Letter: Going back to 'normal' would be a serious mistake
As people are growing weary of isolation and social distancing, many are asking “when will this pandemic end?" Gina Kolata, writing in the New York Times, says historically pandemics have two types of endings, medical and sociopolitical. Smallpox is the prime example of a medical end when an effective vaccine was produced that offered lifelong protection. What is happening now with COVID-19 illustrates the sociopolitical type of ending. Political leaders fearing that voters will blame them for the disruption caused by the virus, business owners facing financial ruin, and people tired of staying home all want to declare an end to the crisis and go back to their normal lives.
This has set up a conflict between scientists and medical experts who want to save lives and Republicans like President Trump who want to open up the economy because “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem.” Some conservative Republicans such as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have even argued that older Americans should willingly sacrifice their lives to keep the economy afloat. It is ironic to hear this from Republicans who opposed Obamacare because some, like Sarah Palin, claimed (falsely) that it would create “death panels” who would decide whether some older people were too sick (and expensive) to be worth saving.
Personally, I question whether there can be a sociopolitical end to a pandemic because Trump’s wishful thinking will not make it go away. I tend to agree with Yale historian Naomi Rogers, who said that “there will be no sudden victory so trying to define the end of the epidemic will be a long and difficult process.”
Then there is the question of “getting back to normal.” Going back to the old “normal” would be a serious mistake because the pandemic has exposed some serious flaws in our health care system and government policies. Trump thought a pandemic would never happen so he dissolved the Pandemic Preparedness Office which Obama had created to prepare for the next disease outbreak and prevent it from becoming a pandemic. In 2019 Trump shut down the USAID global disease monitoring system called PREDICT which had thrived under both Bush and Obama. The Obama administration left Trump a 69-page pandemic handbook, which Trump threw in the waste basket.
Mike Bowen, vice president of the medical supply company Prestige Ameritech, recently testified about the folly of depending on China for our crucial medical supplies. When the pandemic hit, many Chinese factories shut down and the masks and PPE they did make were needed there so they could not deliver to the U.S. The “Just in Time” inventory policy now used by many businesses meant U.S. hospitals had no stockpile of masks available. The Strategic National Stockpile had only enough masks to last a few days. Left on their own, states scrambled to buy masks wherever they could and now millions of the masks have been shown to be counterfeit. This meant that our health care workers had to face a deadly disease without adequate protection and some have died because of it. Trump’s strange comment was “They’re running into death just like soldiers run into bullets in a true sense. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
In addition to the shortage of PPE, the U.S. failed at testing for the virus. The CDC rejected the WHO tests and their own tests, which didn’t arrive until February, were found to be flawed. We still face a serious shortage of tests. The U.S. needs to make some drastic policy changes or we will be totally unprepared again when the next pandemic strikes.