If we could go back in time, what would we tell the first American with COVID-19?

by | Jan 16, 2022 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Two years ago this weekend, a 35-year-old man traveling home from Wuhan, China, became the first American diagnosed with COVID-19. What if someone from today could have greeted him BEFORE he got on that plane?

“Whoa! Hold up! You can’t board!”

“What? Who are you? And why are you dressed in a biohazard suit?”

“Well, this is going to sound strange, but I’m from the future. Two years in the future to be precise.”

“Yeah, right. And Joe Biden is our next president.”

“Actually. … Never mind. Listen. You’re carrying a virus.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Do you feel sick?”

“Just a little cough. I get that all the time traveling from China.”

“Well, it’s not a cough this time. It’s the start of a pandemic that is going to spread across the planet, kill millions of people, and cripple world economies.”

“Look, pal. I’m not even in first class.”

“Trust me. It starts with you. It spreads to hundreds, thousands, millions, tens of millions.”

“Come on. That only happens in the movies.”

“That’s what we thought, too.”

But the government fixes it, right?

“OK, if you’re really from the future, what happens once this virus starts to spread?”

“Well, at first we don’t believe it. Then we think it’s just people who go to China. Then there’s a bunch of cases on cruise ships. And airplanes. Then people start going to hospitals. Then some crazy predictions come out.”

“Like what?”

“One says that 2.2 million Americans will die. Another says we’ll run out of ventilators. The president predicts it will all be gone by Easter.”

“Does any of that happen?”


“I don’t get it. Don’t we have a medical authority?”

“We have a doctor named Anthony Fauci.”

“Never heard of him.”

“You will. At first, he’s like a national hero.”

“And now?”

“Depending on who you talk to, he’s either really smart, totally worthless, or the guy who helped cause this whole thing.”

“What does the government tell us to do?”

“Lots of things. Many of them wrong. We wash our hands incessantly. We go into hiding. We avoid our neighbors outside. We let boxes sit on the porch for days and bleach them before we open them with gloves.”

“Is all that necessary.”

“Actually, no.”

“So why do we do it?”

“Because we’re told to. It’s like masks. First, we’re told not to wear them, only medical people should. Then we’re told only N95 masks work and everyone needs one. Then we don’t have enough and we fight over them. Then we’re told maybe we need two or three masks. Then we’re told masks don’t make a difference. And now we’re back to N95 masks again.”

“Sounds awfully confusing.”

“You’re telling me.”

“Is that why you’re in a biohazard suit?”

“Yes. So far, these are still effective.”

But getting a shot fixes it, right?

“What about a vaccine? Isn’t that how we usually deal with viruses?”

“Indeed. We threw a ton of money at developing a vaccine. But we were warned it could take four years.”

“So you still don’t have one?”

“Nah, we got one in 10 months.”

“Amazing! President Trump does that?”

“A program he calls Operation Warp Speed.”

“So Trump stays safe?”

“Actually, he gets the virus.”

“Does he die?”

“No. He gets a treatment few others can get, and he’s fine in a couple of days.”

“So he easily wins reelection?”

“He loses.”

“To who?”

“Joe Biden.”

“You’re making this up!”

“Look. You have to go away somewhere right now and isolate. You spread this thing by breathing particles into the air that others breathe in.”

“From how far away?”

“Well, some say 3 feet. Or 6 feet. Or 30 feet. Or 5 minutes. Or 15 minutes. Or only inside. Tight spaces are most dangerous.”

“So they stop airplane travel permanently?”

“Actually, for some reason, we keep airplane travel. But we do close bowling alleys.”

“Bowling alleys?”

“Like I said. A lot of stuff doesn’t make sense.”

“How fast does this pandemic go away?”

“Well, first they told us Easter. Then summer. Then fall. Then the next Easter. Then the Fourth of July. They kept citing something called herd immunity, which is when a huge majority of people have already had it.”

“Did we reach that?”


“And what happened?”

“People started getting it twice.”

Two years in, but how long to go?

“Look, you really got me worried. Tell me what happens two years from now. Is my virus strain gone?”

“Good news is: yes.”

“Thank God!”

“Bad news: there’s a new strain. We call them variants. We’ve had three already. Alpha. Delta. And now omicron.”

“But as long as we have the vaccine, we’re good, right?’’



“The vaccine doesn’t work very well at preventing omicron. Millions, including vaccinated people, are getting it every week.”

“So we’re back to the beginning.”

“Well, no. You’re the beginning. We’re just kind of back to square one.”

“So what should I do?”

“I’ve traveled back in time to keep you off that plane, and put you in isolation here in China. Will you agree to that, sir?”

“I guess I have no choice.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s my patriotic duty.”

“Good. Maybe we can stop this thing from ever spreading.”

“Um … one last question.”

“What’s that?”

“What about my three friends from Wuhan who were on the earlier flight?”


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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