Pandemic expert: 'Recognize that your leaders have made a terrible decision'

Pandemic expert: 'Recognize that your leaders have made a terrible decision'
Photo By: Airman 1st Class Taylor Slater

As this country approaches its 10th week of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear that what is driving state efforts to reopen businesses and other public gathering places is not any realistic analysis of the public health consequences. Rather, these misguided rushes to reopen reflect a political imperative pushed by the Republican Party at the urging of their corporate and business donors, who are concerned most of all about the economic damage they face if public health is prioritized.


Most Republican (and a few Democratic) governors are knowingly risking the lives of their own citizens by permitting businesses to reopen on a broader scale, and Donald Trump relentlessly repeats the reopening mantra and continues to minimize the danger to Americans on a near-daily basis, all to protect corporations and the wealthy.

And corporations are ready: Advertisers are already beginning to shift their focus from acknowledging and accommodating the stifled conditions during the “lockdown” phase (“in these uncertain times”) and are now beginning to emphasize the promise of reopening to a nation of frustrated would-be consumers.

Larissa Faw, writing for Media Post Agency Dailya trade publication of the advertising industry—refers to a noticeable shift in Pinterest searches in the last few weeks. She concludes that corporate advertising should now be geared toward emphasizing a “return to normalcy” since that’s what consumers now want more than anything.

After passing through ”triage/informational” and “empathy/relevance,” stages, consumers are now eager for optimism and escapism content...Over the last two weeks, these types of searches have been steadily rising, and are likely to continue for the next few weeks. The final stage is recovery/rebound, when things return back to “normal.”

Politicians, corporations, and advertisers all recognize that the desire of Americans to “get back to normal” is overwhelming. Most Americans have no historical memory of a crisis like this and are not hardwired to cope with an extensive period where our social mobility is curtailed. Nor are we mentally equipped to comprehend a public health emergency with essentially no end in sight. This is true no matter how grave the danger might be. Our brains keep telling us “there has to be an end,” even if there isn’t one.

This leads to magical thinking, which Republicans—who again are governed primarily by corporate interests—are only too eager to exploit. The prospect of reopening businesses promises the “return to normal” that Americans crave. But in the context of this pandemic, the cold, hard truth is that the threat of the contagion that led to “social distancing” in the first place has not abated at all. Absolutely nothing fundamental has changed. The threat remains dire and very, very deadly.

Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam is an expert on pandemics and advises the WHO Global Outbreak and Alert Response Network on Ebola eradication. He is the founding president of End Coronavirus, a joint initiative between scientists from the New England Complex Systems Insitute (NECSI), Harvard, UCLA, and MIT, as well as business and community leaders, in the effort to contain and mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Bar-Yam published a CNN article Wednesday with the bold headline ”Don’t Let Governors Fool You About Reopening.” He emphasizes how dangerous these efforts to “reopen” actually are.

Bar-Yam’s language is unequivocal: These early reopenings are a mistake—a huge one.

Many governors are opening up their states as part of the White House effort to reopen the country. But as a pandemic expert who has been warning about diseases like Covid-19 for nearly 15 years, my message to Americans is simple: save yourselves, your families and your communities by staying at home and ignoring your governor's "ludicrous" policies.

Not only will opening businesses at this time fail to restore economic well-being—the premature efforts now being implemented across the country will likely “cause the disease to escalate and lead to prolonged economic hardship.” This conclusion is based not only on the immediate impact of resurgent infections to businesses, but the impact on travel and even on global trade likely to ensue as other countries react to that resurgence in the U.S. We already see this occurring as some countries who have more successfully addressed the pandemic prepare for their own “reopenings” by pointedly excluding travelers from the U.S.

In March, Dr. Bar-Yam had previously recommended a five-week national lockdown in the U.S. as a sufficient window of opportunity to allow time for massive testing and to curb infection rates. Of course, the dysfunctional response of the federal government over the past two months has long rendered that prospect moot, which Bar-Yam acknowledges. He believes that despite the miserable federal response, the trend towards reopening now will only make a bad situation far, far worse.

Now, I and many others are issuing another warning: the decisions of some US governors to prematurely ease social distancing is a disastrous mistake and citizens need to ignore them. Our research -- and common sense -- show that lifting social restrictions will lead to an explosion of Covid-19 cases and cause countless more deaths. The correct way to relax restrictions is to start with parts of a state that are Covid-free for 14 days and allow only essential travel to those parts of the state with 14-day quarantines for inbound travelers.

Despite his expertise, there are some questionable figures cited within Bar-Yam’s article. He has concluded that based on the most recent data coming from Johns Hopkins University, the global fatality rate of COVID-19—including out-of hospital “excess deaths”—could be as high as 6.8%, which is a considerably higher percentage than most authorities have posited. However, he correctly emphasizes that all reopening states have a critical mass of those currently infected,  which “could see new outbreaks in the coming days and weeks.” We are already seeing this occur to some extent in Germany and South Korea as outbreaks have spiked even as each country has begun to reopen, as well as in several individual U.S. states that have done so.

[W]ithout extreme preventive measures, we've seen how coronavirus infections doubled every two to three days at one point in different areas -- which equated to about a tenfold increase per week. That means that a state with 1,000 new cases could have well over 100,000 more in two weeks, if social distancing is loosened.

Bar-Yam also does not believe that measures to enforce “social distancing” in such reopened businesses as restaurants and malls will be particularly effective. His emphasis has been, and continues to be, to maintain the lockdowns (as difficult as they are) until testing capacity is sufficient, and he urges Americans to resist pressure to participate at all in these reopening attempts.

My plea to everyone who lives in states that are reopening is simple: Recognize that your leaders have made a terrible decision. Don't be fooled that it's safe to return to work, go to the barber shop or have a sit-down meal in a restaurant. Protect yourself, your family and your community. Choosing to protect those you love is a heroic act.

Finally, Bar-Yam offers some practical suggestions to stem the spread of this pandemic.

Instead of venturing out for leisure or work, safely volunteer, taking all precautions if you go outside. Work with your local community organizations to ensure your neighbors have access to homemade cloth masks. Help organize transportation to testing sites for anyone who shows symptoms. Work with your community leaders to identify locations, such as hotels or dormitories, where infected individuals can isolate so they don't infect relatives and housemates. Partner with your local health authorities to organize monitoring teams to safely go door to door, identifying neighbors with symptoms who need isolation space and support.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to come to the same conclusions that Dr. Bar-Yam urges here. One of the most remarkable aspects of Tuesday’s Senate testimony by Drs. Fauci, Redfield, and others was the fact that none of these medical experts offered much in the way of hope. Beyond some vague promises of increased testing ability in the fall, and the promise of a vaccine some day far in the future, there was nothing in their testimony to provide any type of real reassurance.

In fact, the only voices recommending reopening seem to be those of persons with no health expertise whatsoever, those with a political agenda, or those whose political constraints compel them. Tuesday’s Senate testimony was also remarkable for the guarded, reluctant tone put forth, even by reputable physicians such as Fauci. It was frankly impossible to watch that testimony without feeling that something very critical was being omitted from the overall picture out of sheer political expediency.

In a perfect world, that would give us all the information we need. The public health consequences of this pandemic remain dire, a fact that has been aggravated immeasurably by a dysfunctional federal response. The interests of Donald Trump and other Republicans pushing for rapid reopening are not the same interests motivating Americans who simply long for the restrictive shutdowns to end. If there is one takeaway from Bar-Yam’s article, it should be that the political leaders agitating for reopening don’t know any more than we do what the consequences will be, but they’re willing to risk American lives to find out.

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