April 15, 2020

Thoughts on Returning to “Normal”

NPR reported today that the World Health Organization has enumerated six prerequisites for ending a coronavirus lockdown. They are the following:
  1. Disease transmission is under control
  2. Health systems are able to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact”
  3. Hot spot risks are minimized in vulnerable places, such as nursing homes
  4. Schools, workplaces and other essential places have established preventive measures
  5. The risk of importing new cases “can be managed”
  6. Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal
World Health Organization LogoDespite President Trump’s eagerness to put the coronavirus pandemic behind him and get the economy moving again, the United States is not making much progress in meeting the WHO requirements for rescinding the virtually national lockdown. Last night, Rachel Maddow noted that we don’t really have to look past the first item on the WHO list to see how little we are prepared to lift restrictions on people and organizations—disease transmission in the country is nowhere nearly under control.

Of course, the president has decided that the WHO must be held accountable for letting coronavirus infections become a pandemic, a reputed failing for which he intends to withhold U.S. funds from the United Nations organization. This is clearly a strategy to avoid his being held accountable for his own shameful delay in responding to the global health threat. Because President Trump has chosen to make the WHO a scapegoat, he is unlikely to pay much attention to its recommendations, particularly in light of his eagerness to restore “normal” economic activity and his assertion that he possesses unlimited powers to impose his will on the states,

Even were we to satisfy the six WHO criteria, new coronavirus infections will continue to occur. To the degree that we satisfy them imperfectly, they could occur in large numbers. Nothing short of a universal vaccination program is likely to remove the threat the virus poses, and such a program is probably two or more years away.

In the meantime, I suggest a seventh requirement for “opening up” the economy: we must assure that all hospitals, nursing homes, and similar facilities have sufficient medical and protective equipment to deal with the inevitable recurrence of COVID-19 outbreaks. It is disgraceful that we have asked medical and custodial personnel to fight what President Trump has called a war without giving those on the front lines the necessary weapons and defensive equipment to prosecute that war successfully without themselves becoming casualties.

When we are finally allowed to leave our houses, we will likely still have to wear masks and practice social distancing for a time. How will we know who is a dangerous person to be around? I have heard it suggested that those who have recovered from the virus and are, presumably, immune and non-infectious, can carry a document attesting to their status. This is silly on two fronts. First, we don’t know much about what happens after one survives COVID-19. More importantly, it is impractical to demand documents of everyone we meet while staying six feet apart. In the movie Contagion, people who have received the vaccine against the pandemic-causing virus are given a hospital-style bracelet to wear. We can do the same to people whom we determine are non-infectious. (A tattoo on the forehead might be more effective, but that seems extreme.) It is unclear whether we can identify such safe people, however, before a vaccine is available.

I fear that the coronavirus is going to remain an important part of our lives for quite some time to come.

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