I attended a cousin’s wedding this past week. It was quite the party—lavish banquet hall, more than abundant food (so many appetizers!), elaborate dinner, drinking and dancing. Hundreds of people were there, including many members of my extended family. It was a rousing celebratory event.
But while there, I was struck by the thought that such a celebration is impossible in many places around the world. The reason: restrictions on public gatherings due to the coronavirus. To date, there have been more than 81,000 reported cases of coronavirus worldwide, with more than 2,700 deaths. And the news keeps getting worse. For the first time, more new cases have been reported outside China, the virus’s epicenter, than within it.
The rapid spread of new cases in the Middle East is particularly troublesome as porous borders and religious pilgrims make containment especially difficult. Health professionals warn that the epidemic is poised to become a pandemic and, while the US has been generally spared by its spread, it is only a matter of time. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but more really a question of when it will happen — and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” reported Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Already, there is evidence of a subtle psychological impact of coronavirus beginning to take hold. I’m currently fighting a cold. No big deal, but for many people across the world, this would be an exceedingly worrisome development. Images of empty streets, health care workers covered head-to-toe in bulky hazmat suits, first-hand accounts of virus victims who are quarantined for weeks at a time, nurses and doctors reporting exhaustion and traumatic stress and nervous global markets are all signs that point to the pervasive power of this coming pandemic. While the rate of new cases in Wuhan, China, the outbreak’s epicenter, may have plateaued, the spread of the virus to other countries is what has prompted the CDC to extend its dire warnings to people in the US. Indeed, the whole world is vulnerable. We have an obligation, as individuals and as whole nations, to mobilize against this inevitable tragedy.
Inevitably in this hyper-partisan season, politics will play a role. The President has commented with typically unhelpful, contradictory and ill-informed remarks, minimizing the threat while praising health care professionals. But it is not just his words. Two years ago, the Trump administration removed funding for the CDC’s pandemic task force. Such short-sighted measures for temporary economic or political gain, leave us even more vulnerable than if we had a robust defense in place to fight this mysterious enemy.
What to do? First, pay attention! We must each learn all we can about this new infectious disease. Second, we must exercise discipline in personal hygiene and be watchful about rapidly unfolding developments around the world, especially when (remember, it is “when,” not “if”) cases emerge that are close to home. Third, in this election season, we must hold government officials accountable for transparency and for investing sufficient funds in preventive measures for this and any future epidemiological emergency.
Like the climate crisis, the coronavirus calls upon us all—as individuals and as members of communities that make up the fabric of our society—to think beyond borders about how to marshal our resources in defense against this common enemy. We must avoid empty phrases and simplistic solutions.
We must be mindful, as well, that there is a grave danger of both profiling groups who live in or travel to global “hot spots” and stigmatizing those who have been infected with the virus. Since we never know where and when an outbreak will next occur, we are all at risk. Only by working respectfully across differences—cultural, ethnic, religious, geographic, political, socioeconomic—can we face down a future where super bugs of unknown origin menace our planet.