the record about this.) Discouraged by these changes, in 2012, Bourdon took a different position, as a culture-studies teacher, to move away from the classes under intense state testing pressures, and to continue her work in integrating the Inupiaq and Western content through other courses.

Despite these challenges, efforts like Bourdon’s seemed to be working. When the Rural Systemic Initiative, a Native-led coalition representing 50 organizations working in education, gathered data from 20 rural schools serving majority Alaska Native students that participated in implementing culturally relevant curriculum from 1995 to 2000 (compared with 24 other rural districts, which continued to teach in traditional Western ways), all schools showed gains in student-achievement scores, a decrease in the dropout rate, and increased college attendance.

But beyond outcomes measured using Western forms of data collection, Alaska Native educators provided a template for all American schools on how to fundamentally reconsider and expand the notions of “rigor” or “knowledge” in education. To upend the ongoing damage inflicted by the legacy of colonial institutions, Kawagley reflected, education-reform efforts would have to value the cultural well-being of diverse communities just as much as outcomes on standardized test scores. Even though participation in the subsistence economy among indigenous communities, for instance, may not serve the national goals of training a workforce that increases the country’s GDP, it promotes daily opportunities to practice Native culture. As another report evaluating the outcomes of the Rural Initiative noted, cultural survival is hard to measure, but it can be felt and observed by the families served by the education system.

The newer education systems that foster collaboration between Western and Native ways of knowledge and learning in Alaska are still in their infancy, as Kawagley reflected in 2011. The biggest, most recent threat to the sustainability of these efforts in Alaska is likely to come from the looming cuts to public education. Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy cut $25 million this year, and plans to cut $45 more million in the next two years from the University of Alaska, which trains 43 percent of all teachers for the state.

[Read: Higher education has become a partisan issue]

Back in Nome, Bourdon told me she was concerned about what these cuts would mean for the state’s ability to prepare teachers, and the future of the innovative approaches that she and other Alaska Native teachers created. As early fall brought cooler temperatures, Bourdon was bracing for these uncertainties by engaging in daily practices that have sustained the well-being of her family for generations: She went to gather cranberries in the tundra, made jam and cooked for her family and neighbors, and told stories she’d heard from her mother about the power of communal bonds. “I am fortunate to hear my mother speak Inupiaq every day, and be able to teach our language and values to young people through her stories,” Bourdon said.


This article is part of our project "On Teaching," which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.

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Chinese Americans Are Living Through the Same Pandemic Twice

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Back in January, when a mysterious virus in Wuhan still seemed like faraway news, Mei Mei and her husband bought N95 masks and two boxes of hand sanitizer to take to her elderly parents, who live 300 miles east of the Chinese city. Mei, 48, a real-estate agent in Fremont, California, had planned to bring the supplies on a trip to China to celebrate her parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Then Wuhan went into lockdown, and all of it was canceled.

Mei still mailed the masks to her parents, but not the hand sanitizer—“which became such a blessing,” she told me, because hand sanitizer would soon sell out in stores around the U.S. Masks started disappearing, too. Over the month of March, a strange reversal began as new COVID-19 cases in China started to fall and those in the U.S. started to skyrocket. Mei’s parents in China were now worried about her. They still had some unused N95s left over. Should we, they asked Mei, send the same masks you mailed us the 6,000 miles back to you in California?

For lots of Chinese Americans, the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. feels eerily familiar in a deeply personal way. First-generation immigrants in particular, many of whom still have close personal ties to China, followed the situation there closely and recognized the virus as a serious threat before it registered for the rest of America. Now the social isolation, the overwhelmed hospitals, the equipment shortages, the deaths—all of this is a replay of what loved ones in China went through two months ago.

[Read: Everyone thinks they’re right about masks]

“For the people who are connected to Wuhan, the overwhelming sentiment is terrible déjà vu,” Tony Fan says. Fan, 32, grew up near Atlanta, and he and his wife have family in and around Wuhan. They moved to Hong Kong a few years ago, and spent January concerned about their relatives in mainland China. His wife’s father, a dermatologist, was briefly conscripted into seeing COVID-19 patients. Worried about the lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE, in his hospital, his wife stayed up late trying to source Tyvek coveralls from a factory. Fortunately, no one in the family got seriously sick with COVID-19. But lately, Fan has been buying masks in Hong Kong to ship to friends in the United States. At the end of our call, he offered to ship me some too.

With COVID-19 cases mounting in the U.S., Chinese Americans have mobilized through WeChat, GoFundMe, and other social-media platforms to source and donate PPE for health-care workers in the U.S.—often drawing on the same connections made just a few months ago, when the outbreak in China was at its worst. Jerry Hu, an ophthalmologist in Fort Worth, Texas, ordered 5,700 surgical masks for a Beijing hospital in early February. Recently, he told me, staff at that same Beijing hospital donated about $14,000 for PPE, boxes of which are on their way to Hu’s house right now. He plans to distribute the equipment to local health-care workers.

