When I wrote in this column about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 (April 2, 2020) and argued that “we should give public health a chance” (December 18, 2020), I hadn’t anticipated this. , a year later, I will return to this subject.
How can we humans, who number da Vinci, Pasteur, Einstein and Desmond Tutu among us, be brought to our knees by an invisible, brainless organism whose raison d’être is only to derive more from its RNA?
What the pandemic has done is reveal the fragility of our social fabric and the weaknesses of our institutions, here and around the world.
It exposes and aggravates our socio-economic inequalities that have existed for decades: Wall Street investors and big corporations raking in huge profits and benefiting from tax loopholes while blue-collar workers earn below-real wages due to inflation; the meritocratic elite work comfortably from home, while frontline essential workers risk their lives as their children lack reliable access to online education and healthy activities; worsening health care access and affordability, leading to higher rates of mental illness and disproportionate morbidity and mortality for the disadvantaged.
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Inequality fuels anxiety, anger and despair, and invites distrust of government and democratic institutions.
We see an increase in gun sales, senseless crimes, drug use and suicides, racial and class tensions; opportunities for extremists at both ends of the ideological political spectrum to ride on righteous vitriol and mutual hatred, manufacturing theories and narratives aimed at nothing less than fracturing our social fabric to its core – cracks and tears. fractures through which COVID-19 can easily spread.
So how can we respond? First, I urge everyone to continue to give public health a chance. With COVID-19 being a rapidly evolving target, public health officials must continually adjust their recommendations based on new, albeit temporary, scientific evidence. This gives rise to a certain degree of public frustration and mistrust.
Medical science, despite its remarkable achievements (in vaccines, tests and treatments), is still steeped in a degree of uncertainty, but legitimate debates about their risks/costs/benefits to individuals and society should not not be perceived as systemic incompetence, nor lead to misinformation. campaigns.
Around the world, public health and medical experts are making plans on how to prevent and control the next pandemic(s), and I’m sure on paper they will do well. I am optimistic that medical research will continue to give us interventions that will soon be claimed as miracle drugs, whether true or not. But vaccines and drugs, lockdowns and face masks will only work if we also tackle the social determinants of health.
As Americans, we all cherish the same values: justice, patriotism, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness, but we now live in separate emotional matrices and mental realities where understanding science, empathy for others, concern for our common future is filtered out. through the prisms of our own prejudices, fears and self-interests.
Until we abandon the language of degradation and violence that defines our culture wars and the identity politics that divides “us against them,” we cannot heal our self-inflicted national wounds. The vast majority of Americans are reasonable, caring, and generous people. We cannot let the extremist fringes of our society speak for us and determine our common destiny.
Medical and public health interventions alone cannot stop this pandemic or prevent others unless we also confront our social inequalities, reform the faulty socio-economic structures of our nation, and put end to our culture wars. Easier said than done, but it might be worth a try, and it starts with you and me.
Chinh Le is a retired doctor living in Corvallis. He specialized in infectious diseases and was a member of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices from 1997 to 2000, and a consultant for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Global AIDS Program from 2001 to 2004.