My husband recently recommended that I read a lengthy article from the Atlantic by Ed Yong. Despite the fact that I am a pretty devoted reader of that publication, and a subscriber, I’d missed it.
If you are trapped at home with nothing pressing to do (clean out the refrigerator, or knit face masks, or whatever), you should click through and read the article in its entirety. In case you don’t have the time or inclination, I am cutting and pasting paragraphs that–in my estimation–are insightful and important.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”…
As my colleagues Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer have reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed and distributed a faulty test in February. Independent labs created alternatives, but were mired in bureaucracy from the FDA. In a crucial month when the American caseload shot into the tens of thousands, only hundreds of people were tested. That a biomedical powerhouse like the U.S. should so thoroughly fail to create a very simple diagnostic test was, quite literally, unimaginable. “I’m not aware of any simulations that I or others have run where we [considered] a failure of testing,” says Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University, who works on legal and policy issues related to infectious diseases.
The testing fiasco was the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure….
With little room to surge during a crisis, America’s health-care system operates on the assumption that unaffected states can help beleaguered ones in an emergency. That ethic works for localized disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, but not for a pandemic that is now in all 50 states. Cooperation has given way to competition; some worried hospitals have bought out large quantities of supplies, in the way that panicked consumers have bought out toilet paper.
Partly, that’s because the White House is a ghost town of scientific expertise. A pandemic-preparedness office that was part of the National Security Council was dissolved in 2018. On January 28, Luciana Borio, who was part of that team, urged the government to “act now to prevent an American epidemic,” and specifically to work with the private sector to develop fast, easy diagnostic tests. But with the office shuttered, those warnings were published in The Wall Street Journal, rather than spoken into the president’s ear. Instead of springing into action, America sat idle.
Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”
The quoted paragraphs are followed by predictions of what will come next–best and worst case. Bottom line: even in the best-case scenarios, this isn’t going to be over any time soon. The “President” may think a vaccine or cure can be magically discovered and mass produced in a couple of weeks, but scientists and sane people know better.
And then there’s the aftermath…
As my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote, the economy is experiencing a shock “more sudden and severe than anyone alive has ever experienced.” About one in five people in the United States have lost working hours or jobs. Hotels are empty. Airlines are grounding flights. Restaurants and other small businesses are closing. Inequalities will widen: People with low incomes will be hardest-hit by social-distancing measures, and most likely to have the chronic health conditions that increase their risk of severe infections. Diseases have destabilized cities and societies many times over, “but it hasn’t happened in this country in a very long time, or to quite the extent that we’re seeing now,” says Elena Conis, a historian of medicine at UC Berkeley. “We’re far more urban and metropolitan. We have more people traveling great distances and living far from family and work.”
After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. …People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness. Asian people are suffering racist insults, fueled by a president who insists on labeling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Incidents of domestic violence and child abuse are likely to spike as people are forced to stay in unsafe homes.
The article does end with a thin ray of hope–or perhaps “challenge” is a more appropriate word. Pandemics can catalyze social change.
Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.
If we are very, very fortunate, in November we will not retreat further into authoritarianism and fear; instead, we’ll recognize that all diseases aren’t physical, and all tests aren’t medical.
Our test is whether America will repudiate the virus of bigoted “America first” politics, reject kakistocracy, and pivot from isolationism to international cooperation.