America's pandemic fail
If COVID was any more dangerous than it is, our response would have been catastrophic.
The pandemic is not over yet. When it is, books will be written on the Coronavirus and humanity’s response, but even at this point, maybe the beginning of the end or maybe what Winston Churchill might call the end of the beginning, some lessons seem readily apparent. One of these is America has not handled the pandemic well.
We are now 11 months into the American phase of the pandemic and the US is the undisputed Coronavirus champion both in terms of total cases and total deaths per Worldmeters.info. In per capita terms, the US ranks seventh in total cases (between Slovenia and Luxembourg) and tenth in total deaths (between Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia).
Many people have denied the seriousness of COVID-19 from the beginning. While COVID is much more infectious and deadly than the flu, we can be grateful that it isn’t any more dangerous than it is. If it was, our inept response would have the death toll much higher than just shy of 500,000 where it currently stands.
In fact, it is the relatively unique balance between infectiousness and deadliness that makes the Coronavirus so dangerous. The AIDS virus is very deadly but difficult to transmit so its spread was limited, even though it killed people slowly. Likewise, SARS had a high death rate but didn’t spread easily so that outbreak was contained. At the other end of the spectrum, Ebola killed quickly and was very infectious, but this ultimately worked against the virus. Victims of Ebola often collapsed and died before they had the chance to infect many other people.
COVID-19 found a sweet spot between being too deadly and not infectious enough. The Coronavirus spreads much more easily than the flu and also has a much higher death rate, but its victims can transmit the disease for several days before symptoms become apparent. Research shows that about 20 percent of people infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic. These people, especially if they eschew mitigations like masks and social distancing, can infect large numbers of other people. This insidious characteristic of COVID-19 makes it seem less dangerous to some people but has actually contributed to the virus’s global spread and high death toll.
At this point, I’ve known lots of people who had the virus. Those afflicted run the gamut from my 92-year-old aunt, who had a mild case, to a friend’s 47-year-old wife, who died three weeks after being infected. I’ve also had friends who still suffer the effects of “long COVID” months after contracting the disease. Most people who survive COVID tell me, “You don’t want it,” but some, especially those with mild or asymptomatic cases, don’t seem to believe that the disease is serious for anyone.
Aside from the asymptomatic super-spreaders, COVID-19’s MVP is the conspiracy community. From the first weeks of the pandemic, hysterical posts on social media and fake news sites heralded the beliefs that the pandemic was a hoax intended to implement socialism or fascism (or both!), crash the economy, gut religious freedoms, and trick people into taking the Mark of the Beast, which is cleverly disguised as a vaccine, don’t you know!
These conspiracy theories, along with the mistaken belief that the virus wasn’t dangerous, led to large numbers of people refusing to wear masks or social distance. This contributed directly to the virus’s unrestricted spread throughout the American population. Even at this late date, many people still don’t believe that masks work or that there is a reason to social distance. The facts don’t bear this out.
There is much evidence to support the use of masks. A January 2021 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the data and reported, “The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask-wearing reduces transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected respiratory particles in both laboratory and clinical contexts,” but cautioned, “Public mask-wearing is most effective at reducing spread of the virus when compliance is high.”
Therein lies the rub. The conspiracy theorists have undermined compliance in both voluntary and mandatory mask guidelines.
This has a real-world effect. A cursory glance at the Worldmeters comparisons of state cases per capita finds that the 20 states with the worst records on COVID infections are almost all red states with no mask mandates. Rhode Island is the only blue state in the top 10 while Illinois ranks twentieth.
Per capita death statistics look a bit different. New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts make up the top three. Many red states are then interspersed with other New England and mid-Atlantic states.
But looking at the statistics more closely, we see that New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts death curves were frontloaded last spring when the virus was still new and relatively unknown. Much of the death toll in those states was due to infections that occurred before lockdowns and other mitigations were put into place.
Many of these deaths were also due to tragic orders by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, and others which moved recovering COVID patients into nursing homes and allowed the virus to spread among the vulnerable elderly patients there. Those policies ended up helping to spread the virus to the most vulnerable segments of the population.
Internationally, the story is much the same. Sweden was used as an example by the pandemic-deniers in the early months. Not so much anymore. Sweden currently stands at 22 on the world rank of per capita COVID cases and twenty-third in deaths. The Nordic country was finally forced to tighten its COVID restrictions in January amid a post-Christmas surge in cases.
The history of the Coronavirus pandemic will tell us that lockdowns do work… when people comply with them. Science and logic agree that the virus cannot spread where people do not interact. When areas lock down, the virus has nowhere to go.
There are two good examples to support this theory. The first is China and the second is New Zealand. China (ranked 190 in per capita infections) is guilty of botching its initial response to the virus as well as spreading misinformation about the threat (although there is no evidence that the communist nation spread the virus intentionally), but they ruthlessly enforced a lockdown that seems to have stamped out the disease in their country.
