The Covid-19 pandemic continues to control our thoughts and our reactions. Over the last three months, we have moved from relative ignorance and unconcern, to initial curiosity and mild anxiety, to recognition and agitation, to acknowledgement and fear, to understanding and restlessness, to acceptance and impatience. Where are we now on that spectrum of collective thinking and concerted reaction about the virus? If the crowds at beaches recently are an accurate indicator, we seem to be looking to break out of isolation and get back to something resembling normal.
Still, in remembering how things used to be not so long ago and in reviewing what we’ve endured over the last 100 days or so, a few questions are bothering me. Maybe they are puzzling you, too. Here are four that need to be answered.
1 – How were we caught so unprepared?
This coronavirus didn’t come from outer space. The scientific community knew of the potential for a viral attack. In our recent past we’ve had more than a few. SARS in 2003 was one; H1N1 in 2009 (18,000 deaths) was another; MERS starting in 2012 was another; Ebola from 2014 to 2016 (11,315 deaths) was another; Zika in 2015 was yet another. After the last, a group of distinguished scientists, working under the auspices of the World Health Organization, identified a handful of potential new viruses that deserved serious attention. The possibility of one not unlike the virus responsible for Covid-19 was among them.
So why did our scientists not provide the necessary warning and find the essential preventions or cures for a kind of disease that was obviously at least anticipated, if not expected? It certainly can’t be that the scientists didn’t care or weren’t motivated?
Instead, as is often the case, government decisions likely had a significant impact. How much did those decisions reduce the likelihood that science (the same science that figured out how to split the atom and that will, ultimately, figure out how to defeat this virus) would protect us from what we are now experiencing?
The Trump administration’s decision to close the Pandemic Preparedness Office (formed by the Obama administration after the Ebola scare) certainly must be included in those decisions, but funding for scientific research has been far too low for far too long. The United States has not funded the kind of spare-no-expense research such as was provided for the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s or that took humans to the moon in the 1960s. Why not?
We have spent billions to amass enough military might to blow up our world hundreds of times over. We subsidize our major industries and agriculture with tax breaks and bailouts. We have built highways and skyscrapers and supersonic modes of travel. What priorities rank higher than preventing what we are all experiencing now?
2 – Why are we still not where we need to be?
Having a president who holds science in disdain certainly isn’t helpful. Donald Trump is as much an enemy of the people as he claims the press is, but what about Congress? Isn’t Congress the governmental entity that determines the nation’s budget? Contrary to what Mr. Trump claims, the president really doesn’t have “total authority” under our system of government. And it’s Congress that hasn’t provided enough funding for direct government-sponsored research. It also hadn’t provided enough motivation to private industry to spur the kind of aggressive research as is now presumably taking place.
So Congress gets some of the blame, but I’m not about to let Trump off lightly. He bears a heavy burden for where we are now, especially if, as is now being reported, he received warnings as early as January that the threat of a pandemic was real and that its arrival in the U.S. was imminent. A prior Republican president also ignored information of perilous import in the PDBs (President’s Daily Briefings) that he received in the months before the 9/11 attacks. Is it just a coincidence that both men were said to be averse to reading, studying, and learning?
Trump’s disrespect of science has been evident throughout this crisis. He abhors what it threatened to do to the economy, so he ignored it. He was irritated by how it intruded on his post-impeachment victory lap, so he called it another “hoax.” He worries that it puts his re-election at risk, so he posits miracle cures such as he suggested at a press conference last week. (In one of his more preposterous public utterances, he opined that possible cures for Covid-19 could include injecting bleach and shining ultra-violet light into the patient’s body.)
Trump’s ignorance is only exceeded by his incompetence, which is magnified by his vanity and his willingness to lie whenever he thinks doing so is momentarily advantageous. Were he also unprincipled and corrupt, he’d be a truly dangerous president. Oh, uh, wait …
Trump’s adoring fans, his “base” of bedrock support, claim that he is just what the doctor ordered (pardon the pun). They see him as the anti-establishment hero who has disdain for the institutions of government. His base trusts him, or has trusted him, to attack the “deep state” conspirators and to call out hypocrisy in high places so that the everyday Joe and Jane can get an even shake. And his fans (of the TV showman that he is) may will stay with him even as they are mourning the loss of loved ones or are suffering themselves from Covid-19. But will they still place their trust in him after this crisis has passed? Or will his lies and his ignorance finally start to register to even them?
