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Risks best not taken

SoVaNow.com / March 04, 2020
Whoever thought electing a reality TV show president was a good plan for dealing with reality? The next-to-last thing anyone should do in the face of the ongoing coronavirus scare is politicize a public health emergency. The certifiably last thing the President of the United States should do is administer the nation’s response incompetently. With the coronavirus, it remains to be seen if the federal government is up to the task of dealing with this unfolding epidemic, or if the trainwreck has already happened and we just haven’t heard the news yet. Hopefully not. But we do already know how Donald Trump will respond to a crisis — by blaming everyone else for anything and everything that goes wrong.

That he and his tribe would lash out preemptively at Democrats was a given (marvel at the absolutely bonkers assertion by the president’s son, Don Jr., that Democrats “seemingly hope that it comes here and kills millions of people so that they could end Donald Trump’s streak of winning.”) But once the blame-for-gain political posturing has run its course, such as that moment when Trump can no longer get a cheer out of such abject nonsense at one of his rallies — because by then rallies will be banned on public safety grounds — what then? The best version of this timeline is that we’ll never find out, because coronavirus will prove to be manageable or fleeting or whatever the optimal future holds. But just imagine what happens if this thing goes deep south, as it surely could. Who’s going to provide the steely presence that keeps the psyche of the nation together? Who will be our Winston Churchill — Mike Pence? (Pence will probably be too afraid of Trump’s tantrums hitting him in the backside to be of much use to anyone, not that he is now.)

Just in case it’s not already clear, COVID-19 is the farthest thing from a hoax, regardless of what your neighbor who listens to too much talk radio may tell you, and you should definitely prepare for the disease spreading into our area. (North Carolina confirmed its first case on Tuesday). While people have a right to demand an effective response by the government, each of us also should take individual action to keep matters from getting any worse than they may already be. In that vein, a few suggestions: (a) don’t panic, (b) inform yourself about COVID-19 is and how it can be contained, and (c) please, please don’t spread falsehoods like you’ll inevitably see on Facebook and Twitter and other oft-frequented manholes of the public informational sewer. (“Hoax” is the last word that you should want to associate yourself with at the moment). Do follow the advice of public health experts to protect yourself and others, through such easily-followed steps as thoroughly washing your hands, sneezing into tissues and tossing them into the trash, and keeping away from others if you start to feel under the weather. “Social distancing” is a highly effective way of slowing the spread of communicable disease. If you feel like you need to see a doctor, call the office ahead of time so you don’t just walk in and pass on your illness to everyone in breathing distance.

The days ahead will determine whether we as a country can act rationally and minimize the impact of the coronavirus, or if humanity is just one big wet livestock market without any herders in sight. I’m going to say here and now that the cynical, pessimistic view is wrong — sporadic evidence to the contrary — and that our public health apparatus is bestowed with sufficient credibility, force and professionalism to guide a non-freakout response by the vast majority of the public. There may still be massive problems, sure. It’s awfully hard for folks to maintain “social distance” to keep the coronavirus outbreak under control when people depend on paychecks and don’t get one unless they show up on the job. By the same token, America’s patchwork health care system is in for one heck of a “stress test” ahead — I’m not the first person to say this, but the politics of health care and Medicare-for-All sure could look a lot different six months from now compared to the couch-fainting that occurs whenever Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren brings up the subject today. Still, politics isn’t the thing to focus on at the moment — keeping people safe and healthy is. There’ll be a time for a political and policy reckoning later on. Read up, get informed and heed good advice now.

***

This week, The Guardian newspaper (U.K.) interviewed a Duke University professor, Dr. Jonathan D. Quick, the former chair of the Global Health Council and a long-term advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO). The tail end of the article is excerpted below. The entire article is excellent — here are some questions and answers by Dr. Quick to ponder:

How well is the US prepared?

The US ranks high on the GHS (Global Health Security) index, but is still unprepared for a severe pandemic, should one happen. Malfunctioning coronavirus tests have frustrated public health labs and delayed outbreak monitoring. Supplies of masks, suits and other protective material for health workers are running low in the midst of a moderately severe flu season. Since the creation of a much-needed public health emergency preparedness fund in the aftermath of 9/11, its budget and the public health functions it supports have been steadily reduced. This is the mentality that left the world vulnerable to the devastating 2014 outbreak of Ebola in west Africa — that is, close the fire department and cancel the fire insurance as nobody’s house or factory has burned down lately. It’s time we learned that the bugs never stop mutating and crossing over to humans.

Has the world been an ostrich over pandemic risk?

Generally speaking, no. After each major recent outbreak — Sars, swine flu, Ebola — we’ve moved ahead. The GHS Index is itself a big advance, because we can now see where individual countries are weak in terms of preparedness. We should be moving faster, though.

What exactly should we be doing faster?

Fewer than one in three countries are close to being prepared to confront an epidemic, which leaves the vast majority of the world’s population vulnerable. That in turn leaves us all vulnerable because we’re only as safe as the least safe place. We need to invest more in preparedness, and we need our leaders to take a greater interest in it — that’s all leaders, in both the public and private sectors — from the grass roots to the grass tops.

Is a global health agency essential to managing a pandemic, and is the WHO up to the task?

A global health agency is essential, yes. None of the advances I’ve mentioned could have happened without the WHO’s involvement, but the WHO can only perform as well as its members allow it to — and they have pulled back on funding since the 2008 financial crisis.

Your book is optimistically entitled The End of Epidemics. Could we ever really wave goodbye to epidemics?

The world will continue to have disease outbreaks, but there is plenty we can do to protect ourselves against global catastrophes like the 1918 flu.

.... Words to live by.

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