A Virus Does Not Care

There’s a right way to deal with a pandemic, and a wrong way to deal with a pandemic

A virus does not care. A virus simply wants to reproduce, and for that it needs a host. A virus does not care about who that host is. A virus just wants a place to live, eat, and reproduce. A virus does not care if it makes the host sick. A virus does not care if it kills the host. This is the First Rule of Viruses: A virus does not care.

In 1918, as WWI was being fought in Europe, a virus emerged at Camp Funston, in the area of Fort Riley, Kansas. This virus did not care about the war. The virus did not care about Our Boys who were preparing to go fight that war. The virus did not care about the farmers in the Kansas fields, who dropped at their plows in the fields when the virus attacked.

A virus does not care.

The soldiers from Fort Riley went to the front lines in Europe with their guns, their ammo, their packs, and their gear, and they took that virus with them. It attacked their comrades in arms, and it attacked their enemies across the trenches.

A virus does not care.

The virus attacked King Alphonso XIII of Spain. Wherever the virus appeared, people began to speak of “the Spanish Flu,” going back to the widely-reported news of the mighty king it brought low. But the virus didn’t care. The virus attacked soldiers. The virus attacked ordinary villagers. Some lived, and some died.

A virus does not care.

The virus spread across the US, just as the war was beginning to come to an end. Bonds were being sold to pay for the war, and soldiers were starting to come home. The virus did not care about the bonds. The virus did not care about the homecoming celebrations being planned.

A virus does not care.

But people care, and they care about lots of things, and that’s where things got worse. People care about their status. People care about their businesses and their livelihoods. People care about parades the celebrate the end of a long and ugly war. People care about gathering in the corner bar with their friends, and playing sports in the local parks. People care about staying safe when danger threatens. People care about singing and dancing and enjoying life. People care about a million and one things, but a virus does not care about any of those things.

A virus does not care.

By 1918, people knew how to deal with a spreading virus in two broad ways: quit interacting so closely with others and practice good hygiene (both individually and as a community). They knew that beating a virus requires that a community care about itself just as much as the virus does not care at all. Give the virus an inch, and it will continue its deadly spread.

Because a virus does not care.

Some communities enacted a wide variety of what epidemiologists today call “nonpharmaceutical interventions” – prohibiting large public gatherings, closing businesses, shutting down churches, suspending schools, and so on. Other communities enacted some of these measures, but not all of them. Some communities took few measures, or decided “We’ll prohibit large gatherings, but not until after the big parade next week.” On the spectrum from “we need to shut everything down” to “we need business as usual,” St. Louis was on one end of the spectrum, and Philadelphia was in the other.

St. Louis:

By late September, Jefferson Barracks [a US military post in St. Louis] went under quarantine as the first soldiers came down with the flu.

In early October, city health commissioner Dr. Max C. Starkloff ordered the closure of schools, movie theaters, saloons, sporting events and other public gathering spots. Churches were told to suspend Sunday services. At the time, with nearly 800,000 residents, St. Louis was among the top 10 largest American cities. . . .

Theater owners, as some of the largest taxpayers at the time, protested the closures. Musicians and entertainers claimed the quarantine threatened their careers. Others were delighted — anti-alcohol leagues that were forming in the runup to Prohibition went on the lookout for taverns that violated the shutdown, [director of library and collections at the Missouri History Museum Chris] Gordon said.

Within two days of the quarantine, eight soldiers at Jefferson Barracks were dead, another eight residents died at St. Louis City Hospital and the number of area flu cases topped 1,150.

Jacob Meeker, a St. Louis congressman, died Oct. 16, six days after touring Jefferson Barracks. He was 40.

With the flu continuing its rampage, Starkloff imposed a stricter quarantine in November, closing down all businesses with few exceptions including banks, newspapers, embalmers and coffin makers, according to Post-Dispatch archives.

The American Red Cross shifted from making bandages to face masks. Volunteers passed around blankets and vats of broth to flu sufferers. An ambulance waited at Union Station to take any sickly train passengers directly to the hospital upon arrival. Police officers and mail carriers wore masks on their daily routes.

And as these measures took hold, it slowed the virus down.


In an effort to boost morale for the war and also to sell bonds, the city of Philadelphia threw a parade that drew 200,000 people, despite warnings that the Spanish flu was spreading among the soldiers who were about to head off to World War I and would be in the parade.

That didn’t turn out to be a good idea.