Successful lockdowns don’t require an authoritarian communist government either. New Zealand (ranked 188 in per capita infections) locked down early and aimed to eradicate the disease within its borders rather than focusing on a quick reopening. When cases flare up, as they did over the weekend, the Kiwis lock down the affected area quickly to minimize the spread.
In the United States, we suffered from poor leadership. If Gov. Cuomo is to be blamed for New York’s nursing home deaths, then it is only fair to blame Donald Trump for the almost unceasing stream of misinformation that he spewed forth throughout the pandemic. It was the Trump White House that set unrealistic expectations for “15 days to slow the spread” when most health experts were saying that the pandemic was a long-term problem. The president also said that the virus would disappear in the summer heat, eschewed masks and social distancing, and never seems to have found a quack cure that he didn’t like. President Trump’s undermining of his science advisors cost an unknown number of lives and helped to prolong both the pandemic and its associated economic crisis. Further, the Trump Administration’s plan to stockpile and distribute the vaccine seems to have been sadly lacking.
The Administration even gave up on providing hard data on the pandemic early on. The COVID Tracking Project, an effort created by the Atlantic magazine, is now the go-to source for collecting and sharing Coronavirus data across the 50 states. There are exceptions, but overall, the Trump Administration does not seem to have taken the pandemic seriously.
Led by the Trump Administration, the American focus on getting things back to normal, even as the pandemic raged around us, has been counterproductive. I’ve said for almost a year now that the only way to get the country back to normal was to defeat the Coronavirus, not pretend that it doesn’t exist. So far, my prediction is being borne out.
In the US (and in smaller-scale examples around the country), we have seen three separate waves of Coronavirus so far. These occurred last spring with the original outbreak, last summer as businesses reopened and the BLM protests raged, and last fall and winter when cold weather drove people indoors and families gathered for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In each of these cases, mitigations such as masks, social distancing, and lockdowns eventually reversed the surge. In the first two cases, the virus returned when people let their guard down.
The high death toll and hospitalization rates from the three COVID surges underscores the folly of the “herd immunity” approach. Letting the virus run rampant through the population, as many pandemic skeptics have suggested, would have had a devastating effect. It would have also likely have been futile since we now know that antibodies from the disease are not permanent and people can catch Coronavirus more than once.
The herd immunity strategy also would have run the risk of creating more mutations. Unlike the flu, COVID-19 has a very low rate of mutations. This is thanks to components of the virus which act as “proofreaders” to minimize errors as the virus copies itself. This feature of the virus makes it much easier to create vaccines for COVID-19 than for the flu virus, which mutates very quickly.
But a low rate of mutations does not mean no mutations and the more the virus spreads, the more mutations are created. As an example, if the rate of mutations is one percent, then 100,000 replications could yield 1,000 new mutations. However, if the virus replicates itself 100 million times then there is the potential for a million mutations. This increases the chances that new mutations would be more deadly. Trying for herd immunity would be rolling the dice when it comes to more dangerous mutations.
And we know that there are several new and dangerous mutations already. Thankfully, these new strains seem responsive to most existing vaccines, but a vaccine-resistant COVID mutation is not out of the question if the virus mutates enough.
For now, however, the vaccines work and they work extremely well. A study of the Pfizer vaccine in Israel found that fewer than 0.1 percent of people who took both doses of the vaccine contracted COVID-19. Let me say that again. Less than 0.1 percent of people who took the Pfizer vaccine, 544 out of 523,000, even got sick from the virus. Only 15 of these cases needed hospitalization and no one who was vaccinated has died.
The vaccines work, but we need time to get them distributed. We also need to make sure that the conspiracy fearmongers don’t frighten people away from the miracle drugs that can save their lives.
If people really want to get the country – and the world – back to normal, the way to do it is to get everyone vaccinated and to use mitigation strategies like masks and social distancing to stay alive and healthy in the meantime.
Many online denizens of social media are more concerned with clickbait than with saving lives, however. And if the economy crashes now, then that just means that Joe Biden will have a harder time getting re-elected and holding Congress. We know from the January insurrection that some politicians are more than willing to risk the lives of their supporters.
When the history of the Coronavirus pandemic is written and read by our grandchildren, there will be collective facepalming at the stupidity of much of what we’ve done over the past year. The errors have been bipartisan, although Donald Trump seems to have been singularly ill-suited for leading the country through the crisis.
Maybe when the pandemic is over and we’ve begun to return to normal we can decide that, if something sounds too stupid to be true, that it at least bears more investigation from objective sources. Just because someone tells you what you want to hear, whether good news or a dystopian fantasy, it doesn’t mean that what they say is the truth. As the Bible advises, we should test the accuracy of what people tell us and hold them accountable. Don’t listen to people or sites with poor track records.
If the experience of 2020 and 2021 teaches us nothing else, we should learn to distrust the conspiracy pages and other purveyors of fake news. After all the people who have died, lost their health, and even gone to jail over the past year because they believed fake news, the time would seem ripe for Americans to become more discerning about what they put into their minds. But, somehow, I don’t think we’re ready to give up our confirmation biases and addiction to outrage yet.
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