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Coronavirus and the “Unsinkable” Titanic Analogy

Coronavirus and the “Unsinkable” Titanic Analogy

Unthinkable doesn’t mean unsinkable.

As we all know, the “unsinkable” Titanic suffered a glancing collision with an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912. A half-hour after the iceberg had opened six of the ship’s 16 watertight compartments, it was not at all apparent that the mighty vessel had been fatally wounded, as there was no evidence of damage topside. Indeed, some eyewitnesses reported that passengers playfully scattered the ice left on the foredeck by the encounter.

But some rudimentary calculations soon revealed the truth to the officers: the ship would sink and there was no way to stop it. The ship was designed to survive four watertight compartments being compromised, and could likely stay afloat if five were opened to the sea, but not if six compartments were flooded. Water would inevitably spill over into adjacent compartments in a domino-like fashion until the ship sank.

We can sympathize with the disbelief of the officers, and with their contradictory duty to simultaneously reassure passengers and attempt to goad them into the lifeboats. Passengers were reluctant to heed the warning because it was at odds with their own perceptions. With the interior still warm and bright with lights, it seemed far more dangerous to clamber into an open lifeboat and drift off into the icy Atlantic than it did to stay onboard.

The evidence was undeniable, but humanity’s first response is denial, regardless of the evidence. The evidence that the coronavirus is contagious is undeniable, as is the evidence that carriers who have no symptoms can transmit the virus to others.

Just as the eventual sinking of Titanic could be extrapolated from the basic facts (six watertight compartments were flooding), so the eventual spread of the coronavirus can be extrapolated from these basic facts.

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