Days later, hospitals in the area were filled with patients suffering or dying from the Spanish flu.

Weeks later, more than 4,500 people in the Philadelphia area died from the virus.

The graph at the top of the post, from a 2007 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, paints the picture of these two approaches in stark, and by now familiar, terms.

Unlike a virus, people get to choose what they care about and how that care will be expressed. In 1918, to borrow from the Grail Knight, the leaders of Philadephia chose . . . poorly, while the leaders in St. Louis chose wisely.

Today, like many places, I and my neighbors in metro Kansas City (on both sides of the state line) are living under a locally-imposed “stay-at-home” order, with school buildings closed, business activity limited to those deemed essential and curtailing large public gatherings completely, including weddings and funerals.

You see, the leaders here know that a virus does not care. Other leaders, however . . .

From an interview on Fox:

Trump: I saw wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full—you know the churches aren’t allowed to have much of a congregation there. And most of them, I watched on Sunday online—and it was terrific, by the way—but online is never going to be like being there. So I think Easter Sunday and you’ll have packed churches all over our country—I think it will be a beautiful time. And it’s just about the timeline that I think is right.

A virus does not care about whether churches are full or empty on Easter. A virus doesn’t care if it is beautiful. A virus doesn’t care about your personal faith or lack thereof. In Omaha in 1918, Rev. Siefke S. de Freese, a seemingly healthy 35 year old pastor, led worship on a Sunday, then quickly died days later. A virus does not care.

From yesterday’s coronavirus task force presser:

Q: Mr President, you just reiterated that you hope to have the country reopened by Easter. You said earlier you would like to see churches packed on that day. My question is, you have two doctors on stage with you. Have either of them told you that’s a realistic timeline?

Trump: I think we’re looking at a timeline, we’re discussing it. We had a very good meeting today. If you add it all up. That’s probably nine days plus another two and a half weeks. It’s a period of time that’s longer than the original two weeks, so we’re going to look at it. We’ll only do it if it’s good and maybe we do sections of the country. We do large sections of the country. That could be too, but we’re very much in touch with Tony and with Deborah whenever they [crosstalk].

Q: Who suggested Easter? Who suggested that day?

Trump: I Just thought it was a beautiful time, a beautiful timeline. It’s a great day. . . . I’d love to see it come even sooner, but I just think it would be a beautiful timeline.

A virus does not care if it is a beautiful time. A virus does not care if it is a great day. A virus does not care what you think. A virus does not care what you love.

A virus Does. Not. Care.

We can choose how we respond to an uncaring virus. We can choose like St. Louis did, or we can choose like Philadelphia. And for far too many people, my friends, that is a choice between life and death. And in 1918, even St. Louis didn’t get it completely right:

The quarantine was temporarily lifted Nov. 18 but reinstated when the flu roared back in December. By Dec. 10 the flu peaked in the city with 60 deaths in one day. After illnesses declined sharply, the quarantine was lifted just after Christmas.

Look at that graph again, and you can see the bump at the end of November when the quarantine was prematurely lifted. The virus came back, because a virus does not care.

I’m a pastor. I’d love to see my church packed to the rafters on Easter. I’d love to hear the trumpets leading a 1000 voices in grand hymns of celebration. But that’s not going to happen, because while a virus does not care, I do.

We’re going to be closed this year. Not because we want to be. Not because we lack faith. Not because we don’t care about worship. Not because we’re giving in to the virus. It’s because we care about ourselves and our community so much that we’ll give up this kind of gathering to defeat the virus. Anything less than a full community commitment to a choice like that, and the virus will not be slowed, because the virus does not care.

I pray that more local leaders, state leaders, and national leaders choose wisely, even as Trump seems determined to choose . . . poorly.

I pray this, because I know the First Rule of Viruses: a virus does not care.

46 replies
  1. Anne says:

    Thank you, Pastor Peter. I’d been wondering how much was known about viruses in 1918.
    You’ve inspired me to go to our empty church on Easter, open the organ (to which I have the only key), open the doors to the street, punch the TUTTI button, and play all the grand Easter hymns into the street — a normally busy intersection close to our closed Art Deco movie theater and lots of closed bars and restaurants.

    • Frank Probst says:

      Please reconsider this idea. A church that’s playing organ music on Easter is going to draw out both the faithful and the curious. There’s the very real possibility that you’re going to create a small public gathering, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid. I know you mean well, but if the President is encouraging people to go to Easter mass, and it sounds like at least one church is open for this purpose, I think that your actions might end up doing more harm than good.

