Jack DeVine / December 7, 2021

The Emerging Lessons From COVID

COVID will be with us for a long time, maybe forever — we’d better learn how to live with it.

When Yogi Berra said “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” he was talking about the 1973 National League pennant race. His words apply just as aptly to today’s pandemic. COVID is not over, and given its rapid mutation and spread, it’s not clear that it ever will be.

But while the virus stubbornly resists our efforts to defeat it, the ordeal is teaching us a great deal about pandemics and about ourselves. Major crises — war, pandemic, and natural disaster — cause pain and misery, but they also force us to reboot. Nations on the rebound sometimes (although not always) emerge stronger than ever.

We’ll fare better in the ongoing fight against COVID if we heed its lessons to date. Here are a few:

Lesson 1: Caution pays dividends; panic does not. There’s a fine line here. Responsible leaders naturally want us to recognize the very real danger posed by COVID — but the drumbeat of warnings, amplified by media, has at times prompted counterproductive public reactions.

Perspective helps. About 99% of those who contract the disease recover. COVID is a serious health threat. It’s not a death sentence. We’ll get through it.

Lesson 2: It’s not “all about the science.” Solving the riddle of COVID is a scientific exercise; practical application of that knowledge in a multi-dimensioned society is another matter entirely. COVID protective and remedial actions should be science informed, not science driven.

For all their priceless contributions to society, scientists are poorly suited for public policymaking. They are trained to examine their subjects in microscopic detail, with narrow, single-minded focus. On COVID, science is shining the light on the right path — but navigating down that path is the job of our elected leaders, not the scientists.

Lesson 3. It’s quite possible that we will never eradicate COVID. Many infectious disease experts now believe that it will become endemic, essentially a permanent but manageable disease. We’ll have to learn to live with it.

Our two-year experience in living with COVID has been mixed at best. It’s not at all clear that lockdowns have been effective in slowing its spread, but we know for certain that they wrecked the economy and caused immeasurable harm to individuals. Masking, widely assumed (with little evidence) to be vital to public protection, actually provides only marginal benefit. Lengthy school closings and extended reliance on remote learning have hampered children’s social and academic development — it may take years to assess the damage.

It’s high time for a comprehensive assessment of both the effectiveness and adverse consequences of these practices. Continued reliance on those found to be of low value makes no sense.

Instinctively, we modern-day humans always prefer to make our problems disappear altogether — but that’s not always possible. In that respect, there is a striking parallel between our struggle with COVID and our actions to confront the threat of climate change. The currently planned restructuring of the world’s energy production, although disruptive and expensive, will not stop the climate from changing. Our long-term challenge will be to adapt to a changing climate, just as it may be to live with an endemic COVID.

Lesson 4: Real crises leave no room for politics. We must be able to trust in our elected leaders implicitly. Clear, complete and brutally honest communications are essential. Neither our current nor former president have met that standard.

President Trump used his COVID briefings as a daily opportunity for televised angry debate with reporters. Candidate Joe Biden foolishly promised to “crush” the virus and blamed Trump for the COVID death toll during his presidency. (His own administration’s COVID numbers have now exceeded Trump’s). As president, Biden still refuses to give credit to his predecessor for production of the vaccines we’re relying upon to fight the virus.

And of course, absent public trust in leadership, vaccination mandates and other authoritarian demands fall flat.

And one more lesson. Bad as it is, COVID is no reason to quit. Precautions, access restrictions, and mask requirements are tiresome. They get in the way. But they are not a reason to stop work, stop school, stop engaging with family and friends, or stop living life to the fullest.

It’s tempting to use COVID as the universal excuse for anything and everything that goes wrong in society or in our own lives. Victim thinking just legitimizes failure — it never helps. Don’t let it in the door.

The essence of Yogi Berra’s “it ain’t over” message was a reminder to his team to face adversity, don’t make excuses, and just keep on fighting. It’s good advice, then and now.

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