We Should Be More Concerned At How Unprepared We Were for a Global Public Health Crisis
Once again, our national leaders are squabbling about Blame when there is less than certainty about the central issues – and doing so in a way that is keeping us distracted from looking ahead.
We Americans want a simple answer, whatever the problem, we want it now, and we want to Blame some entity and Make Them Pay. We hate complications.
Announcements in the last days that the Energy Department and the FBI have “low confidence” beliefs that the worldwide covid pandemic and its millions of deaths probably originated in a lab leak in Wuhan, China have rekindled a slew of blame-filled emotion and vague calls to strike out in a variety of ways against China.
For its part, Joe Biden’s White House is more concerned that other agencies among the 17 said to be studying the issue are torn about whether a lab leak – deliberate or not – is more credible than the transfer of virus in the now-destroyed Wuhan wet markets, a more natural occurrence.
What everyone in leadership agrees is that China has done its best to muddy any needed investigation to determine an answer that might help prevent another such outbreak. Depending on the speaker, China is doing so from a defensive crouch, fueling the notion that this was an intentional, harmful leak of biological weaponry, or covering up to avoid any potential economic blowback from the international community.
Somehow, the origin of covid has become another victim of U.S. political divide, with Republican voices the loudest for attacking both China and our own doctors and scientists who promoted public health measures that the political Right found more unacceptable than the rest of us.
So, we’re seeing strident calls to ban Chinese-owned TikTok apps or enduring endless criticism over waiting three days to shoot down a spy balloon or promoting more military aircraft brushbacks in the South China Sea all being linked to premature or mixed conclusions about the origin of covid.
You and I have no idea of what spark caused the coronavirus to jump to humans. If these agencies can’t agree after three years of scratching for answers, we ought to be taking conclusion-driven newscasts on Fox News or statements from particularly vocal senators with a grain of salt. They don’t know either.
What we should know a lot about by now is how we and the world responded with delay and more caution for business than for public health. What we should know is that we were unprepared for a public health crisis, and how we allowed conspiracy theories to flourish, misinformation to spread, about the failures of our health systems generally.
What we should be thinking about is the next pandemic threat – including concern about safeguarding the labs where research is ongoing – but with an eye towards better response when it inevitably does happen. Instead, our Congress insists on looking backwards, on blaming Dr. Anthony Fauci and virologists for promoting public health measures that many found obsessive, to say nothing of arguments over what small part U.S. investment in studying transfers of viruses from animals to humans may have occurred.
Instead, we are still arguing about paying for health systems, we are still ignoring whether our stockpiles of supplies are in order, we are still preferring political sloganeering fights based on incomplete data than on addressing the issues at hand.
A small incident this week. When an NBC television host learned she had tested positive for covid, she left the set. Later, a rival network host ridiculed her, asking viewers rhetorically, who is still being tested for covid, anyway. We have learned nothing about empathy, to say little about the dangers of communicable disease.
What Do We Need to Know?
Let’s skip what seems to be nonsensical agency issuance of “low confidence” findings and assume that the conclusions are fully justified. If we don’t know, why take a position at all publicly?
The more important question: Now what?
It all seems so simple: We didn’t like lockdown orders, Dr. Fauci and the government wanted them, so they’re bad. China let loose the pandemic monster. Punish them — now.
Are we going to war with China over a lab leak that we still do not know was intentional or accidental or are we going to work scientist-to-scientist to lock down these labs? Are we going to insist that biological labs be shut altogether? Are we going to try to sue China in some legal or extra-legal way to get them to pay financial penalties for countries around the world – including China itself — shutting down for months or more at a time?
Are we going to get over our self-congratulatory stance of “I told you so” or figure out how to protect Americans from all sorts of disease by looking anew at what our health systems can do to be ready for another airborne disease. One look at the public furor over the sudden release of toxic chemicals from an Ohio train derailment says we are little better off now than we were four years ago towards providing both health and aid that makes people feel safe.
What we see in practical terms is a continuing, determined Republican effort to cut as much public spending as possible, a desire to keep schools, businesses and goods flowing no matter what the ailment, and no interest in preparing for disasters. We see a continuing desire among Democrats to pay people, students, businesses to get over past losses from covid, building debts that will take years to eliminate, and with sunset clauses that are now coming due with high rents, high food prices, higher poverty, and a perception, right or wrong, of higher crime.
It has become a pattern in our public discourse that is as applicable to concerns over Jan. 6, 2021, or climate and environment, or immigration and regulations, even on whatever the Hunter Biden disputes are all about.
We’re insistent on simple answers for complex questions. We’re devoted to looking backwards not ahead, we want magic to strike and eliminate all problems from occurring without worrying about preventive care or preparation.
We have released the disease of over-simplification from our own labs.
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