By Robert C. Koehler
If you want expertise, don’t bother reading any further here. I know as much about coronavirus as any stunned disbeliever with a sudden, irresistible urge to touch his face.
This is a news story that’s spookily personal — far more personal, somehow, than all those other ongoing horror stories out there, about war, refugees, climate change. Those stories are real, yet compared to the coronavirus story, they feel like abstractions. This is about a potential pandemic — the possibility of hundreds of millions of deaths worldwide — and it’s about the need to use hand sanitizer. Right now. And also, don’t touch people anymore. And stay home.
Part of me feels positively Donald Trumpian about this: Come on, this isn’t real. Indeed, my urge is to defy the warnings and hug my friends, shake strangers’ hands, continue living a connected and joyous life. But part of me stops cold, thinks about the post-World War I influenza pandemic that wound up infecting almost a quarter of the world’s population and killed as many as 100 million people. These things really happen. Don’t be ignorantly dismissive. But don’t panic either.
So, stabbed with “maybe,” all I can do is grope for understanding.
We live in a dangerous and paradoxical world. OK, fine. But is our social infrastructure capable of calmly and sanely handling new dangers that emerge — or is it more likely to make them worse?
I begin with this crumb of data from a recent USA Today story:
According to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution grants the federal government isolation and quarantine authority.
“The Secretary of Health and Human Services can take actions to prevent the spread of communicable disease from foreign countries into the United States and between states.”
The words invoke both a need for top-down, authoritarian control of things and what I call the Yikes Syndrome: the idea of a viral invasion from a “foreign country,” from somewhere out there beyond our borders — beyond what is known and safe. Somehow the assumptions quietly hidden in this sort of wording throw me into a spiral of doubt. Like climate change, a potential pandemic requires global cooperation: people and governments pulling together to survive and transcend the danger. While enforced order and temporarily isolating people is also sometimes necessary, I see in such wording how panic spreads. We’re quick to “go to war” against a problem and haven’t learned yet, at the highest levels of government, that wars don’t end and are never won; they simply set the stage for further war.
In that regard, consider these words from the social-justice and peace organization Code Pink:
This is bad. Since February 19, when the first coronavirus cases were identified in Iran, at least 6,566 people — about one in every 12,000 Iranians — have been infected. At least 237 people have died. Iran is third, behind China and South Korea, in cases of coronavirus per population. Due to U.S. sanctions, Iran is suffering from a shortage of the medical supplies, products, and equipment required for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of the coronavirus.
Is this a learning moment? As the Code Pink message goes on to point out, the U.S. Treasury Department has said it will waive some of the sanctions against humanitarian supplies sent to Iran, but this slight give in the rules is probably too late to do any good. It also points out the danger of playing war. The unintended and often shocking consequences of war have not yet fully penetrated humanity’s collective awareness. Preparation for war, as well as the declaration of a national enemy du jour, remain assumed and unexamined functions of most national governments.
And one of the costs of this is . . . everything else.
For instance, at a recent coronavirus roundtable in Detroit, someone asked Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, how the United States, when it develops a COVID-19 vaccine, could afford to make it free for everyone — a stunning question, when you consider the cost, to everyone, of not making the vaccine universally accessible.
Burger responded: “How insane and cruel is it to suggest that we have to figure out how to pay for it when we can actually go to war and not ask one question, but to prevent this kind of a disease, we have to say, ‘How can we pay for it?’”
And Bernie Sanders, who was also at the roundtable, added: “Does anybody in their right mind believe that if you’re rich you should be able to afford a vaccine and save your life but if you’re poor you gotta die? Is that really where we’re at in the United States of America?”
Guess what? Not everyone agrees with Sanders on this. Fox News (of all places), for instance, quoted Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, who asked: “Who’s going to want to make a new drug if the government is just going to come along and confiscate the profit?”
As I read these words, I quickly reach for the hand sanitizer. If there’s an ounce of sanity in this defense of profit, it can only be because the possibility of a coronavirus pandemic is fake news — a profit-feeding scare tactic. But if the possibility of a global pandemic is real, how could anyone question the urgency of government investment in the development of a vaccine and then making it universally available? Had Fox News been around during good old World War II, my guess is that it wouldn’t have tossed snarky challenges at the Manhattan Project or lamented that the military-industrial complex should have been able to patent the atomic bomb. But, oh yeah, we worship war. Waging it is the point of government.
But then there’s Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine. In 1955, Edward R. Murrow asked Salk, in a live TV interview, who owned the patent for this vaccine. Speaking from a mountain of higher values, Salk responded:
“Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”