In respect for the 4th of July, I will provide what I believe is the most valuable message about this pandemic. It is simply that this pandemic will come to an end. People ask me how that will happen, and I can definitively say it will occur in one of two ways: either enough people will become infected that the population will eventually be protected, or an effective vaccine will be developed. This is always how pandemics end.
All the babble about immunity not being effective or not being long-lasting enough to eventually control coronavirus is ridiculous. Over the millennia of human existence, our species has faced countless numbers of deadly infectious agents, during most of that time having essentially no medical capability whatsoever. Every time humans have survived and moved forward. It will be that way again with coronavirus, and our current medical capability will facilitate that recovery.
This does not mean that there won’t be difficult sacrifices during this process. In the United States alone I anticipate 200,000 people dying and a hundred million individuals being infected (fortunately, most without severe illness). Our society had done a fairly good job of tending to the sick and elderly only to have this virus feed on these folks in a way that we couldn’t prevent or manage. The loss of loved ones and our temporary loss of freedom of movement have had enormous impact on everyone around the globe.
There has also been an incredible amount of antagonism generated by the stress of this infection. Humans, by nature, do not handle quarantine well, and under every historical circumstance there has been conflict over public health issues. The discourse at this time has been especially painful due to the ability of 24-hour news channels and social media to amplify the most divisive and uninformed commentary. There also has been a lack of moral leadership from every perspective that could help manage people’s fears, hopes, and expectations.
What we can’t do during the current time is lose faith, either in ourselves as individuals or collectively in our organizations. As a physician, the most difficult situation I have faced was the suicide of a patient with a treatable disease. Their illness so clouded their decision making that it overwhelmed them. It told me that I wasn’t effective enough in my communications and did not understand the acute despair of the patient. I had not done enough to manage both the physical well-being and the mental health of that individual.
In a similar way, this acute pandemic/illness harms everyone’s judgement. Be your own doctor and try to manage your mental health in this crisis. Try not to make snap judgments about family, friends, or finances at this stressful time. While there may be a physical recovery necessary from COVID-19, the recovery of the psyche may be more important and challenging. Give it some time.
Finally, there is opportunity in chaos. We should look for long-term ways to improve our public health infrastructure and mitigate some of the societal ills that were exposed during this stressful period. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to look at ourselves and gain a better understanding of who we are. We should not squander that knowledge or the potential to improve ourselves that it provides.