It’s 2022. COVID-19 is still here, and there is little evidence that it’s going away. Coronaviruses have been here longer than us and will be here after us. For centuries, we have co-existed with viruses, and our God-given immune systems have evolved, perfecting our macrophages which fight the nasty microbes. Cytokines or killer chemicals usually put many viruses at bay during our lifecycle, without us even realizing their magnificent work. Our immune systems learn from each new threat and develop their own immune memories. The process is essential for our survival as a species. However, vaccines have emerged as an interesting, and at times lucrative, adjunct to prime our systems and trick them into producing targeted responses to keep the vulnerable amongst us safe.
When the pandemic began, we collectively feared the unknown. We needed to keep our elders and children safe. We masked up, shut everything down, and socially distanced from one another to help prevent the spread of the virus. Most of us complied even if we disagreed with the surgical quarantine mandates. However, in retrospect, as is the case with many knee-jerk reactions, our complete shutdown proved unnecessary and disastrous for small business-like restaurants, parks and recreation, and my medical business of personalized prevention based on individualized primary care. Those in Big Tech thrived as they worked virtually, met on zoom, ordered takeout, and hunkered down. While the metaverse was thrown on steroids, proponents of the virtual worlds continue to thrive. Despite the threat, frontline workers like physicians, nurses, hospital staff, police officers, firefighters, and many others preserved. Some got the virus, and as expected with all viruses, very sadly perished. The majority survived and developed natural immunity.
Vaccines arrived, yet the pandemic continues. All along, our politicians capitalized on the events by blaming each other for their response actions and inactions. Mask mandates became severe, the teachers demanded perpetual remote learning, schools were closed, and everyone was asked to get a vaccine to protect themselves and stop the spread. I was one of the first few to get vaccinated at my hospital. As a physician, I wanted to set an example. I had read up on the science on mRNA vaccines and knew they would likely work. However, there was no safety data and long-term impacts on being vaccinated were not, and are still not, well known. It was, in many ways, a leap of faith. Yet, soon I started seeing an emerging divide. The vaccine proponents started to plead moral superiority and proclaimed themselves to be people of science. Those who were cautious and rightly so, were considered science deniers and intellectually inferior.
Quite sadly, the freedom of choice so dear to our American experiment and democracy is continually attacked by the mainstream media. The media propagates the narrative that there should not be any freedom of choice in this matter as this is an issue of public safety. That is not the case, and as a Pakistani-American doctor who cherishes my liberal freedoms that are only found in our United States, this is all quite shocking to my family and me. While I am fully vaccinated and advocate for others to be vaccinated, I also understand the hesitancy of those not wishing to be vaccinated. This understanding is absent nationally and in mainstream media. Further, as a proud Pakistani-American, I caution my fellow Americans to be extremely cautious before surrendering our freedoms as a result of fear of the unknown – which unfortunately is the norm in many countries.
As the pandemic evolved, blue states pushed mask and vaccine mandates, based on “recommendations of ‘medical experts.'” I saw no harm in masking as we wear masks in hospitals. However, not all masks are equal, and the act of masking is user-dependent and multi-faceted. You need well-fitted masks with adequate pore size openings to prevent droplet infections. Science is not settled on the use of cloth and surgical masks, and there is not enough evidence that they actually protect against viruses like COVID-19. N95 masks prove effective in hospital settings, but they need to be properly fitted by people who need training on their proper use. Mask efficacy is questionable beyond 10 to 20 minutes, and their wear is challenging for even the most dutiful.
While blue states, notably California and New York, went all in for masking, social distancing, and immunizations, red states, notably Florida and Texas, kept their economies and small businesses open. It all began and grew all the more political as many of us sought protection in our political tribes further dividing our nation. The initial data from some of these measures are coming back and so far, I do not see much evidence that those that implemented strict masking and social isolation fared any better than those that did not enforce these measures.
There is also a case to be made for natural immunity after you get COVID-19 and whether there is a need to be vaccinated after as natural immunity is powerful. It is clear that the vaccines do help and protect against COVID-19. However, the evidence to support boosters for otherwise healthy Americans is questionable. We should also be cautious in advocating for boosters, especially for young healthy Americans as there is little evidence that they benefit this cohort, and they might be harmful.
Regardless of where you stand in these debates, it must be clear that much is still unknown. The omicron variant is especially contagious and seems to spread at will despite all our efforts. The sad part of all of this is our division that emerged during the pandemic. The way we judge each other with suspicion and hide within our preferred tribes with little tolerance for opposing views is cause for concern. The lack of regard for choice must concern Americans at large. Many of my colleagues fought this pandemic without vaccines and got sick. Now, shockingly, many are losing their jobs due to their personal health choices. Although I completely support vaccination against COVID-19, I am skeptical of the one-way, “you must comply” policies of mandatory vaccinations, especially in non-health care settings. We need to be humble and open to debate, learning from each other rather than forcing our beliefs on everyone, which is utterly un-American.
As the pandemic evolves, one thing is clear – COVID is not going anywhere. We need to learn to live with it. We must educate and advocate for appropriate vaccinations and safety protocols, but businesses must open, and schools should be in-person – life must go on. The price of living in the metaverse’s zoom and remote work is too high for those who value social interactions, faith, and family.
We have a lot to be proud of as we fight and defeat this invisible foe. However, some of the regulations defy common sense and must be revisited. We are not meant to live in perpetual fear, isolated and scared. We need to get back to being human again. As I go to my son’s basketball game wearing a surgical mask in a small space that I share with a lot of other parents, I find it comical that my son’s teammates must keep their masks on as they run at full speed across the court. In the battle of science and faith, how did we lose common sense?
I would hope that the government and regulatory bodies reevaluate their response to the pandemic and devise more inclusive policies based on science, common sense, and respect for all points of view. Continuing along the path of mask and vaccine mandates will only further divide our already divided nation.
Talal Khan is a family physician and can be reached at Personal Primary Care.
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