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The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically affected the world’s population. “Normal life” has been severely disrupted. The crisis has revealed structural dysfunctions as well as human courage and resilience, providing many lessons that cannot be ignored.
Science is paramount in treating, controlling and eliminating a virus.
A virus is fought with science, not wishful thinking or miraculous-off-the-shelf cures. Science-based fact is vital to contain a virus, providing behavioral guidance to mitigate its spread, developing therapeutics to treat it, and vaccines to end it. Adhering to basic guidance from the scientific community—wearing masks, washing hands frequently, observing social distance, sheltering in place—reduces the risk of contracting and spreading a virus. These time-tested public health measures should be embraced as civic responsibilities rather than shunned as tyrannical limitations to personal liberty.
Progress in developing vaccines to combat COVID-19 has been remarkable. The first COVID-19 cases were identified late in 2019. Within weeks of recognizing what appeared to be a novel respiratory illness, the pathogen was isolated, its genetic sequence determined, and identified as SARS-CoV-2. Today, less than one year after COVID-19 revealed itself, two vaccines have entered clinical practice, with more likely to be approved early this year.
The world is interconnected.
National autonomy is a fiction in a globalized world. A virus recognizes no boundaries.
It can quickly spread across the globe through international travel and trade. Without cooperation among nations andorganizations such as The World Health Organization, a virus metastasizes in the planetary body, catalyzed by the same technologies that have drawn the planet together.
There is no greater example of our interconnected and interdependent world than the development of vaccines to fight the virus. This work is being carried out in laboratories around the world with an unprecedented degree of collaboration. The first vaccine, colloquially known as the “Pfizer vaccine,” was engineered by a German-Turkish husband-and-wife team working at BioNTech, a German biotech company, employing core technology created at the University of Pennsylvania. Its development was supported by Pfizer, a multinational American company, and it is being manufactured in Puurs, Belgium and Kalamazoo, Michigan. We should celebrate this extraordinary achievement as an example of what humankind is capable of when we work together for the common good.
A national strategy and universal health coverage are critical to our defense.
The pandemic has laid bare the weaknesses of our fragmented governmental response to the virus and an inexcusable lack of access to healthcare for millions of Americans. The United States has only 4% of the world’s population but 23% of its COVID-19 cases and 19% of its deaths. This abysmal record is partially due to the politicization of the pandemic and distrust of medical experts, but it is also the result of a lack of a national policy. The absence of clear national leadership facilitates the emergence of a patchwork of inconsistent local public health measures that range from suggestions to mandates. Our defense against the contagion is only as strong as our weakest link.
Ensuring universal healthcare would more effectively contain the virus, reduce deaths, and ultimately decrease the economic and societal costs associated with it. Pre-existing conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease markedly increase COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. Logic dictates that having these chronic conditions under control before a pandemic strikes would reduce hospitalizations and save lives.
Economic security and a social safety net are vital.
The crisis has revealed how massive economic and social inequality attacks our collective immune system, destroying its defenses and threatening to shut it down. People across the nation have lost their jobs and their health insurance. Millions face the dual specters of hunger and eviction. The crisis has reminded us how much we depend on our frontline and essential workers, many of whom are underpaid and uninsured, for our survival. For them, delivery of their critical services via the aseptic environs of Zoom is not an option.
Communities of color have shouldered a disproportionate amount of suffering from the pandemic. Increasingly hard hit are rural communities that face distinct challenges of economics and geography. Low income is connected to poor health and, consequently, greater risk of poor outcomes to COVID-19. The current extreme disparity in wealth distribution is unsustainable in maintaining a healthy society. Social stability and community resilience, underpinned by economic security and a community service safety net, are required for national well-being and are essential in galvanizing a society to combat a common foe.
The degradation of the natural world is an increasing threat.
Both climate change and human incursions into the natural world— urbanization, deforestation, agricultural expansion—threatens the health of the Earth’s ecosystem. Indeed, extreme weather events—floods, wildfires, droughts, rising sea levels— are accelerating human displacement across the globe. Shrinking habitability is giving rise to populations of climate refugees migrating to urban centers. Climate-fueled migration contributes to crowded, unhygienic living conditions and increasing homelessness. This, in turn, increases the risk of both endemic and zoonotic infections, thus placing even greater stress on public health agencies. Our ambivalence in fighting climate change and our continued disregard for the environment provide opportunistic conditions for more frequent pandemics.
Human beings are resilient and adaptive.
The pandemic has required us to adopt creative strategies for coping with the extreme disruptions in our lives. Necessity has inspired innovation. We have implemented new approaches for working, shopping, educating and socializing. We are using technologies to communicate and congregate virtually. The arts and entertainment have employed the same technologies to expose their work to the world. Governments and corporations have reached across divides to share information and develop therapies with unprecedented speed and cooperation. Businesses have developed innovative ways to remain open. Humans are adjusting to the threat, even if haltingly and disjointedly.
This crisis has shown that individual vision and initiative aligned with community support allows life to flourish even under the most threatening conditions. All of this, along with scientific innovation, will help to prepare us for what may be an even more challenging future.
Ted Torphy has a PhD in pharmacology & toxicology and has worked in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries for over 35 years. Currently, he sits on the boards of several for-profit and non-profit organizations involved in the development of therapeutics.
William Torphy has written articles for various publications and has contributed to blogs focused on social and economic issues. His fiction has been widely published in magazines and journals.
Copyright 2021 William Torphy and Ted Torphy