Letter to the Editor on COVID-19

The Portland Press Herald published my letter today on the need to reassess our strategy – if you can call it that – for living with COVID-19.

The letter was responding to the paper’s editorial on Nov. 30, which argued that the appearance of the omicron variant may fulfill scientists’ fears of “a new variant that is more more transmissible and more deadly while being less responsive to treatments and vaccines.” Because we can’t wait to be sure, the editorialist argued that we need to take the usually prescribed preventative measures until the day comes when the world’s population is sufficiently immunized and “COVID is limited to small local outbreaks that can be isolated and controlled.”

Although I think the letter’s argument is pretty clear, I didn’t have the space (letters are limited to 250 words) to make it explicit. So I will do so here:

  1. We don’t know how long we will have to live with COVID-19, but we do know that the virus (a) mutates rapidly and that — at least in the West — (2) infection rates come in waves and vary geographically in ways that make it difficult to predict the future course of the pandemic.
  2. If a nation’s strategy to preserve health and life is purely preventative, it is relying on a combination of personal responsibility and social policy. As my letter notes, “That view requires an abundance of self-deception about human nature and the possibilities of collective action.”
  3. A realist view would take into account that some percentage of citizens will neither volunteer to submit to masking, social distancing, lockdowns or vaccination, nor is there the political will to enforce those measures in most Western democracies. It’s not that the prevention view is wrong, or ineffective — democracies just lack the political will to oblige everyone to take those steps.
  4. Therefore, the realist argues that we should reluctantly accept the costs of individual refusal and invest in a healthcare system sufficient to the challenges that a lifetime of COVID-19 presents.

I was excited to see that the first comment on my letter was from a skeptic who wrote, “Current level of investment”—there are very many areas where $ we do not have might be spent.

Another writer added: “The present surge in demand for hospital beds is unparalleled. We cannot run a cost effective hospital system based on numbers that arrive only when a once-in-a-century pandemic hits. Unless, of course, we think these numbers are here to stay, in which case we will need to plan accordingly.

Both of which prove the point: If we can’t afford the consequences, we’re obliged to participate in prevention. If we don’t prevent, we must pay the piper, and we can do so in our nation’s health, or in our treasure. You don’t can’t have it both ways.

As an aside, I previously addressed the surge issue in an op-ed co-written with my daughter, who trained to become an EMT just as COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. We argued for a “U.S. Health Corps” which would not only address surges, but also the looming shortage of medical workers in the U.S which predated the pandemic’s impact.