The COVID-19 pandemic – aka the “Wuhan virus” – has placed severe stresses on the global economy and American society. Quarantines, work-stoppages and supply shortages have become sudden and unwelcome facts of life in this country. The sense of uncertainty is fed by an endless information age diet of pandemic-related news, opinion and occasional disinformation.
The response from government and the people has been noteworthy. Federal, state and local authorities have been doing what they can to both mitigate the medical consequences of the outbreak and deal with the social and economic disruptions it has caused.
The country has suffered through such pandemics before, some much worse. I spoke recently with renowned virologist Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, author of the book, “Three Seconds Until Midnight,” which examines America’s response to the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919 and looks forward to how America can best prepare for such a public health emergency. Dr. Hatfill noted that while the Spanish Flu was extremely serious, killing tens of millions of people worldwide, future outbreaks could be even worse. “The 21st Century is becoming the age of epidemics,” he said, due to larger and more tightly packed global populations, human encroachment into areas where viruses incubate, and increasing and more rapid global travel.
Yet we are not helpless before the onslaught of these diseases. Governments and the medical community have learned from past epidemics and have adopted protocols to deal with the most serious consequences of these outbreaks. Also, since the 1990s the Defense Department has developed plans and infrastructure to cope with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents as part of the CBRN Response Enterprise. Concepts designed for biodefense can be applied to pandemic preparedness, especially those intended to keep critical infrastructure up and running while the medical community deals with the health aspects of the crisis. As anyone who has tried to buy toilet paper or pasta recently knows, the disruption of the supply chain can create more problems than the disease.
But epidemics are always accompanied by another contagion, namely fear, which can be as deadly as the disease. “Historically there’s always been two wars in a pandemic,” Dr. Hatfill said, “one against the causative organism one on public perception.” The latter is what causes the stock market to collapse, people to hoard food and other necessities, and other negative ripple effects on our society and economy.
Context and perspective are important. Yes, this epidemic is serious and must be treated that way, but statistically the most dangerous thing people do on a daily basis is drive a car. Preparedness is vital, and it is important to adopt rational behaviors that will help minimize the outbreak. The reader has been advised of this innumerable times, but the experts all repeat: the public must engage in social distancing, thorough hand washing and staying away from people in high risk groups for the worst effects of the disease, particularly the elderly and/or those with other preexisting health problems.
Yet at the same time we have to keep perspective. Our best information shows that the Wuhan virus is not like the Black Death or a viral hemorrhagic fever like Ebola. Around 90+% of people who contract the disease will suffer through it without long-term effects, much like the seasonal flu which the CDC predicted could infect 51 million Americans this season and kill up to 55,000. True, we do not understand COVID-19 in the same way as the seasonal flu, but in terms of its medical effects most projections have it either on par with or far below this projection.
The current lack of a vaccine is another factor that feeds uncertainly compared to the flu. Many people get an annual flu shot, and even though tens of thousands of people will likely die of the disease those who were inoculated can at least feel confident that they have done what they can to stave it off. Once a vaccine for the Wuhan virus is available it is likely to stem the public’s sense of unease.
But the response to this virus has still been unprecedented compared to other recent pandemics. For example, the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak started in April 2009, but President Obama did not declare a national emergency until October, by which time 1,000 Americans had died of the disease including 100 children. By February of 2010, the disease had killed 17,000 in the United States, even though a vaccine had come online the previous November. It is unclear why that more deadly disease did not induce the same kind of panic as COVID-19; perhaps the fact that social media had not yet taken over public information channels. And while 17,000 deaths are obviously bad, they occurred without the economic meltdown that has attended the current (approximate) 170 Wuhan virus deaths in the United States.
It is important to take the right lessons from this experience. Perhaps the globalization urge has been too quick, that adequate firebreaks have not been established to counter current and emerging epidemic threats. We need to rethink the national security consequences of outsourcing critical medical production to other countries – as President Trump recognized in his prescient September 2019 Executive Order on vaccines. And we should look at the impact of the ripple effects of pandemic panic; for example, many seniors on fixed incomes may find the collapse of their investment portfolios a greater long-term health threat than the virus itself.
The die is already cast on the Wuhan virus. How we respond to the next inevitable international pathogen will be critical. The world cannot stand a periodic cycle of economic and social disruptions of this magnitude. How we are prepared to fight the disease, and how we fight the fear, will be the true test of the durability of our nation and our civilization.
Chris Farrell is director of investigations and research for Judicial Watch, a nonprofit government watchdog. Chris is a former military intelligence officer who specialized in human intelligence.