Mei Mei has been coordinating donations of equipment like masks and gloves for health-care workers in California. (Erin Brethauer)

Mei, the real-estate agent in California, has also been coordinating a donation effort on the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, collecting more than 27,000 masks, face shields, goggles, gloves, and other equipment to send to local hospitals. Packages are showing up every day outside her house from friends and acquaintances of her Bay Area Chinese American community. “A lot of the donations I received, they were all still in the original package shipped by their family [from China],” she told me.

After Mei canceled her trip to China, she immediately began social distancing at home in California. This was January and February, when life around her in the U.S. still went on as normal. She canceled Chinese New Year celebrations. She stopped going to church services on Sundays and Bible study on Fridays. Having paid close attention to the stories out of China, she took the dangers of the coronavirus seriously—so did, she says, about half of the people in her Chinese community. “For everybody who was non-Chinese, I think they thought I was crazy,” she said.

[Read: How the pandemic will end]

Mei’s college-age daughter thought she was overreacting, too. In early March, when her daughter had a charity dance performance, Mei emailed the university president to urge them to cancel the event. The event did get canceled a few hours later, though Mei doesn’t know whether it was her doing. In any case, her daughter replied to the news with a sad face, saying, “Half of the school hates you.” “They don’t hate me now!” Mei told me on the phone. Her daughter has since admitted her mom was right.

I have to say I was getting uncomfortable flashbacks at this point in my conversation with Mei. My own parents are first-generation Chinese immigrants, and when they were stocking up at Costco all the way back in February, I was rolling my eyes. “It’s not that scary, is it?” I asked my dad on the phone. I worried about my aunt in China, who is a doctor, but I never thought to worry about us here. And in the nearly dozen conversations I had for this story, I noticed the same general pattern in how first- and second-generation Chinese immigrants responded to COVID-19.

Like most Americans, Angela Zhang, a medical student in Rhode Island, wasn’t too concerned about COVID-19 early on. At least not compared with her mom, who has been sending her multiple messages a day telling her to wash her hands, wear a mask, and stay at home. “It’s how she shows love,” says Zhang (no relation to me).

Zhang’s mom, Yahua Yu, is a neurologist in Seattle. She had gone to medical school in Wuhan, and throughout January and February, she was getting dire updates from former classmates still in the city. The reality that seemed so far away and so unreal to many Americans felt very real and very close to her and other Chinese immigrants. Now that distant reality is America’s reality. “You tell people around you, but they didn’t really want to believe that,” she told me. “Then you start saying, ‘You will see. You will see.’”

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Pennsylvania faces a new wave of abandoned oil and gas wells

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HIGHLAND TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Ten thousand acres of Pennsylvania’s only national forest have given way, tree by tree, over the last 70 years to an oil drilling operation unique in its scope in the northeastern United States.

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Pittsburgh sanitation workers refusing to pick up trash after demanding better protective gear

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This Is How We Can Beat the Coronavirus

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While many watched the coronavirus spread across the globe with disinterest for months, in the last week, most of us have finally realized it will disrupt our way of life. A recent analysis from Imperial College is now making some Americans, including many experts, panic. The report projects that 2.2 million people could die in the United States. But the analysis also provides reason for hope—suggesting a path forward to avoid the worst outcomes.

We can make things better; it’s not too late. But we have to be willing to act.

Let’s start with the bad news. The Imperial College Response Team’s report looked at the impact of measures we might take to flatten the curve, or reduce the rate at which people are becoming sick with COVID-19. If we do nothing and just let the virus run its course, the team predicts, we could see three times as many deaths as we see from cardiovascular disease each year. Further, it estimated that infections would peak in mid-June. We could expect to see about 55,000 deaths, in just one day.

Of course, we are doing something, so this outcome is unlikely to occur. We’re closing schools and businesses and committing to social (really, physical) distancing. But as the sobering charts from the analysis show, this isn’t enough. Even after we do these things, the report predicts that a significant number of infections will occur, that more will need care than we can possibly provide in our hospitals, and that more than a million people could die.

Why does the Imperial College team predict this for the west when things seem to be improving in Asia? Because we are taking different approaches. Asian countries have engaged in suppression; we are only engaging in mitigation.

Suppression refers to a campaign to reduce the infectivity of a pandemic, what experts call Ro (R nought), to less than one. Unchecked, the Ro of COVID-19 is between 2 and 3, meaning that every infected person infects, on average, 2 to 3 others. A Ro less than 1 indicates that each infected person results in fewer than 1 new infection. When this happens, the outbreak will slowly grind to a halt.

To achieve this, we need to test many, many people, even those without symptoms. Testing will allow us to isolate the infected so they can’t infect others. We need to be vigilant, and willing to quarantine people with absolute diligence.

Because we failed to set up a testing infrastructure, we can’t check that many people. At the moment, we can’t even test everyone who is sick. Therefore, we’re attempting mitigation—accepting that the epidemic will grow, but trying to reduce Ro as much as possible.

Our primary approach is social distancing—asking people to stay away from each other. This has meant closing schools, restaurants, and bars. It’s meant asking people to work from home and not meet in groups of 10 or more. Our efforts are good, temporizing measures. By slowing the growth of the infection, it improves the chance our health-care system will be able to keep up.

