The SARS-CoV-2 virus, the cause of COVID-19, is, in all respects, an attacking enemy. An army that continually moves its destructive forces rapidly across America and the world. It effectively kills and maims those in its path. It has one simple, invariable mission: to infect, replicate thousands of times and, with these thousands of reinforcements, move on to infect again and again. Relentlessly repeating this cycle as long as there is a susceptible population. And as it advances it changes its armament becoming an even more dangerous foe, through the evolution of variants .
It is a formidable biological enemy, the likes of which America and the world have not confronted since the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 50 million people in its three-year march across the world. When the SARS-CoV-2 attack started we had no effective weapons to fight back. The usual protections against attacking enemies were useless. We can't run or hide from the virus; we can't even see it. It is a frightening enemy.
The way forward was, and still is, science. Thousands of individual scientists dropped their work to take up the COVID-19 cause, collaborating with others around the world. The result was the quick identification of the virus and studies that, within a year, led to safe and effective vaccines , and one that now has Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval .
This is how individuals in a functioning society should work, coming together at a time of crisis to protect one another against a threat, especially the most vulnerable. Presently, the most vulnerable in the COVID-19 pandemic include children under 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated. In a functioning society , the most vulnerable members would be surrounded and protected by those less vulnerable, the vaccinated and masked.
But in large parts of America , the most vulnerable are not protected. The airwaves and social media are flooded with dangerous misinformation and lies, spreading fear and generating anger. The result has been unyielding COVID-19 denial, vaccine mistrust and refusal of all mitigation procedures. State governments and their supporters that block COVID-19 mitigation, restrict school masking, and do little to promote vaccination are endangering the most vulnerable. Their actions promote a very misguided sense of personal rights: the individual liberty to spread SARS-CoV-2 to others with impunity. Imagine this personal right being applied to syphilis, gonorrhea, genital herpes, or maybe, Ebola.
In a Washington Post opinion piece about the Sept. 11 attacks, author E.J. Dionne Jr. ended by saying that in remembering 9/11 it would be far better to have "realistic assessments of what it will take to protect our people …and prayers that we might never again confront a misfortune of this sort." But just such a misfortune has confronted us for the past 19 months with the pandemic. And a realistic assessment of how we protected ourselves is distressing. For many, patriotism is equated with actively and consciously failing to protect themselves and others through vaccination. But the most vulnerable suffer since the least vaccinated states have the greatest spikes in pediatric infections.
Almost 700 thousand Americans have died from COVID-19 — an appalling number that has not struck a moral chord in many Americans. The number is 220 times as many as died on 9/11 but without the nationwide sorrow and outrage of 9/11. But as the delta variant spreads, deaths increasingly include the most vulnerable. While death in children remains a low percentage of all deaths, they are happening and pediatric wards are filling up with sick kids. We do not know what long-term debilitating effects may result from even mild pediatric SARS-CoV-2 infections. It is hard to reconcile why so many are willing to take these chances with the most vulnerable? In a functional society, children would be protected from SARS-CoV-2 infection. There would be no choice between school and protection , we could do both.
Can the divided and dysfunctional society that we live in ever come together to confront any attacking enemy, human or biological? Considering the biological, it is a certainty that another zoonotic pandemic virus will emerge, probably sooner than later because of increased animal-human contact due to climate change and human encroachment . It is well known that animals harbor thousands of concerning viruses . But there is also the potential for an epidemic or pandemic of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms . Such microbes or viruses could be far worse than SARS-CoV-2. Denial by misinformation and misguided personal freedoms will not stop this.
We cannot replay the debacles of 2020 that propelled the present crisis. We cannot use public health crises and sacrifice lives for political gain. The fact is that pandemics kill. At some point the deniers and the spreaders of misinformation must have an epiphany: Pandemics won't go away by denial, and they can't be made political. We need a simple societal consensus to protect the most vulnerable, thereby protecting everyone. This would happen in a functioning society.
James Alwine is an emeritus professor and a virologist; he is a fellow of the American Academy for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Felicia Goodrum Sterling is a 2018 Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project, the president of the American Society for virology, and a professor and virologist.
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