Flattening the Curve Too Much

There's been a lot of talk, during the 2020 virus pandemic, of the need to flatten the curve. The reasoning, which is valid up to a point, is that hospitals don't have enough equipment (e.g., ventilators; Galion hospital for instance has two of them) to treat as many people at once, as would need to be treated if the virus ran its natural course. This is true up to a point, as you can see in places like Italy, which didn't flatten the curve nearly enough and have consequently seen a disturbingly high mortality rate. The American medical care system would be more difficult to overwhelm than that of most other countries. American culture is obsessed with medical care; on an average day, something like 10% of the population receives medical care of some kind, and that's if you don't count prescription drugs as medical care; if you do, it's more than 50%; so our medical care industry is pretty substantial. It's expensive (and Americans spend a disturbingly large amount of money on medical care), but it's substantial. Nonetheless, we don't want to be in the boat Italy is in. We want to flatten the curve —up to a point.

But there is such a thing as flattening the curve too much.

I live in Crawford County. It's difficult to get an exact population figure, because population changes over time, but the 2018 estimate is around 41 and a half thousand. (This is down from almost 44 thousand in 2010. The population is on a long-term decline since the mid twentieth century, because most of the graduating students who go away to college, never come back. There are very few jobs suitable for college graduates here, and an employer would be mad to locate here if they need that kind of workforce, which creates a vicious cycle. What, if anything, we could be or should be doing about that, is an interesting question, which I will not attempt to address today.) It's now 2020 and we're due for a new census, but meanwhile I will be conservative and estimate that we have at least 40 thousand people in Crawford county.

We've had, according to the latest figures, which are about a day old at the time of this writing, 37 known cases of the virus. Being generous and assuming that only one case in twenty is confirmed and known (bearing in mind that some people never show symptoms), we could guess that perhaps as many as 750 people in the county have been exposed to the virus and are no longer in danger of catching it, either because they already have it, or because they are immune. (The difference between already having it and being immune may be of great personal importance, but for the calculation we are about to do, it actually doesn't change the figures, so it's something we don't need to distinguish in our estimates.) The true figure is probably markedly less than 750, but I'm being conservative here.

We started canceling stuff back on March 6th, and at that time we had 0 cases in Crawford county. (Some people were already being tested; but those early tests ended up coming back negative.) Our number-of-cases figure is from April 20th, a difference of more than six weeks. If the curve were linear, this would mean we'd need to stay home for about six more years. The curve is, as the word "curve" suggests, not linear. Technically, it's still an exponential growth curve. But we've flattened it so much, that the difference from linear is not nearly as dramatic as you'd normally expect. For the last month, the only time the statewide increase in reported cases has been noticeably different from linear, was in the last few days, when comprehensive testing in the prison system confirmed a large number of already-suspected cases. Prisons are a particularly problematic environment, for a variety of reasons (nursing homes aren't much better), so you expect a higher curve there. For most of the state, and especially for smaller communities, the curve is effectively so close to linear as makes no practical difference. Maybe we won't have to stay home for six years, but if something major doesn't change, it's going to be months and months and months. Which is really not ok.

We have flattened the curve too much.

We cannot, realistically, all remain cooped up at home for even one year. Inevitably, at some point, we are going to have to start going out again. And then the curve will be less flat, possibly a lot less flat. The natural shape of this curve, when people aren't all staying home, is very steep. I propose that we would have been better of with a curve somewhere in between these two extremes. Flattened, but not so completely flattened.

Why English Breakfast Tea Hasn't Caught On in America

If you pay attention to the portions of the internet that deal a lot with international travel and cultural differences, and if you watch for patterns, certain questions emerge. This is one of the lesser ones, but it's persistent: British people come to America, and they go to the grocery store and find the tea aisle, and they look for the specific teas that they are used to buying at home. This usually includes something called English Breakfast, and they don't always find it. Why, they want to know, is such an important staple tea so uncommon here?

There's some history that's worth knowing here, and I'll talk about that, but first I want to focus on the present situation. First of all, English Breakfast tea is available here, but it's one of several hundred named teas. It has to compete not only with such old standby teas as Constant Comment, but also with the explosion of flavors we've seen in the tea aisle in recent decades. If you go to any large grocery store (say, Meijer) and find the tea aisle, you're going to see hundreds of shelf-feet of different teas, ranging from the mundane (three or four different orange teas, three or four different lemon teas, three or four mint teas, chamomile, ...) to the peculiar.