      • Peterr says:

        I tend to agree with Frank here. Open doors are an invitation to come in, especially at a church.

        Alternatively, what about talking to whoever handles tech and the website for your church, and livestreaming a concert?

    • harpie says:

      Yes, I have to agree with Frank and Peter…but Peter’s idea of livestreaming is maybe the next best thing.
      I was blinded by my LOVE of organ music…my grandfather was a church organist for many years.

      • Geoguy says:

        My mother was also a church organist for about 40 years including playing at three different churches each Sunday for a few years. Many years ago when I was home from school she told me that the organ was broken and I had to “fix” it for the Christmas service. Turns out that when the organ was electrified with a blower, the bellows and handle were left intact. So I “fixed” it by sitting behind the organ on the little stool and pumped it by hand. I can still hear her whispering “faster” when the notes began to fade.

    • FLwolverine says:

      While I agree with Peterr and Frank about organ music, churches with carillons can make a very public statement without drawing a crowd.

      PS Rayne, sorry if I’m using a different email. I couldn’t remember what I used before. But I’ll make a note to myself this time.

  2. Ollie says:


    Excellent. Thank you for the knowledge learned in such an entertaining way. Yes and you got the latest Trump declaration of Easter. It will be the symbolic icon of “GOD TRUMP SAVES AMERICA”. If I had an ego as hUge and siCk and Ugly as his? bmaz was puzzling the other day on twitter about trumps approval rating..something I’d been scratching my head over lately. What is wrong w/me cause there sure is A LOT OF THEM. you know? trump’s a hypnotist. His assault on truth brings a person to a constant state of worry. anyhow, I’ve become real chatty, lol. Great to hear from you Peterr Be safe and well.

  3. Yogarhythms says:

    Wow. Graphic math with independent variables in easy to swallow portions. Perfect menu for quarantined reading. Not sure which independent variable will care less virus or trump when easter arrives. What’s for desert?

    • Thelonius M says:

      Is it just me, or does anyone else think this clown is dog-whistling some sort of apocalyptic vision to his Christian/Liberty U base with this Easter Sunday date?

      • Peterr says:

        It’s not a dog whistle.

        It’s a standing-on-the-back-porch-ringing-the-dinner-bell kind of thing.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Ah, peterr, that’s the cup of a carpenter.

    President Wilson and others in his household came down with the ‘flu. As it did with his strokes, the White Hose lied about it – in the mistaken belief that they had to, to keep up morale and to avoid embarrassment.

    Sadly, Mr. Trump loathes embarrassment more than he loathes work, more than he loathes thinking, being on a diet, or showing his white facial skin. Those who work directly with him cater endlessly cater to that weakness. The rest of Washington has no such excuse.

    Even Representatives Gohmert and Gaetz, for example, are not stupid enough to believe Trump’s snake oil, his destructive guidance to gather in His name. But they choose to follow him anyway. They would rather fight over blame tomorrow than fight to do what’s right today. So would most of the GOP, and much of corporate America. The market might keep going down, but I’m going long on pitchfork futures.

  5. BobCon says:

    This is absolutely right, and some writers (Alex Pareene, Adam Serwer) have noted that Trump is treating this as a PR problem that can be overwhelmed with more PR.

    And as they have also noted, large swaths of the press instinctively feel this way too. The measure of Trump for the pundit class is not how he responds in concrete ways to protect people, it is whether he can convince people that they are protected.

    They are trying to wave away what the virus does, which is sicken, disable and kill. Trump, the GOP and the dysfunctional part of the press think that PR is all that matters, and that somehow everyone affected by the virus can somehow be talked out of it.

    They are convinced that this is like calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, a bit of theater that can be cynically dialed up or down as needed. This virus isn’t PR.

    • Geoff says:

      Unfortunately Bob, the plan is to overwhelm it with PR and $Money.

      Think of it this way. In 2009, and $800bil stimulus had Republicans screeching in dismay about deficits, etc. Now we’re about to spend 3x that, with not a peep of dissent from Republicans, and then only willing to accede to the Democrats wishes if it produced even MOAR spending.

      And even before the package has been signed off on, we have the Mnuchin saying that this is just the start. So they might double this still, because they KNOW there is no way the Democrats can say no, and then be pilloried for not doing enough.

