By Alex Long
I vividly remember the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006 – my peers and I watched from our sixth grade classroom as snow began to fall, increasing in magnitude throughout the afternoon. Nardin Academy’s then-principal used the PA system to assure us eager students (and likely the eager teachers as well) to calm down and not expect our favorite event as Buffalonian children: a snow day.
For those who don’t recall, this was Day 1 of the “October Surprise,” or, as it is officially known, “Lake Storm Aphid.” If you were in Buffalo during the October Surprise, you may remember sounds, like a gunshot, from trees succumbing to the wet heavy snow on their leaves; images of loose power lines; and stories of associated deaths and hospitalizations. Or maybe it’s the memories of neighbors combing the streets checking on friends and family, digging cars out of the snow and working with the disaster response professionals to, literally, weather the storm.
I think back to these harrowing and heartening moments now, with the impending spread and consistent messaging about COVID-19 rising to a near inescapable level. With talk of school closures, food stockpiling and isolation, the parallels are clear. The one discrepancy that I’m happy to report: COVID-19 does not have to be a surprise.
Instead of shoveling driveways and bringing food to those who are trapped in their snow-covered houses, we may be asked by local, state and national public health officials to keep our children from school or pick up the slack at work to allow those most vulnerable to stay at home. The onus is on our City of Good Neighbors to tap into our storied resilience and work in lockstep with the directives of qualified medical professionals.
Similar to a weather forecast, the coverage of COVID-19 requires a healthy dose of uncertainty and may be seen as an overestimation or underestimation of the epidemic. The 24-hour opinion-based news cycle and social media feedback loops can take well-informed urgency and turn it into ill-managed alarm. But keep in mind, if it does not spread as quickly or as widely as expected, that’s a win. Strong preparation for the potential disruptions to daily life will equip us for future, and potentially more damaging, viruses.
It’s not lost on me that I, a policy analyst in Washington, D.C., am not the qualified source of medical information you should be seeking out. But as a policy analyst with a focus on global health and undying allegiance to Buffalo, I feel qualified to implore you to take public health officials’ well-informed urgency and funnel it into neighborly action to keep your family and mine safe.
Alex Long, a Buffalo native, is a program associate at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan quasi-federal think tank.