Some of the most peculiar teas that you will find on the American grocery store shelf belong to a category that I am going to call gift teas. As far as I know, no one else calls them that, but the only time I have ever seen these sorts of tea, other than on the store shelf, was when they were purchased by one person and given to another. Rather than trying to formally define the category, I'm just going to give a couple of examples, and hopefully the idea will become clear.

I was once given a box of tea for Christmas, the exact name of which I no longer recall, but it had Christmas in it. It might have been something like Christmas Brunch or Country Christmas, or some similarly vague holiday-themed name. It was a flavored black tea, meaning that someone took ordinary black tea and added flavors to it. (This in itself is not odd. The aforementioned Constant Comment is a flavored black tea, and it's perfectly normal and reasonable and good.) Unfortunately, I don't remember the exact list of flavors it had in it: there were at least six, and I'm certain that almond and cherry were among them. If it had just been an almond and cherry flavored black tea, that might have been good, but there were several other flavors as well, and it just came out as a muddle. I only ever made one cup of it, which I didn't finish.

My mom currently has in her cupboard a box of Sugar Cookie Sleigh Ride, which was, of course, also a gift. It's an herbal blend containing, again, at least half a dozen different flavors. Among them are, I swear on Dave Barry's soul that I am not making this up, thistle and barley. It's been in the cupboard for at least a year. It was a gift, and you can't throw away a gift. Realistically, nobody's ever going to drink it.

Given the existence of these sorts of teas, with vague, non-flavor-related names, can you begin to get a picture of why Americans see English Breakfast tea and don't immediately think that sounds good, we should try that. Frankly, most Americans are more likely to buy this product for someone they know who is planning a trip to England, than for themselves. Oh, you're interested in England? Well, here you go, here's a gift tea that has England in its name, so even if it's no bloody good, you'll know that I was thinking about you and what your interests are. It's the thought that counts, right? And no, to preempt an obvious question, I don't think most Americans are aware that English Breakfast tea is a thing in England. We get lots of things here that purport to be of various national origins and in fact are not. Why should this English tea we've never heard of before be different? The only way people are going to know otherwise, is if they see British people talking about it on the internet. Which, admittedly, is now possible.

I've glossed over something, though: how is it that Americans have not previously heard of English Breakfast tea?

The really weird thing is, if you look up the history of English Breakfast tea, it is believed to be of American origin. Well, the name, English Breakfast is believed to be of American origin, though it's hard to be quite certain of the particulars. As odd as it may seem, this is a clue. It is worth noting that the blend that went by that name in nineteenth-century America, is not the same blend that goes by that name in England now. In fact, it appears to have been composed of teas imported from China. (The British English Breakfast tea is, according to Wikipedia, made of teas from India, Sri Lanka, and Africa.) Why is this relevant? The thing is, pretty much all American teas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were made of local American products (sassafras, mint, etc.), black tea (mostly pekoe grade) imported in bulk from China, or some combination thereof. Going across the Pacific, China is just plain closer than India. Also, prior to the advent of containerized shipping, it was cheaper and more practical to get all the tea from one port of origin, because you had to fill an entire bulk hauler with nothing but tea if you wanted the shipping to be at all affordable. Today, an importer can fill a single shipping container with palettes of various goods; but that is a relatively recent development.

We didn't start to see imported named teas in our stores until the nineties, by which time we already had several major competing tea companies (Bigelow, Celestial Seasonings, Arizona, Nestea, Snapple, and of course the old standby Lipton, which ironically enough was originally British), each pushing their own line of teas (some more bottled-and-served-cold than others). We already had a pretty well stocked tea aisle. All of the real, tea-containing teas on the aisle had certain things in common, but this was not obvious from their names alone, and of course there were always the herbal teas. Into this mix we now add green tea (which we started to see in stores in the nineties), oolang tea (some time around the turn of the century), white tea (subsequently), and any number of imported blends and specialty teas. But they don't have a long history here, and they have to compete with everything that's already on the shelf. Earl Grey got free publicity from Star Trek, but that doesn't help English Breakfast.

Of course, it's early days yet. If we've only been getting imported named tea blends here for less than a generation, it follows that some that haven't yet caught on, still may do so in the future.