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Opinion: Have we learned nothing from 3 years of COVID-19?

A group of 34 professionals has studied the pandemic and published a book on its findings. ‘The members of our group are angry,’ they said

SHARE Opinion: Have we learned nothing from 3 years of COVID-19?
Dr. Megan Shutts-Karjola smiles under her mask as medical assistant Erin Bowser administers her Moderna COVID-19 vaccination.

Dr. Megan Shutts-Karjola, chief of staff for Mountain West Medical Center, smiles under her mask as medical assistant Erin Bowser administers her Moderna COVID-19 vaccination at the medical center in Tooele on Monday, Dec. 28, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The pandemic is officially over. So, where are the parades? Where are the victory parties? Where are the press conferences with beaming politicians boasting that they won?

The public health emergency that former President Donald Trump declared in early 2020 caused more loud and irritating crashes and bangs nationwide — from conspiracy theories (computer chips embedded in vaccines?) to political venom and permanent changes in everyday life (how’s that home office looking?) — than any other event in memory, with the possible exception of the Vietnam War. Yet, when it officially expired on Thursday, it seemed to end with a whisper, or maybe a stifled cough; nothing more.

Perhaps a better question would be, what have we learned? What lessons can public health officials, politicians and regular people glean from three years of economic shutdowns, poorly managed stimulus handouts and business loans, school closures and online classrooms that riled parents and teachers, mask mandates, lists of essential services that somehow didn’t include churches, legislative edicts that took power away from health departments and governors, overcrowded hospitals that could no longer handle other illnesses and a host of other things that filled three tumultuous years?

I had figured, all along, that the pandemic would end with the formation of an official commission, or perhaps several at different levels of government, assigned to study what happened and what could be learned for next time. 

That isn’t happening, and I’m certainly not the only one who finds that odd, and a little disturbing.

At a recent video panel discussion sponsored by Harvard Bookstore, Kendall Hoyt, a senior lecturer and assistant professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, said, “If we are not sitting down at the table with companies in this moment of relative calm to figure out how we are going to develop the next generation of medical countermeasures for COVID or for something else, then we’ve already failed to understand the lesson of this pandemic.”

I think it’s safe to say we’re getting a big fat F on that assignment.

Hoyt is one of 34 medical, policy, biodefense and advocacy professionals who, absent any government effort, formed a privately funded group to study how the nation did. The result was a recently published 352-page book called, “Lessons from the Covid War.”

I wouldn’t recommend it for bedside reading, especially if you’re worried about another pandemic, perhaps something worse than COVID-19, striking a nation that isn’t prepared.

The book spares neither side in the political debate. Trump is lambasted for being at war with his own government during much of the crisis, but officials who imposed harsh government controls get much the same. 

Just to put things into perspective, the book notes that this pandemic “was perhaps no more than one-fourth as deadly per infection as the 1918-19 influenza virus.” However, it adds that “the COVID-19 pandemic was the most deadly and disruptive global pandemic since that one.” And despite possessing vast wealth and technological knowhow, “No country’s performance is more disappointing than that of the United States.”

Perhaps none was as twisted and shackled in political knots, either. The group lays much of that blame on public and health officials. They should have anticipated the lack of public trust.

“Facing a dangerous pandemic, they adopted the broadest, most ambitious and intrusive set of government controls on social behavior in the history of the United States,” the book says. “Public confidence never recovered entirely from the April 2020 flip-flop about the usefulness of face masks.”

Early on “was the time when national authorities might have caught their breath, gathered evidence, made plans and networked with organizations that had better roots in communities across America.” This outreach should have included faith-based organizations, community centers, schools and universities, which could have refined the message, listened to reactions and then adjusted.

Instead, governments in many states closed churches and schools, and local health departments didn’t communicate well with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, let alone the public.

The nation probably didn’t do much better a century ago. One of the book’s contributors was John M. Barry, who authored “The Great Influenza,” perhaps the most comprehensive history of those days.

Back then, he noted, one of the great mistakes was how officials and the media tried hard to tell people there was nothing to be afraid of. “‘Don’t get scared!’ was the advice printed in virtually every newspaper in the country, in large, blocked-off parts of pages labeled ‘Advice on How to Avoid Influenza,’” he wrote. 

As a result, “The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing.”

By contrast, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the mainstream media and the medical establishment told the public there were plenty of reasons to be afraid, and yet many in the public labeled the message a lie and preferred instead to avoid precautions.

No one formed a commission from that earlier pandemic, either. Even if they had, I’m not sure people today would have cared.

“The members of our group are angry,” the book says. “They are angry because they feel that good Americans, all over the country, were let down by ineffective institutions, a slow and uneven initial response, shoddy defenses, and inadequate leadership.” 

No, it wouldn’t be right to hold any celebrations or parades for the end of this pandemic.

I’m not sure all the book’s conclusions are correct, or that hyperpartisan Americans could have been persuaded to be more reasonable. 

But I am sure we could do better than to wearily shrug off the last three years without ever looking back.