Until very recently, many of us did not fully grasp the magnitude of the coronavirus challenge, and the inadequacy of our response. I know I didn’t. Things are moving very fast. But for me, the overlaps between my professional and my personal life have brought this home in a very real way. 

Two weeks ago, my nephew returned from an abbreviated semester abroad in Florence, Italy, to begin two weeks of quarantined confinement at a motel near his home, courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh. Three days later, my younger sister and I differed regarding whether my parents (in their 80s) should still travel to New Orleans. It suffices to say that she was correct, and I was wrong. Then last week my mom woke up with a head cold and, after registering one degree higher than optimal, was consequently quarantined along with my dad for 14 days in their very high-quality independent living building. Then last Thursday, OPRF High School and District 97 Elementary School District announced they would be shifting to online classes through March 31 (impacting our daughters, ages 16 and 13). 

In the meantime, I was also viewing this outbreak through my lens as president of the Oak Park Residence Corporation and executive director of the Oak Park Housing Authority, with ultimate responsibility for the health and welfare of the residents at our senior buildings: Mills Park Tower (198 units) and The Oaks (76 units). 

Then this past Saturday, my 16-year-old spent most of the day with her friends. I like her friends. They’re all very good kids. But the idea of closing schools to help prevent the transmission of coronavirus, only to have students still congregate in large and fluid social groups, seemed to be fundamentally at odds with the collective effort needed to help prevent the spread of the virus. The same day, I wound up in line behind a woman grocery shopping for her three sons, all unexpectedly returned from college — and downtown at a pub crawl celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

This is about the time I really woke up. If the statistics are to be believed, neither my 16-year-old and her friends, nor this woman’s pub crawling sons, are likely to be seriously harmed or worse by coronavirus. But this very group, the young invincibles, hold the key to our bringing this virus under control. For while they may not die from it, nor even necessarily suffer significant symptoms, they are unfortunately playing their traditional cultural role as carriers, circulators, and propagators. 

In their online lives, the very definition of success is to “go viral.” In their daily reality they are the foundation of the sharing economy. But in this new COVID-19 world, the very definition of our societal success is to keep it from going viral. To prevent it from being shared. And to safeguard those who are most vulnerable. That is now our job.

In turn, after our daughter returned home on Saturday, our entire family talked about the risk to others from the spread of the virus. We discussed my parents being in quarantine, and the residents at The Oaks and at Mills Park Tower who are more susceptible to the terrible threats of this pandemic. We talked about our collective responsibility to help bring it under control, and to help provide the time that the scientists and medical professionals are going to need to help minimize the pain and the deaths that are already accompanying the spread of COVID-19 across the globe, and now threatening us here in the U.S. We each agreed that we all need to become active advocates for social distancing and limited contact, and to help play a positive role in halting the transmission, not just for our own benefit, but really for the benefit of the vulnerable who are relying on our good judgment, on our compassion, and on our humanity. We can do better. And for the sake of the 1.7 million who may otherwise die, we must do better.

David Pope is a former Oak Park village president.

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