I recently received a postcard in the mail titled “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America.” The first of these recommendations is to follow the directions of my state and local authorities.
In my community, notable restrictions on commerce have been handed down by my governor, my mayor, and a county judge. This has had a crippling effect on our local economy as we brace for the storm to get worse. For the most part, I trust my state and local governments to do what is right for my community. I live in a heavily populated county and have almost certainly crossed paths with coronavirus carriers by now. I have tried to divorce myself from federal political discourse over the course of the past few presidential elections, as I lost faith that our political parties are still working for the people who elected them.
As a child, I recall a great Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, who showed us what it meant to support the public. His personal beliefs, such as his opposition to abortion, did not interfere with his public positions. Despite being a conservative Christian, he strongly advocated for condom-based HIV prevention efforts. Appointed by a conservative president, his cigarette warnings significantly decreased smoking despite the effect on tobacco industry profits. He practiced medicine and public health the way we were taught in medical school, with the patient first.
Dr. Koop worked hard to destigmatize disease. Dr. Koop has since passed, but as I see our current Surgeon General essentially sitting on the sideline, I miss Dr. Koop a great deal. I don’t think he would have stood by idly if someone had tried to apply a nationality to a virus in a public address. After all, what we call the “Spanish flu,” a deadly epidemic that killed millions from 1918 to 1920, probably started in North America. Maybe the makers of the “Westworld” television program can resurrect Dr. Koop’s persona for the benefit of our country.
In the wake of the current coronavirus outbreak, it is perhaps a fear of the unknown that has the country most on edge. The number potentially infected could be a few million or over 100 million. We do not know if survivors will have long-lasting immunity or if a vaccine is feasible. If a vaccine is feasible, it may only produce short-term immunity, in which case we could see this virus return in a cyclic fashion. What many people don’t understand is that this virus is basically an accident of evolution like so many other infectious agents. A few genetic elements got mixed together in an unsuspecting creature, maybe a creature that it had no effect on, and was transmitted to humans by accident. These accidents will recur in greater frequency as long as we choose to live closer to each other.
I still see misguided behavior. I saw someone wearing a hooded rain poncho tucked under a baseball cap in sunny 80-degree weather the other day, and I also saw someone wearing a wrestling mask, which ironically covers everything except your eyes, nose, and mouth. After the stimulus bill was passed, a company in Texas planned to reduce employee compensation by the amount of stimulus money received by the employee, effectively capturing the worker’s stimulus benefit. A poster on social media suggested that COVID-19 is an acronym for a conspiracy organization rather than an infectious disease. Guns and ammunition are sold out in addition to toilet paper. People are ignoring social distancing guidelines. We must get it together.
It seems that a national emergency was needed to create a bipartisan agreement for the first time in recent memory. Public health and economics are clashing heavily as a necessity, and we still don’t know where the endpoint will be with so many people who can’t work and/or can’t spend their money. These economic sacrifices are necessary. We are still on the increasing side of the incidence curve.
I suppose that the lingering question I have is what if President Trump’s policies eventually conflict with his first recommendation on the postcard? Am I supposed to listen to my state and local authorities if the country wants to be “open for business” before my state does? We need to be unified on this!
I find some inspiration instead by a Facebook post shared by the Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in my hometown: “Your grandparents were called to war. You are being called to sit on your couch. You can do this.”
Cory Michael is a radiologist.
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