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Will Whatley: Listen to Coach

By WILL WHATLEY, Alabama Daily News

With all due respect to our government officials, I think it is safe to say that Nick Saban is the most well known and arguably the most powerful individual in the state, purely judging on how important college football is to us. Gus Malzhan could be second, depending on whether or not he has beaten Alabama that year. Football is more than just a beloved sport for our universities, it is a huge part of our economy and way of life.

So when Nick Saban donned a protective mask, went on ESPN and appealed to citizens to take the coronavirus seriously lest we lose out on a college football season, you know he meant business. And perhaps the threat of losing the pastime we are semi-religiously devoted to from the Pope of Bama football is what it will take for the state to take this pandemic seriously, even as government restrictions ease.

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I’m not here to downplay the importance of our state government and elected officials. In fact, under some very tough circumstances, I believe officials at the state and local levels have performed about as well as they could. But as our economy necessarily begins to open back up, our success or failure in keeping this virus at bay will depend less and less on government action and more and more on personal responsibility. And, in that regard, I’m here to appeal to our shared interests.

I’ve seen some very intelligent people compare the lives lost to COVID-19 to those lost to drownings, drunk driving and the flu as to why we should go about life as usual while the coronavirus is still active. But we have lifeguards, drunk driving laws and flu vaccines for a reason. We do not currently have an effective weapon like a vaccine to battle this “invisible enemy” and therefore we must proceed cautiously. Don’t get me wrong, I’m for allowing businesses to responsibly open back up, understanding the mom-and-pop stores, the neighborhood watering holes and the local restaurants who are suffering economic hardships. But as patrons, participants and just members of the public, the simple measures such as wearing masks, washing hands and keeping a proper social distance will help prevent a second economic shutdown.

First, let’s look at the virus’s possible effects on Alabama and what it could mean to her citizens. Certain health conditions like asthma and diabetes can leave individuals more susceptible to contracting the novel coronavirus and unfortunately, Alabama has a lot of citizens with these conditions.

According to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data compiled by the Alabama Department of Public Health, 10.5% of Alabama adults were estimated to be asthmatic in 2018. That year, the national average was 9.5%. Also in 2018, BRFSS reported Alabama’s adult diabetes prevalence, excluding gestational diabetes, was 14.5% with the national average at 10.9%. This average ranked the state 49th out of 50 according to America’s Health Rankings, which bases its rankings on BRFSS data. So a large amount of our fellow statesmen and women face a higher risk of contracting a disease with no known cure.

The coronavirus also affects communities of color at higher rates, of which our state has a larger-than-average population. Alabama’s African-American community makes up about 27% of the state’s population according to the U.S. Census’s most recent projections, while Gallup found that blacks make up 12.3% of the nation’s population. And according to the American Public Media (APM) Research Lab, African Americans have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 20.7 for whites, 22.9 for Latinos and 22.7 for Asian Americans.

But I think it’s also important that we don’t allow the coronavirus to completely shut things down because we literally can’t afford for that to happen. Alabama’s unemployment rate shot up from 3.5% in March to 12.9% in April due to COVID-19. As a former employee at the Alabama Department of Labor, where I was extremely lucky to work with two hardworking gentlemen in Tom Surtees and Fitzgerald Washington who both understood the importance of their job, I’m familiar with the efforts the state has taken to get people employed. We have a good system in place to get people working, but that system can’t operate when businesses are closed. And businesses can’t open until the general public feels safe about returning to a somewhat normal life after months of sheltering in place.

What do we need to do to move forward? Many of the big remedies like increased testing, contact tracing and developing effective treatments are beyond the control of us regular folks. But as individuals and families we can help limit transmission of the virus by taking sensible measures like , wearing a mask in public, washing hands and regularly using hand sanitizer, social distancing and generally avoiding unnecessary crowds of people. Another important and perhaps underrated way we can do our part is by practicing patience. After being cooped up indoors for months,

it can be self-gratifying to rant and rave on social media or share the latest conspiracy theory. But take a breath before you hit that send button and think about whether what you’re saying makes you part of the problem or part of the solution. We can’t all have a personal Nick Saban to watch what we do like he does with the young lady in that famous Regions commercial. But, given how seriously the coach is taking it, maybe we should ask, “what would Saban do?”

We have a tightrope to walk in terms of balancing our public health needs and our economic concerns. Many of our nation’s public health experts are predicting a possible second wave of the coronavirus to strike later this year which could threaten our college football season. We should all be wary of that happening. But we can mitigate the virus’s effects by being smart now. Wash your hands, watch your distance, and for the love of college football, wear your mask. We’ll all be better for it.


Will Whatley is a writer and columnist at Alabama Daily News. Reach him at [email protected]

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