As former Utah governor and Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told me years ago, pandemics are “a part of biological fact” that generally catch people off guard. A force of nature, in other words, that happens so infrequently people face it with little historical knowledge.
The fact that Northern Utah dealt with both of them in a single day on Wednesday means we won some sort of disaster lottery. It’s the kind of luck you probably don’t want to take to Las Vegas, or even Wendover.
Many Utahns already were resigned to stay at home all day, away from other people. Schools were closed. Many workers stayed home with their computers and the internet. Roads and trains were relatively congestion-free.
That ability to see good amid the bad is not uncommon around here. Americans have a long history of optimism and of seeing silver linings on dark days. When he visited the United States in the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville spoke about this, marveling at the general belief he encountered that people can improve their circumstances with hard work and faith.
The Pew Research Center has found that, when asked how they would describe their day, people in poor countries tend to answer in more positive ways than those in wealthy, educated countries. The one exception, however, was the United States, where 41% said their day was great. That was almost as high as people in Uganda.
Along those lines, a few years ago the Harvard medical school’s health publishing website published a piece citing evidence that optimistic people tend to “be confident that positive developments will spill over into many areas of … life.”
It might even change how we view bad events.
And so, imagine if the earthquake had struck at 7:09 a.m. on a Wednesday only a few weeks ago. How many commuters would have looked for ways to quickly return home, clogging roads? How many families would have been separated and afraid?
On a more serious note, how many early arriving children or teachers might have been walking into Silvercrest Elementary School in Herriman when the quake caused several bricks to fall from a facade over the entrance? How many people downtown might have been hit by falling debris?
Studies show optimism often is close cousins with religious belief. In that sense, it’s important not to overthink these blessings. Thousands of COVID-19 patients are not suffering or dying so that some people in Salt Lake could avoid injury in a quake.
As I have written before, I wouldn’t be here if not for the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918. My grandmother lost her first husband to that flu. Then she married my grandfather, setting in motion the unique genetic combinations that produced me.
That coincidence doesn’t diminish the tragedy of a man’s life being lost, nor does it make me a fan of pandemics. History is filled with strange combinations of good and bad, mixed in an interesting stew of causation.
But, if one must have an earthquake, there are worse things than to have it while the metro area is closed for a pandemic -- as long as that quake isn’t strong enough to produce casualties. We should be grateful.
Optimists also look for lessons. The most obvious of these has to do with preparedness. Families may now be inclined to freshen their emergency plans and check the expiration dates on things in their supply packs.
More importantly, governments in Northern Utah, including the state, need to look more closely at ways to help people retrofit homes and buildings made with unreinforced masonry. Wednesday’s earthquake won’t be the last, and experts are saying it wasn’t the big one that has been predicted for so long. This won’t be the last pandemic either.
But, as long as Mother Nature has our attention, we could do worse than to count blessings and ponder lessons.