On Sept. 21, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States and killed 2,977 people.

Since that day, almost every aspect of American life has been changed, from the way we travel to the documents we’re required to have and the lengths to which we’re willing to compromise civil rights and liberties in the interest of safety.

Some of the changes would have been truly unimaginable before the attacks; even the most stalwart civil libertarians supported them as the most expedient way to thwart future attacks.

But COVID-19, the disease associated with coronavirus, now has claimed hundreds more lives than the 9/11 attacks did, and the number of deaths is expected to grow exponentially over the next few weeks.

And after just a week of restrictions intended to slow or prevent its spread, some folks are already saying they’ve had enough.

President Donald Trump last week declared himself a “wartime president” because we are at war with the virus.

If that’s true, we sure aren’t acting like it.

During wars, we all make sacrifices. Our grandparents and great-grandparents put their entire lives on hold to throw back the tides of nationalism and authoritarianism in Europe. Women who had never ventured into the workforce took jobs on assembly lines, manufacturing tanks, bombers and ammunition. Those who remained in the U.S. spent their spare money on bonds that funded the war effort. Communities held scrap metal drives and built victory gardens to feed themselves so commercial farms could supply the troops.

And, oh yes, there were the troops. More than 16 million Americans, roughly 11% of the population, left hearth and home and served. More than 400,000 never came home.

Today, we are being asked to endure something different — life locked inside our homes, many of us without paychecks, so the disease can be held in check until the medical system is prepared and perhaps until a vaccine can be developed.

And for some of us, that is too much to ask.

Police across the Bay Area every day are getting reports of groups of people playing basketball, or visiting parks or playgrounds or otherwise disregarding health warnings intended to protect them and others.

The best projections now are that more Americans will die of COVID-19 than died in the wars in Korea and Vietnam combined.

Even under best-case scenarios, that’s more than a quarter-million people. Worst-case scenarios, which will come true if people continue to ignore stay-home orders, project more than 2 million dead.

It will be painful — already is painful — to a lot of us. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better; current projections have Wisconsin’s peak infection coming in late April.

That’s almost a month from now, and a lot can go wrong in a month. That’s why exponential growth — one person infects two, who then infect two more people each, who then infect two more each, and so on — is so frightening.

Picture it this way: Would you rather have $10,000 today, or a penny that doubled every day at the end of this month?

Pick the penny. In 30 days, it will become $5,368,709 by doubling.

That’s how we’ve gone from fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases in Wisconsin a week ago to approaching 2,000 today.

And that’s why we have to stay at home — until it’s over over there.

Peter J. Wasson is managing editor of the Ashland Daily Press.

(Copyright © 2020 APG Media)

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