By Jacob Derin
On Tuesday, the federal government announced new guidelines on mask-wearing that allow fully vaccinated people to be outside without masks except in crowded places. This represents a big step towards a post-pandemic world, and is an excellent time to wonder “What took so long?”
The response to the COVID-19 crisis has revealed profound and unacceptable gaps in our pandemic preparedness. From our failure to adequately produce protective equipment to the utter failure of leadership at the federal level, the U.S. COVID-19 response deserves a grade of “F,” and that’s a degree of generosity afforded only by the grading scale and my inability to assign a lower one.
Future pandemic-grade pathogens could well be far nastier than SARS-COV2. The best estimates put its lethality at 0.5-1 percent. Consider a virus just as infectious as SARS-COV2 but an order of magnitude deadlier. Imagine multiplying the death toll by 10 (and then recall that it’s probably an undercount).
This is not a world any of us want to live in (and the odds are good that we wouldn’t get to live long in it anyway).
It’s undeniably true that a lot of the blame for the rapid, global spread of the coronavirus falls on Chinese government officials who ignored or covered up evidence of the Wuhan outbreak, wasting critical time and destroying hopes of containment. However, once COVID-19 reached our shores, the time for finger-pointing was over. It was time for action.
It didn’t help that the American government and half of its country’s population were in the thrall of the dumbest cult in living memory. Where autocracy had contributed censorship and secrecy to the public health disaster, Western democracies were happy to pitch in their fair share of shocking ineptitude.
It should strike no one as surprising that governments led by far-right populists (Trump, Modi, Bolsanaro) produced some of the worst pandemic responses. At the same time, left-wing political violence (and the resultant mass congregations) in the wake of George Floyd’s murder threw its own fuel on the epidemiological fire.
It’s clear that a wide variety of political extremism is not up to the task of mitigating and controlling viral outbreaks. So what is? Unfortunately, the answer is extremely politically unsexy: solid, boring science.
Several very smart and courageous Chinese doctors risked their lives to warn their government and the world of the coming storm, and some lost the gamble.
Containment is an all-or-nothing game, and once a disease has spread beyond its point of origin, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The first few weeks matter enormously to this effort, and the Chinese government’s refusal to listen to its expert citizens may well have allowed the pandemic to get started.
Once containment fails, the next best tactic is mitigation. This is what we’ve come to know as “COVID-19 protocols:” wash your hands, stay six feet apart, isolate yourself as much as possible, etc. But you can only ask people to stay inside and away from each other for so long.
Aside from the comparatively mild results of boredom and frustration, lockdowns have created a shadow crisis of severe mental health consequences in the United States and beyond. And this is even before you consider the lasting economic devastation of the worst global recession since the Great Depression.
COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic we experience, and next time we have to do better — for everyone’s sake.
Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.
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