      So we will have just flat out lies about the reality (like today’s testing BS at the presser) combined with a massive intervention to keep the stock market up, and blame the virus on China.

      In case you missed it, there have been two SP500 resistance points. The first was 2350, the low on Dec 24 when Trump finally got Jerome Powell to reverse his rate hikes, followed nicely with a bogus first round trade agreement with China. The next line in the sand, after we blew through 2350 a few days back, was the level near election day 2016. We bounced off that by 10 points give or take, and that will be the battle ground going forward. Once we start digesting deaths and the economic reality of job losses, especially once we realize that a lot of small businesses arent coming back, will we test that again. And that, is when the next giant spending package will appear, with scarcely a whisper of dissent.

      Trump will keep trying to buy the re-election. Buy and lie, buy and lie…ad nauseam.

      • Mitch Neher says:

        I’m guessing that “MOAR spending” translates as The Mother Of All Republican” spending. No?

    • cat herder says:

      That is a terribly offensive, dehumanizing thing to say about the guy actively trying to kill us for his own personal financial and political gain.

    • JamesJoyce says:


      “Late Blight Potato” has certain deformities which look similar to “brain” infected by viruses.


      I do believe my grandad warned me about this type of virus.

      He was German, not Irish. I don’t drink…

      Many folks never came home, taking care of that virus and the folks he infected. He had rallies which infected other’s brains too.

      Lots of Überlebenders….

      Viruses suck…

  6. Jim says:

    God loves everyone – so does the virus .

    [Please use a more differentiated username when you comment next as we have several community members named “Jim.” You were asked November 2019 to do this and have not done so for 12 comments since then; if you do not change your username as requested, you will be placed in auto-moderation status./~Rayne]

    • bmaz says:

      I am going to say this as politely as I can. “Jim” is not only the name of one of our contributors, but such a common name that nobody who has been around here very long (you have been here since at least last November), and actually gives a damn, would use.

      Yet, here you are. How should we treat you? As a good faith commenter, or no? Please understand that the patience, generally, is frayed and under attack here. The assumption will be “no” going forward.

      And, by the way “Jim” screw your “God loves everyone – so does the virus” shit. If you come back here, we will know. It will not be a smooth ride.

  7. The Dark Avenger says:

    Listen, and understand. That Coronavirus is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until it runs out of hosts

  8. Jenny says:

    Thank you Peterr. I was this last week also put on an older thread.

    Influenza 1918
    Film Description
    In September of 1918, soldiers at an army base near Boston suddenly began to die. The cause of death was identified as influenza, but it was unlike any strain ever seen. As the killer virus spread across the country, hospitals overfilled, death carts roamed the streets and helpless city officials dug mass graves. It was the worst epidemic in American history, killing over 600,000 — until it disappeared as mysteriously as it had begun.

  9. timbo says:

    Unfortunately, many of the sociopaths and anti-intellectuals aren’t interested in history, just what make them feel good in the short term.

  10. punaise says:

    A group of female deer was upset about all the shelter-in-place requirements. In particular, it puts a real crimp on their choir rehearsals. Then one of them figured out how to use Zoom for remote video-conferencing, so from now on, to practice, does shall distance-sing.

    • Hank the Lion says:

      Unfortunately, as they already found out during the first Live Aid concert, video connections introduce a time lag that makes it impossible to sing together. I would be very much surprised if this (otherwise splendid) idea would work.

      • harpie says:

        It’s not LIVE, but this is how the Toronto Symphony made it work:

        “This is like a musical hug”: How the Toronto Symphony Orchestra created one stunning performance from 29 separate locations
        JEFFREY BEECHER MARCH 25, 2020

        I’m a principal double-bassist for Toronto Symphony Orchestra […]
        Last Thursday, on the first day of spring, I was on a call with some friends at the TSO. I was like, “Guys, I think I can do something.” I wanted to get several of my TSO colleagues together to perform, separately, on video, from their home studios, the “Simple Gifts” melody that Aaron Copland uses in “Appalachian Spring,” and I would put it together. […]

        I felt a calling to do this. As much as we’re all connected now on our phones, we can’t get what we need, which is a hug. This is sort of a musical hug. And thinking of Martha Graham’s choreography, I wanted the images to dance. For what it’s worth, I also thought this would be a very hummable hand-washing song. […]

        The WONDERFUL result is at the link.

