E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. A fitting motto for the melting pot that is the United States and a fitting view of the world, whose frailty, humanity and interdependence has been laid bare by an invisible virus. While ground zero for coronavirus seems to have shifted from Asia to Europe and is now making its way to the U.S., whose level of national awareness has only recently kicked into gear with a presidential emergency declaration, it is not too soon to begin asking ourselves what life should look like after this moment of global and national solidarity.
Coping with the pandemic will be agonizingly hard for the global economy and for many millions of people who do not enjoy the inherent security and resilience of adequate healthcare coverage, savings, paid medical leave and other benefits. The societal trade off we now face is stark. As financially vulnerable people grapple with the false choice of complying with calls for social distancing to protect the medically at risk and themselves, while doing so at the peril of their own economic survival. In this environment, facing a 100-year pandemic threat that has grounded the global economy to a halt in 90 days (with governments throwing trillions of dollars at the invisible many-headed hydra that has once vibrant free moving societies on lockdown), basic benefits and social compliance are our best defense.
Images of national solidarity in Italy, where forza Italiais beckoned with instruments and neighborly cantatas aimed at lifting spirits as the country grapples with the worst outbreak of the virus outside of China are heartening. Many fear the uncontained virus places the U.S. a week or two behind the nightmarish scenes (and choices) playing out in Italian hospitals and the harshness of Italy’s lockdown, which threatens quarantine violators with fines and incarcerationon grounds of reckless endangerment. The world is fighting nothing less than a world war, except instead of going it together with allied forces arrayed against the primordial infectiousness of the coronavirus pandemic, countries are opting to largely go it alone. The war analogy is not lost on national security experts with the Atlantic Council’s CEO, Frederick Kempe, calling for the activation of NATO’s article 5 provision on collective defense against the pandemic.
Borders are closing inside the Schengen area comprising 26 European countries as fast as schools and businesses are being shuttered around the world. Austria has gone as far as banning gatherings of 5 or more people while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are advising against gatherings of 50 or more people for at least 8 weeks. All of this is in keeping with the reality that in a pandemic it is better to be criticized for overreacting before the fact, than to bear the reality of not doing nearly enough ahead of time. In an unprecedented move, trans-Atlantic travel between Europe and the U.S. has all but come to a halt, with the UK and Ireland soon to follow as travel bans are imposed to stem the tide of imported coronavirus transmission—notwithstanding the fact that community spread is already present across the U.S.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and it is not unlikely that domestic travel linkages will also be severed between national hot spots, such as New Rochelle in New York, which is already cordoned off by the National Guard who are containing a 1-mile radius. Counterproductive crowding at 13 U.S. airports where returning citizens and other travelers are being funneled into large crowds waiting for hours defeats the purpose of social distancing and only aggravates the perils of traveling during a pandemic.
Unchecked and if the coronavirus “courageous” continue to ignore the urgent call to action of social distancing, self-isolation or 14-day quarantines if they are exposed, and the domestic “militarization” of containment efforts is not only possible, it is likely. Imbecilic, mathematically blind, and dangerous comparisons between the seasonal flu and this emerging pandemic miss the fact that the seasonal flu is well understood, enjoys a level of population immunity, and vaccine development and production capacity are already at scale. Coronavirus curfews are already in place in cities and communities across the U.S., including the island of Puerto Rico, which can ill afford another setback, to stem the tide of non-compliance.
Facing down the threat of a pandemic requires national sacrifice, solidarity, and hard choices at every level of our society. Like every great moment of national or global struggle whether it was building a new country after colonial independence; or building post-war institutions to keep the world safe and extend prosperity; or the enduring fight for equality following the civil rights movement, each period of national struggle comes with a question of what type of country and society do we want when the struggle is over. The struggle will end, and we have a unique obligation to ensure that the sacrifices borne first by those who will die, become infirm, and the medical and scientific professionals strenuously holding the line to keep the world safe are not in vain.
We are living in an invest now or pay later world. Paying later for pandemic preparedness has already proven to be a truly costly endeavor and we may only be experiencing the opening act of this outbreak. Calls to flatten the curve so that hospital systems and courageous frontline medical workers, including doctors, nurses and others, can cope with the oncoming wave of patients needing medical care grow louder. Indeed, the rapid onset of the pandemic in Italy and other countries in Europe that are now imposing draconian shutdowns is as much a logistics and supply chain stressor as it is a medical one. Anticipating the real strain on the medical workforce, who will be heralded as the heroes of the coronavirus pandemic, along with unsung scientific heroes donning lab coats and seeking no glory, many countries are calling up retired healthcare workers as reservists.
When the dust settles and a new post-pandemic normal sets in, the societal questions of public policy, global health and security will remain. Now is as good a time as any as weeks of social distancing take hold, for us to contemplate what world and countries do we want in the aftermath? How do we address the fundamental insecurity of billions of people outside of public health safety nets? How do we ensure that basic levels of healthcare protection, employee rights, such as paid medical leave, are conferred universally? How do we ensure that the scientific supply chain and advances in vaccinology and medicine are part of our collective commons?
Similar questions can be raised about ensuring national educational and employment continuity in countries with uneven access to the internet or the technologies that make remote connectivity possible. Election integrity and continuity is also a matter of democratic priority, not singularly against cyber threats or domestic and foreign interference, but also against fears of crowding and sanitary conditions at polling stations. In this light, national mail in ballots and e-voting options are not a partisan priority, but rather a patriotic one that can ensure the sacrosanct act of voting and enfranchisement remain undeterred. As we enter the end of the beginning of this global pandemic, heeding public health advice and breaking community spread through social distancing are key. If we rally in solidarity with the most vulnerable and the scientific and medical communities who will have the hardest fights, we shall overcome the pandemic. The real question is what world do we want when the war is over?