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Nobody looks good in a pandemic — but that shouldn’t stop leaders from trying

SHARE Nobody looks good in a pandemic — but that shouldn’t stop leaders from trying
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Gov. Gary Herbert approaches the podium during a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert seemed determined this week to preserve the principle of localism, as well as the state’s lowest-in-the-nation unemployment rate, in the face of a dramatic resurgence of COVID-19. 

His decision to reimpose moderate or orange restrictions on Provo and Orem alone — tempting defiant young adults there to simply move their parties to nearby Lindon or Springville — was bound to generate criticism from those who believe not enough is being done.

But Utah County’s decision, only hours later, to finally impose a countywide mask mandate was filled with political risk, as well. As a group of angry people made clear during a crowded County Commission meeting several weeks ago, the thought of wearing a mask gives delicate political belles down there a case of the vapors.

Meanwhile, a half a world away, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, tousled hair and all, looked like he would rather be anywhere else as he explained to the people of the U.K. that, like some sort of COVID-19 groundhog seeing his shadow, he was reimposing tighter restrictions for six months.

“The struggle against COVID is the single-biggest crisis the world has faced in my lifetime,” he said during a nationwide address.

His pain was felt, literally, by the heads of France, Spain and other European countries in the face of a new surge. And, as is often true with fashion, what happens in Europe often makes its way here.

A wise person once said that no one looks good in a pandemic. That is certainly true when it comes to today’s political leaders. Finding the exact best policy is like trying to win a game without knowing any but the most basic, and often fluid, rules and boundaries.

On the other hand, criticizing these leaders is like judging the outcome of World War II in 1943. 

With much of Europe falling under an intense second wave, some are hailing Sweden as having the best strategy all along. Sweden imposed few restrictions, enduring a high death rate at the start of the pandemic. But now its deaths are few, and it hasn’t seen a surge like much of the rest of Europe.

Still, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, isn’t celebrating. It’s too soon to tell, he said, wisely, because every country is in a different phase.

Here are other reasons to refrain from proclaiming Sweden as the winner in the fight against COVID-19:

  • We don’t know the long-term effects of the virus. Some studies suggest it may harm immune cells in bone marrow. Some who recover complain about other lingering problems. Science magazineoutlined these as “fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain.” Letting the disease run free, especially in a place with a death rate as low as Utah’s, seems ethically questionable in light of this.
  • Scientists still don’t know much about reinfection, or how long immunity lasts for those who have recovered. William A. Haseltine, a former Harvard Medical School professor and founder of the university’s cancer and HIV/AIDS research departments, wrote this week in Scientific American that “reinfection and the mechanisms that drive it are a key piece of this puzzle — one we can’t leave out, and one that will bedevil our efforts for months and years to come as we struggle to put this genie back in its bottle.”
  • Despite a steady downward trend in new infections, Stockholm has seen a recent small uptick, leading Tegnell to say he could not rule out tougher measures for the city, according to the Daily Mail.

In short, we just don’t know what’s going to happen next. 

What we do know is that getting most people to wear masks and keeping them apart seems to stem the rate of infections. That ought to at least drive public policies during outbreaks.

We also know that no strategy can yet be hailed as successful, because the virus remains with us and an effective vaccine has not been released.

Some day, historians will pronounce verdicts on today’s leaders. But for now, whether you’re the prime minister of England, the governor of Utah or a president in search of reelection, the road to success remains dark and full of hazards.