But these efforts won’t help those who are already infected. It will take up to two weeks for those infected today to show any symptoms, and some people won’t show symptoms at all. Social distancing cannot prevent these infections, as they’ve already happened. Therefore, things will appear to get worse for some time, even if what we’re doing is making things better in the long run. The outbreak will continue to grow.

But buried in Imperial College report is reason for optimism. The analysis finds that in the do-nothing scenario, many people die and die quickly. With serious mitigation, though, many of the measures we’re taking now slow things down. By the summer, the report calculates, the number of people who become sick will eventually slow to a trickle.

On this path, though, the real horror show will begin in the fall and crush us next winter, when COVID-19 comes back with a vengeance.

This is what happened in 1918 with the flu. The spring was bad. Over the summer, the numbers of sick dwindled and created a false sense of security. Then, all hell broke loose. In late 1918, tens of millions of people died.

If a similar pattern holds for COVID-19, then while things are bad now, it may be nothing compared to what we face at the end of the year.

Because of this, some are now declaring that we might be in lockdown for the next 18 months. They see no alternative. If we go back to normal, they argue, the virus will run unchecked and tear through Americans in the fall and winter, infecting between 40-70 percent of us, killing millions and sending tens of millions to the hospital. To prevent that, they suggest we keep the world shut down. That will destroy the economy and the fabric of society.

But all of that assumes that we can’t change. It’s based on the assumption that the only two choices are millions of deaths or a wrecked society.

That’s not true. We can create a third path. We can decide to meet this challenge head on. It is absolutely within our capacity to do so. We could develop tests that are fast, reliable, and ubiquitous. If we screen everyone, and do so regularly, we can let most people return to a more normal life. We can reopen schools and places where people gather. If we can be assured that the people who congregate aren’t infectious, they can socialize.

We can build health-care facilities that do rapid screening and care for people who are infected, apart from those who are not. This will prevent transmission from one sick person to another in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. We can even commit to housing infected people apart from their healthy family members, to prevent transmission in households.

These steps alone still won’t be enough.

We will need to massively strengthen our medical infrastructure. We will need to build ventilators and add hospital beds. We will need to train and redistribute physicians, nurses, and respiratory therapists to where they are most needed. We will need to focus our factories on turning out the protective equipment—masks, gloves, gowns, and so forth—to ensure we keep our health-care workforce safe. And, most importantly, we need to pour vast sums of intellectual and financial resources into developing a vaccine that would finally bring this nightmare to a close. An effective vaccine would end the pandemic and protect billions of people around the world.

All of the difficult actions we are taking now to flatten the curve aren’t just intended to slow the rate of infection to levels the health-care system can manage. They’re also meant to buy us time. They give us the space to create what we need to make a real difference.

Of course, it all depends on what we do with that time. The mood of the country has shifted in the last few weeks, from dismissal, to one of fear and concern. That’s appropriate. This is a serious pandemic, and it’s still very likely that the rate of infection will overwhelm the surge capacity in some areas of the United States. There will likely be more seriously ill people than we have resources to care for, meaning that health-care providers will have to make decisions about whom to care for, and whom not to.

They may, explicitly or implicitly, have to decide who lives and who dies.

If we commit to social distancing, however, then at some point in the next few months the rate of spread will slow. We’ll be able to catch our breath. We’ll be able to ease restrictions, as some early hit countries are doing. We can move towards some semblance of normalcy.

The temptation then will be to think we have made it past the worst. We cannot give in to that temptation. That will be the time to redouble our efforts. We will need to prepare for the coming storm. We’ll need to build up our stockpiles, create strategies, and get ready.

If we choose the third course, then when the fall arrives, we will be ahead of a resurgence of the infection. We can keep the number of those who are exposed to a minimum, targeting our actions at those who are infected, and enacting more stringent physical distancing only when, and in locations where, that fails. We can keep schools and businesses open as much as possible, closing them quickly when suppression fails, and then opening them back up again once the infected are identified and isolated. Instead of playing defense, we could play more offense.

We need to keep time on the clock, time to find a treatment or a vaccine.

The last time we faced a pandemic with this level of infectivity, that was this dangerous, for which we had no therapy or vaccine, was a 100 years ago and led to 50 million deaths. The coronavirus pandemic isn’t unprecedented, but it’s not anything almost anyone alive has experienced before. We, are, however, much more knowledgeable, much more coordinated, and much more capable today.

Some Americans are in denial, and others are feeling despair. Both sentiments are understandable. We all have a choice to make. We can look at the coming fire and let it burn. We can hunker down, and hope to wait it out—or we can work together to get through it with as little damage as possible. This country has faced massive threats before and risen to the challenge; we can do it again. We just need to decide to make it happen.

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zwol
19 days ago
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Pittsburgh, PA
haloedrain
19 days ago
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Pittsburgh, PA
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Are Hospitals Near Me Ready for Coronavirus? Here Are Nine Different Scenarios.

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haloedrain
21 days ago
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Pittsburgh, PA
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1 public comment
tedgould
21 days ago
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Depressing, but real data about hospital capacity that can be customized to your region.
Texas, USA
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