The novel coronavirus, responsible for the rise of COVID-19 cases in China, Italy and right here in Utah, gives me a perfect opportunity to talk about exponential growth.

In fact, I thought I’d devote an entire column to the exercise. I’d describe how if you started with a penny and doubled your money every day, you’d be a millionaire in less than a month. Or how if you grow our current global energy consumption by just 3% per year, you’d end up needing all of the energy emitted by the sun in 1,000 years. There are a host of examples, the most pressing of which is the coronavirus itself, which, if left unchecked, will turn Utah’s small number of cases into Italy’s 20,000 in less than two weeks.

But I can barely bring myself to talk about it. As you may be aware, Utah’s universities have moved to online instruction or made arrangements to limit student contact, K-12 schools are suspended to limit interaction and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shuttered events. We are to limit gatherings to fewer than 50 people, preferable fewer than 10, and to practice “social distancing” at all times.

I can recall only one other time in my life when such extreme measures were taken. On Sept. 12, 2001, the airlines were grounded, we were asked to avoid large gatherings, and universities, at least in the state of Washington, were closed.

But that only lasted a few days.

Not in this case. We are looking at weeks and possibly months of disruption to halt the spread of the virus.

The measures enacted by Utah may seem extreme, but I return to the idea that in less than 10 days Utah’s health-care system could be overwhelmed by the number of COVID-19 cases needing medical attention. It’s just how exponential growth works. If we’ve done our job right, these measures will seem excessive in hindsight. And as a colleague of mine says, “We should be happy with looking like we overreacted.”

I do recall one other time we, as a society, “overreacted” to a potential threat. Just before the turn of the century, the alarm was raised about a bug in nearly every computer operating system that would cause havoc when the date changed from 1999 to 2000. It seems early computer coders, in an effort to be efficient, only provided two digits to indicate the year. Everyone was set for the banking industry to collapse when suddenly all of the dates reverted to 1900.

In the end, the so-called Y2K problem never occurred, and as our clocks rolled effortlessly from 12/31/99 to 1/1/00 everything proceeded as normal. What a bunch of hype for nothing.

Of course, the people who spent years and $100 billion redeploying patches to nearly every electronic system in the country would beg to differ. It was an example of extreme measures taken to thwart a real threat, something that in the end went off without a hitch.

I can think of another ongoing event that could use some of the same reasoning: global climate change. We are just now starting to see the first effects of this coming crisis. By taking steps now — steps that might seem extreme, like transitioning our power grid to renewable energy production and putting a fee on carbon — it could, in the end, keep us from the worst of the predicted outcomes.

But for now, we have something more pressing, something that is going to fundamentally change all of our lives for the next few months. By helping the state of Utah slow the number of COVID-19 cases, we will avoid the crisis we are seeing in other places around the globe. By pulling together, in a little while we can look back on this sacrifice and acknowledge how it felt extreme at the time but was worth it in the end. This crisis will be behind us, another success story of what happens when we all pull together.

It is my hope that we will do this with the threat of climate change. That our local, state and national leaders will make the difficult decisions necessary to stem the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. That we will all pull together despite any temporary personal sacrifice.

Seeing Utah’s response to the COVID-19 crisis gives me hope. I am hopeful that one day, with both the coronavirus and climate change, it will seem like there was nothing to worry about all along.

Dr. John Armstrong is a professor of physics at Weber State University.

Twitter: @ByJCArmstrong

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