Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Virus Unleashed

Coronavirus. It is the dominant word of our time. The centerpiece topic of politicians and government administrators, medical and public health officials, and business owners and entertainment providers. It has swallowed up most all of the media attention, leaving other issues of importance near-voiceless. The major events just past – impeachment, weather catastrophes, election primaries, border wall immigration – seem years ago.

There is also the general public messaging, which similarly dominates space in the non-social media platforms. Typically, many (not all) Americans are aligning in polarized opposite camps of opinion. On one side are the doubters. For them, the whole coronavirus issue is simply overblown. Statistics are quoted comparing current/projected low coronavirus cases and deaths with our substantial cancer, heart disease, and “winter flu” (influenza) numbers. They dismiss – if not ridicule – people’s “herd mentality” and concerns as being out of proportion to “the facts.” Given this perspective, they report making minimal changes in their daily life due to this virus threat.

On the other side, people are expressly fearful, based on images seen and stories heard across the globe. Face masks, mandatory home confinement, deserted tourist venues, overloaded hospitals and medical facilities, empty grocery shelves. Charts with ever-growing, spiking numbers. In spite of other countries’ experiences, America wasted two months doing little to prepare for this eventuality. We had a “see no virus / hear no virus / speak no virus” phase; followed by no information, conflicting information, or inaccurate information; infused with misstatements, fantasy scenarios, and future promises (versus current actions). Few have been reassured, leaving people feeling on their own, dependent upon varying initiatives of individual state/local governments and officials left driving our response. In the midst of such confusion, fear set in.

As America finally begins in mid-March to truly gear up for this public health issue, there are several elements we should keep in mind in developing our perspective.

1. While statistics about other killer diseases are important to keep in mind, they are essentially irrelevant to this current experience. These other diseases are largely known items. We have years of study and mountains of data about them; they are generally predictable as to how they proceed; protocols for successful treatment – including some vaccines – are known or are continually emerging. Coronavirus – more specifically this Covid-19 strain – has none of this. It is a totally new sickness, with no track record, no data, no protocols, no “facts” of where it comes from or how it moves. We have no built-in antibodies, no vaccines, no known treatments. The real danger is not what this coronavirus IS, but what it COULD BE. It is this unknown-ness that is our real crisis, which means we are forced to “wing it” in the short term with educated guesses between worst case / best case scenarios. We are not just fighting a disease; we are fighting an unknown enemy – the hardest battle to fight and the hardest to organize against.

2. That said, data is coming in rapidly, and we are sorting through it as quickly as possible. Each day we know more, but it is an elusive, moving target. China and Italy give us a starting point of experiences – IF we elect to learn from them.

3. Are we overreacting to the significant closures and social distancing being rapidly introduced? It may seem so, especially in geographic areas (like mine) where there are (as yet) no confirmed cases. But Covid-19 is a stealth contagion. Once infected, it can take up to two weeks to show itself. It may even show no symptoms at all, but in that invisible state can still infect others. As it travels on its human host, this insidious disease is unknowingly transmitted to an increasingly wider audience – a sleeper cell that results in the sudden spiked curve of cases as seen elsewhere. Because one is “not sick” does not mean one is not contagious.

4. What is clear is that the relatively low number of current Covid-19 cases is statistically meaningless as a basis for projection and planning. We do not know the true number of cases because we have still not adequately tested our population – in spite of the early warnings we had. This is a collective failure of federal government (mis-)management. It reflects a lack of timely preparedness, collective organization, effective leadership, with scattershot solutions focused more on avoiding blame than solving problems. As of this writing, we are still well behind the demand for testing, analysis, planning, and delivery of needed resources to where they are needed. Planning accurate strategies to fight this virus is highly difficult when one lacks adequate intelligence about who the enemy is.

5. Much more could be said about this public health case study. The “lessons learned” post-crisis debriefing and analysis will be important to do. But the immediate conclusion for each of us is that we are in unknown territory here. We are fighting blind with inadequate knowledge and insufficient resources. Once again we face the age-old American conflict of values: do I do what is right for me, or do I do what is right for the community of which I am a part? If I think I am fine – even though I might not be – do I ignore the guidelines and go about my business? Or do I consider those who might be far more vulnerable to, and potentially injured by, my singular action? That is the moral question each of us faces.

For now, responsible state and local political and health leaders will continue to fight this battle as best they can – hopefully with increasing resources and support. Six months from now, perhaps we will know this virus more fully, and we can then judge how well we responded to this crisis with what we knew. Depending upon our outcomes, we may never know whether the Covid-19 threat was overblown, or our collective mitigating efforts stopped it in its tracks (as our “victim of our own success” experience mitigating the “Y2K” computer flaw threatening to shut down the world economy.) Knowing the reasons for “success” can be as elusive as knowing the causes of disease.

In the meantime, we need to remember our health professionals and volunteers, and our service workers who are keeping our country semi-functioning. They are seeking to defend us and provide comfort during these times. We are obligated to do the same for them. Simultaneously, we express our compassion to all the people being significantly impacted by this crisis.

©   2020    Randy Bell