Of course, Trump and Congress aren’t the only culprits. Many governors missed the warning signs or got on board too late to save many lives in their states. The decision to close down an economy is not an easy one to make. In some instances, it may not have even been the right one to make. Bret Stephens pointed out in a New York Times OpEd last week, that absent the statistics from New York and its neighboring communities, Covid-19 has had a relatively mild impact on the rest of the country. He essentially argues that much of the country has used a sledge hammer to kill a mosquito.
3 – What is the best way to get through it?
The short answer to that question is easy: Listen to the scientists. In a war, you listen to the generals. In this war, if that is what we are calling it, you listen to the scientists. The difficulty with that answer is the prescription that they are providing, which is to shut down in place and to stay that way until a full matrix of steps have been satisfied. It’s a prescription that will require the same resolve that was lacking at the start of the crisis and that has been questioned/resisted/opposed by many (led by the president) ever since.
The scientists’ cure is most definitely painful, as much of the civilized world is currently experiencing. It has already led to a major economic crash that presages a full-blown recession, if not an actual depression. Many businesses will never reopen; others will struggle and then go belly up. Millions will be unemployed with old job opportunities gone forever. Many individuals and families will face severe financial hardship, if not outright destitution, if this cure ends up lasting through the summer and beyond (with predictions of a renewed round of outbreaks in the fall and winter and doubts about a true vaccine being available in less than a year). So, can we get a second opinion, one that might not be as devastating for the patient?
Developing herd immunity by using the Swedish model has some appeal, especially from the economic perspective. In Sweden, most businesses are allowed to be open. Those who are at risk of death or severe illness from the virus are encouraged to shelter in place. Everyone else is permitted, if not encouraged, to be out and about, mixing with their neighbors and frequenting the same establishments they would frequent in normal times. The theory is that with the passage of the virus within the larger community a herd immunity will develop to the virus that will ultimately eradicate it. (If enough people are immune to the disease, it cannot spread and eventually disappears.)
The early results in Sweden, however, are not particularly encouraging. Per capita deaths are markedly higher there than in the neighboring Scandinavian countries where strict lockdowns are being enforced. Swedish authorities still think the approach can work. One official said the higher death rates are due to infections in elderly living facilities. He said that it was hard to see “how a lockdown would stop the introduction of the disease into the elderly homes.” That statement may be debatable, but it does affirm that there are no sure-fire guarantees in any proposed solution.
A third option, one that no country has adopted but that the protesters against the lockdown approach appear to advocate, is to open the economy and let the virus run its course. This one appeals most to the free market economists and the libertarians who regard any government intrusion on fundamental freedoms as un-American, if not unconstitutional. It essentially ignores the scientists’ warnings in favor of testing the virus directly. With shadows of the 1918 Spanish/swine flu lurking, the open-up option has not gained much traction. But as cabin-fever and a continually collapsing economy demand relief, it is likely to become a more popular “least bad” choice.
4 – How will we react to the end of it?
Even attempting to answer this question is probably foolish. Collectively, humans have shown a perplexing ability to both forget quickly and overreact. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we mourned and shuddered for a while (all of a week of baseball and football games were cancelled), but life quickly resumed its frenetic pace, and most Americans returned to their daily routines. At the same time, our government went overboard to ensure the country would not be so horrifically attacked again. We began the endless war in Afghanistan, followed it by launching another, even more ill-fated, one in Iraq, and imposed “safety” measures that soon included having to take off our shoes and belts and hats as we passed through metal detectors at airports and on entering many government buildings.
If the reaction to 9/11 suggests what will follow Covid-19, we may expect a quick return to an open, bustling economy and an active, engaging social life, but we will also have new restrictions on our ability to fully enjoy the “old normal.” We’ll once again shop and congregate, but we’ll also have new forms of safety checks (like wearing masks more often and even having our seats separated in movie theaters).
More importantly, we will probably be much more attentive to a co-worker’s sniffles, to the idle cough or sneeze in a social setting or workplace, and to the warnings to get our flu shots (and whatever other vaccines might be available as science figures out how to lick the coronavirus of our current plight).
It will also be interesting to see how the electorate expresses itself in the presidential and Congressional elections in November. Polls now indicate that Trump has lost the initial support he picked up when he first started holding daily Covid briefings and declared the “war” on the virus.
But by this fall, the picture is likely to be far different. He will certainly devise any number of attacks on Biden, the Democrats, the Chinese government, the media, and whomever or whatever else he can prevaricate about to suggest that all the problems we suffered through were their fault, and that only he had the sure-footedness to get us through it.
I’m not about to make any predictions, but I can envision a Trump re-election as easily as I can a Democratic romp. What I can’t foresee is how I can feel comfortable taking that cruise my family has planned for December.