King Solomon got it wrong when he said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9, KJV Holy Bible. COVID-19 is really new — as in novel. Never seen before. Unique. Brand new.
The good king might protest that he meant pandemics are not new; they’re as old as humankind. Fair point. There have always been plagues and contagion. In the 1600s, the bubonic plague — the Black Death — killed as many as 50 million people in Asia, Africa and Europe — with as many as a third to a half of Europeans dying. In 1918-20, Spanish Influenza infected 500 million and killed 50 million, maybe up to 100 million people worldwide.
Still, COVID-19 is something new to our world of broad-spectrum antibiotics, antivirals and ever-expanding vaccinations. Modern science has effectively beaten mumps, measles, whooping cough, pertussis, tetanus, polio, rubella, chickenpox and AIDS.
It is, thus, a shock for modern society to confront a disease we cannot stop through normal medical means. It has taken a massive toll in death, devastating illness, resources, fear and panic, and crippled a world economy enjoying one of the longest economic upswings in a century. It has uniquely tested modern nations, and many have shown themselves unprepared and inept in dealing with it. It has brought the mighty United Sates, the world’s leader, benefactor and superpower, to an economic and social standstill. The treatment of the ill and dying has overwhelmed available equipment, supplies and medical staff in New York, Detroit, Louisiana, Seattle and other great cities. The virus has exploited the very essence of the great modern city, a densely-packed beehive of interdependent activities, and has even gripped that apex of sophistication, New York City, with a merciless iron hand, dealing out death and devastating sickness.
How humbly we stand before this extraordinary phenomenon, truly a biblical tragedy, which came down upon us with a frighteningly inexorable but measured pace. Unlike earthquakes and train wrecks, this horror played out in slow motion. Even with some warning, we reacted without the forethought and preparation expected from the greatest, most modern country in the world’s history. We have long known the risks of a pandemic. We’ve talked about them, war-gamed them, and speculated about when one would strike. But as authoritarian, dogmatic regimes have always done, the Trump administration reacted first with denial, then with shifting blame and ignoring experts, next with some half-hearted, spasmodic measures — always with one eye on the stock market and the president’s re-election — and finally with direct albeit inconsistent and disorganized action.
The current pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in our modern economy, which are also its very strength. The global supply chain and free markets have efficiently distributed the manufacture, shipping, delivery and sales of goods and services to the most efficient actors across the world. Relying on that massive, well-oiled supply system, companies, including most hospitals, have foregone large inventories in favor of just-in-time delivery to cut costs. This economic system brought us cheap, quality goods in an incredibly economical manner. However, COVID-19 has exposed how vulnerable we are to disruptions in the flow of goods, including basic medical supplies and the food we depend on. Simple commodities like toilet paper and bottled water disappear to newly fearful people obsessed with hoarding.
We have become excessively reliant on China for manufacture and production of basic goods, given concerns about China’s totalitarian government and their organized pirating of technology from U.S. firms who were forced by cost considerations to do business there.
Graphic depictions of COVID-19’s spread from spring break revelry or international travel demonstrate how interconnected the world has become. We have hardly been aware of the frequency and breadth of travel in these days of international commerce and affordable travel.
As this terrible pandemic appears to level off — thanks to wise measures enacted mostly by prudent governors and observed by prudent citizens — and as we plan our return to normal activity, let’s resolve to prepare better for the next one, which will certainly come. Let us also retain a remembrance of our powerlessness before these awesome natural forces and maintain some of the humility we now feel toward nature and nature’s God.
Greg Bell is the former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.