How long will the coronavirus pandemic continue to scourge the world? We can only guess, based on empirical experience. Did God say how long the world would remain flooded and when Noah and the occupants of the ark could step out of it? Noah had to figure that out for himself. So must government and health authorities think of a way to cope with COVID-19 and return the world to normalcy.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House coronavirus task force and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimates that it will take at least 18 months — or a year-and-a-half — to develop a vaccine and make it publicly available. But he admits that this is very optimistic and could require taking shortcuts which could be dangerous. According to authorities, the usual time frame is “from six to 10 years for vaccines to get developed, approved and marketed to the public.”
For perspective, the deadliest pandemic to hit mankind recently was the Spanish flu of 1918. The first cases of the Spanish flu were noted in January 1918 and the pandemic is said to have lasted almost three years, subsiding by December 1920. However, it was not until 1940 that a vaccine was finally developed and made publicly available.
According to a National Geographic article, “By the end of the pandemic, between 50 and 100 million people were dead worldwide, including more than 500,000 Americans…”
But how was the virus contained without a vaccine? National Geographic adds: “Now, as then, public health interventions are the first line of defense against an epidemic in the absence of a vaccine. These measures include closing schools, shops, and restaurants; placing restrictions on transportation; mandating social distancing, and banning public gatherings.”
Inevitably, this “solution” has crippled the world economy. In the US, unemployment has soared. Families are facing a financial crisis, on top of the health crisis. This has led to protest marches in several cities and demands for “liberation” from the restrictions. Protestors have also defied orders to wear face masks, avoid crowds, and maintain social distancing.
The mayor of Las Vegas would like the casinos, hotels and the convention center to restart operations, although she does not think it is her responsibility to ensure the safety of her constituents. The governor of Nevada won’t allow it. However, the governor of Georgia has already allowed businesses to open again in his state.
In the face of all these, President Donald Trump has been sending conflicting signals. He has encouraged the protests and calls for “liberation,” while declaring that he does not agree with the move of the governor of Georgia. In fact, critics believe that Trump is anxious to open up the economy mainly to get his reelection campaign back on track. But health authorities and most state officials insist that the pandemic must first be contained — as a first step, through widespread testing — warning that easing restrictions without testing could result in a surge in infections and deaths, negating gains in containing the virus.
Everyone needs to learn from history. National Geographic recounts: “Philadelphia detected its first case of a deadly, fast-spreading strain of influenza on Sept. 17, 1918. The next day, in an attempt to halt the virus’ spread, city officials launched a campaign against coughing, spitting, and sneezing in public. Yet 10 days later — despite the prospect of an epidemic at its doorstep — the city hosted a parade that 200,000 people attended. Flu cases continued to mount until finally, on Oct. 3, schools, churches, theaters, and public gathering spaces were shut down. Just two weeks after the first reported case, there were at least 20,000 more.”
But speaking of these “restrictions,” the fact is that nothing in the measures taken in the US to contain COVID-19 requires an absolute lockdown or prohibits people from performing essential activities. Non-essential travel, avoiding crowds, and wearing protective gear are necessary to minimize infecting others or being infected. But social distancing and wearing a face mask in public do not keep people from shopping, working, or taking a stroll around their neighborhoods.
Similarly, the ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) imposed by the government of President Rodrigo Duterte does not mandate a complete lockdown of the population. People are able to set out to buy food and provisions and undertake other essential activities, albeit with restrictions.
A few days ago, while listening to a report by Duterte on COVID-19, I could not help being amused — and baffled — by his revelation that he has been unable to visit his hometown of Davao City because “the mayor will not allow my plane to land.” The mayor is the President’s daughter, Sara Duterte.
Apparently, Duterte intended to stress that even he, the most powerful man in the country, has had to follow the rules on ECQ — so why shouldn’t everyone else? But he wasn’t doing the citizenry a favor by interpreting the restrictions in that manner. He has simply encouraged lesser officials — the police, the military and local authorities — to exaggerate the restrictions (as Duterte has), even to the point of being unreasonably strict (as Duterte believes his daughter is).
Would Duterte endanger the health and well-being of the people of Davao City if he and his entourage were to properly cover themselves with face masks and gloves and avoid hugging, kissing, shaking hands, and mingling with the crowd?
And what is to prevent the mayor from advising her father and his security detail and aides to keep their masks and gloves on and observe ECQ — even as she herself needs to?
Earlier, the White House released guidelines for reopening the US economy, allowing businesses to operate and people to work based on a three-stage process. The guidelines make sense except for the absence of a vital step — testing.
Inexplicably, Trump has resisted this, declaring that it is not possible to test 350 million Americans — meaning the entire US population — within an acceptable time frame.
And so, there is a stalemate. But is it realistic to wait until a vaccine is successfully developed and everyone in the world has been tested before opening up the economy?
Isn’t there a middle ground — a way of gradually restoring normalcy while conducting nationwide testing, and while waiting for the vaccine to be developed and made publicly available?
At present, essential businesses and services are allowed to operate, subject to strict protocols: social distancing, wearing protective gear and using disinfectants. At supermarkets, personnel and customers have to wear face masks and gloves and keep at least six feet away from each other. Crowding is not allowed and the number of customers in the store is controlled.
Why can’t these protocols be applied to a gradually expanded and carefully selected number of economic and community activities, based on such indicators as a decrease in infections and fatalities? Meanwhile, tests could be conducted at a brisk pace — but ensuring efficacy. Admittedly, there could be risks but the precautions could mitigate that.
Like Duterte and his daughter, Trump has had a tendency to exaggerate. But, maybe the health and state authorities are also being too segurista (playing it too safe). Remember the saying among doctors, “When in doubt, don’t operate!”?
When God unleashed the great flood, He surely did not expect Noah to remain shut down in the ark indefinitely. Neither did Noah. Thus, when Noah saw that the flood waters had begun to recede, he dispatched a raven and a dove to fly out and seek dry land.
Noah did not wait for the earth to become completely dry before deciding to check when it would be safe to open up the ark and allow his family and God’s creatures to live normal lives again.
Perhaps we can all learn a lesson from Noah.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.