Let Olympic Sprinter Noah Lyles Be a Lesson in the Importance of Social Distancing

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Noah Lyles is one of the best athletes in the world, and every day, his mom calls to make sure he is not dying. “Just making sure he remains healthy,” Keisha Caine Bishop corrects with a laugh. She can laugh now because Noah does not have COVID-19. What he does have is asthma, and that puts him in danger.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “people with asthma may be at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. COVID-19 can affect your respiratory tract (nose, throat, lungs), cause an asthma attack, and possibly lead to pneumonia and acute respiratory disease.”

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Lyles is 22. He may be the fastest of the eight billion people on the planet. Bishop says she first warned him and his brother Josephus, a fellow sprinter, about coronavirus a few weeks ago. Josephus said, “Oh mom, you’re overreacting.” Now they wash their hands all the time. They disinfect their counters with Lysol wipes. Noah has tripled his vitamin intake. Bishop got a scare recently when Noah said his throat felt a little weird, but it passed. She checks the CDC and World Health Organization sites regularly.

Noah watched his Olympic dream and attendant riches sail off into 2021, and he said this week he understands the postponement is about "trying to keep everybody in good health. It’s nothing that we can’t get through."

Think of Lyles the next time you hear the notion—put forth by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and promulgated by some pundits—that we should all just get on with our lives because saving the economy is more important than saving old people. If septuagenarians are not important enough to protect, why will we elect one as President this fall?

The Patrick argument is twisted. It is also a false dichotomy. COVID-19 may be most lethal to senior citizens, but it is not lethal to senior citizens exclusively. All you need is wi-fi to read about the deaths of 42- and 48-year-old health care workers in Georgia, a 43-year-old entrepreneur in Detroit and a 21-year-old in England. If we scrap the social distancing to give the S&P 500 a boost, we will not just increase the elderly death count; we will be sacrificing people of every generation.

Many younger victims have known underlying health conditions, but some don’t, and anyway, so what? Is this where we are? Do we really care so little about the immunocompromised? Are we really willing to toss these people away, like fish that are too small or fresh fruit with a bruise? Noah Lyles is one of those people.

The logic behind social distancing is fairly simple, but evidently, it is not simple enough. It is four-sentence logic for a society with a half-sentence attention span. It is also the best way to save the economy; if we do it right, and as completely as possible, we have our best chance to get this virus under control.

And what we hear instead, from too many corners, is that we are overreacting. You hear the comparisons to how many people die of the flu every year. Most of those comparisons distort the numbers and ignore the projections, but also: Why is that the only comparison we make? Try this one: The 9/11 attackers killed 2,977 victims. COVID-19, which has killed 785 in America, will far, far surpass the number from 9/11. Now think of how much money we spent, how much economic risk we took, in response to 9/11, in airport-security restrictions and military missions and 100 other ways. Putting the merits of each expenditure aside: If anybody said “Hey, it’s only 2,977 people—the flu kills more every year,” I missed it, and I’m glad I did.

Sitting at home does not sate our national appetite for revenge and does not stir patriotic blood. It is still extremely important. We tell a story about ourselves, about valor and selflessness and uniting for a greater cause, but it has become increasingly clear that modern America is not cut out for this. We squabble too much, listen too little, and worship markets to an unhealthy degree. We cling so hard to our belief that we should be able to do whatever the hell we want, whenever we want, that our actions defy common sense. A collective temporary sacrifice for public health is interpreted as an impingement upon our freedoms.

This should not be a political question. It just requires listening to experts and showing actual leadership, the kind we have seen from governors Mike DeWine, Larry Hogan and Andrew Cuomo, and that we saw from Rudy Giuliani after 9/11. But people think politics are a game cheer for teams instead of reasonable outcomes, and so here we are, bickering and splintering.

We have spring breakers on beaches and baby boomers who insist on going out to dinner with friends, and Noah Lyles, his dream delayed, training without complaint on a park trail where people walk their dogs. He was in middle school during the swine-flu epidemic. It seemed like a problem for foreign countries until Lyles was in bed for days, with no energy.

“When it hits your house, personally, now it’s real,” Bishop says. “We can hear about the numbers but when [it happens to] a person you know personally, now it’s real.”

COVID-19 will be worse than swine flu for America, and it could be devastating for Lyles. Bishop usually flies from Maryland to Florida to visit her boys every two weeks. She has thought about what she will do if they get sick—especially Noah, since he is the asthmatic.

“I have a plane ticket for Easter weekend,” she says. “I will not be using it unless he is sick. And I don’t expect him to be sick. I have that plan in the back of my head just in case. I’m just really, really keeping a close eye…it doesn’t keep me up at night.. Do the research, get some wisdom, learn from the doctors and control what we can control.”

Noah Lyles was supposed to run for America this summer. It is time for America to stay still for him.