Editor’s note: This column is from one of the participants in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which is being held virtually this year. It runs from Tuesday through Friday. For details, go to worldaffairsconference.org.
Few of us took notice when a novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. It didn’t register even as it spread across Asia and parts of Europe. One year and nearly 500,000 U.S. deaths later, what could we have done differently to have engaged the public more quickly?
By the time the first case was reported in the United States, public health professionals were hard at work reviewing pandemic plans, consulting colleagues, poring over every new piece of data, contemplating next steps. We were learning about this virus in real time, piecing together each new bit of information while anticipating its next move.
The responsibility of public health is vast, but we have surprisingly few tools readily available to fight a foe as widespread and relentless as COVID-19. We had no vaccine, we had no treatment, there was no obvious engineering solution, no way to quickly alter the environment. The only solution was a behavioral one: People had to be willing to act in ways to mitigate the transmission of the virus — not just for themselves but for the community at large. But how best to communicate this? How best to engage the public in such a massive collective effort?
Building awareness and educating the public are essential first steps in any campaign of this type, but these efforts were stymied by our rapidly evolving understanding of the virus. Worse, the cacophony of social media inadvertently or intentionally added to the confusion. Confusion stokes fear, and leaders appearing to change their minds fueled mistrust. Public health found itself playing catch-up and without a steady, strong voice.
States have the constitutional authority to manage the public’s health. That meant that as the virus took hold across the United States, a patchwork of responses — reflecting varying levels of capacity and political will — rendered any kind of coordinated response all but impossible. The lack of clear guidance from the federal level left states scrambling to devise their own solutions. Local leaders attempting to manage local situations were often challenged by baffling state directives.
Massive lockdowns seemed prudent but were difficult to enforce, had devastating economic impacts and fueled resentment. Selective closures may have seemed wiser, but only served to deepen divides as people questioned why some businesses could operate while others could not. And while leaders debated school closures and curfews, some politicians held super-spreader events and ordinary people gathered in defiance of the orders to avoid crowds.
In the end, the simplest of actions — wearing a face covering properly, maintaining physical distance from others, washing hands frequently and staying home when you don’t feel well — were all we had and all we needed to deflect the virus. These should have been simple messages about these simple actions. And they should have been accepted for what they were: simple gestures anyone could practice for the betterment of everyone. But instead they were easily controverted and became symbols to rail against as individual expressions of frustration and anxiety. So the virus was enabled to continue its insidious march, racking up more cases, more hospitalizations and ever more deaths while it ravaged our economy, our mental health and our social fabric.
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We are social animals after all, and the isolation created by stay-at-home orders, remote work, virtual school and restricted visiting hours at congregate living facilities took an enormous toll. People need human contact, so much so that even those who had been vigilant in following all other measures risked the virus in order to be with family and friends, and those who ignored the advice have, in some cases, gone out of their way to express the “right” to gather.
The irony in all this is that these same impulses that drive us to be together could not be harnessed to have us act together in a collective effort to vanquish this disease. And as the virus is not done with us yet, and this won’t be the last novel virus we experience, we must continue to learn in real time how to acknowledge and act on our collective human vulnerability.
Donna J. Petersen is dean of the College of Public Health, senior associate vice president at USF Health and chair of the COVID-19 Task Force at the University of South Florida.