        • Hank the Lion says:

          This is beautiful indeed! I brought a smile on my face and a tear in my eyes.
          But it only worked because the participants could not hear each other, but only one voice (or a metronome track) over the video connection.

          We tried once to sing in church where the choir was dispersed over the church, maybe 15 meters or so apart. That was very difficult, with a timing delay of only 50 milliseconds or so (we are not a professional choir!). In my experience, Zoom has a delay that is much larger. But if you can make this work, it would be a very good solution.

  11. Wm. Boyce says:

    Good post, thank you.
    I heard an interview w/Gov. Bel Edwards of Louisiana this afternoon and although they don’t know how the virus got started in that state, he noted that the first case came 13 days after Mardi Gras, which fell on Feb. 25 this year. They now have one of the worst outbreaks in the country- so far.

  12. Tom says:

    It feels really strange to be living through a major historical event, yet we’re expected to sit tight at home while it happens all around us as opposed to, say, attending fund raising drives, donating blood, demonstrating in the streets, or going door to door soliciting signatures for a petition. Gas has never been cheaper, in my neck of the woods anyway, yet we’re supposed to avoid unnecessary travel. Just making a run to the local grocery store now requires careful planning and use of a comprehensive checklist of everything you need, or think you might need, in the foreseeable future.

    I went out to nab some foodstuffs this afternoon and found myself taking the most direct route to the store and then pausing in the parking lot to gather my thoughts while I prepared for my extravehicular activity, hoping there wasn’t a COVID-19 virus out there with my name on it. Once in the store I proceeded briskly up and down the aisles–eyes front, no browsing allowed–grabbing what I needed and then raced through the checkout while doing a Bill Clinton (i.e., not inhaling) and no chit-chat with the cashier, then a quick bee-line to my car and back to the sanctuary of my home. I felt like the hero of that classic short story, “Leiningen Versus the Ants”, with the COVID-19 virus filling in for the ants.

  13. Drew says:

    Thanks Peter. I’m a pastor too, and our denomination shut down public worship until May 17 at minimum here in New York. That announcement came ten days ago. At the time, the bishop somewhat wistfully wrote that “after Easter we will re-evaluate this decision,” hoping, I think that the tides of the epidemic would subside & make for earlier re-opening. A week later, his message was that, as May 17 approaches, that date may need to be pushed further down the road.

    Our little congregation in the south Bronx has many old people who aren’t equipped for computer technology–or having reliable wireless in their homes. Last Sunday we did a combination of telephone conference call & Zoom for a simplified worship service I conducted from my home office. There are usually about 35-40 adults in attendance at this church. The 50 call limit on the conference call was hit before everyone was there and a dozen more on Zoom. This Sunday we’ve upgraded & found a way to telephone in to the Zoom. So worship continues.

    Here in New York the epidemic is a week or two further advanced than most of the rest of the country. I don’t see any New Yorkers advocating to open everything up for the sake of the economy. Bill di Blasio dawdled on closing things down, even delaying the cancellation of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Fortunately the closures happened anyway, though everything closing a week or two earlier would have made a big difference.

    My concern is far more for the younger people than for the old. This virus, as you say, doesn’t care, and it is a source of PRIMARY pneumonia for people of all ages and conditions (not the secondary pneumonia you might get as consequent to the flu-someone wrote recently is that the flu is like someone driving you to a bad & dangerous part of town in the middle of the night & dropping you off, but COVID19 does that but also does the mugging itself). Of course older people die at a faster rate, we die at a faster rate all the time, this accelerates it. But young adults get this, get very sick & die at very high rates as well-and those who recover after hospitalization may have serious permanent lung damage, etc. Also, as a retiree, my income is fixed & secure (as long as the full faith & credit of the U.S. gov’t is worth anything, I realize that’s not necessarily permanent), but lots of younger folks don’t have that security-it’s not clear that businesses will come back, at least very fast & those who are on gig employment or hourly or contingent face very tough times ahead. [And this ridiculous idea of “re-opening the economy” would only make all these things worse for everyone, spiking the death and illness rate for customers, workers and managers alike.]

    • Peterr says:

      As I mentioned in the post, the public health declaration specifically declares that there is no exception to the order that would allow for weddings, wakes, funerals, and similar religious ceremonies. I put the word out to the elderly members of our congregation that I would appreciate it greatly if they could avoid dying for the foreseeable future, so as to make it easier on everyone as we comply with the order.

      They laughed, and I got back various versions of “I’ll do my best.”

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