Stuck in their trenches on the Western Front during World War I, each side’s generals, secure in the military knowledge gained from decades of study and experience, were convinced they had the answer to break the military stalemate. All they needed was overpowering artillery fire for days at a time, followed by their troops going “over the top” to wipe up the enemy that had been knocked silly by the bombardment.
It never worked.
The generals had failed to learn that the technology which had been invented since they had undergone their training had made their current strategy obsolete. Their failure to adapt and their obstinacy gave us Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele and all of the other useless slaughters that brought nothing but death and destruction upon much of European humanity.
Twenty-five years later, with Adolf Hitler breathing down its neck, the Polish government stood firm. It would not bow to Hitler and would not allow any Russian troops to enter Polish territory. Instead, the Poles were convinced that they had the greatest cavalry in the world, which could keep the nation safe.
When the Nazis attacked on September 1, 1939, the Polish cavalry was magnificent – and practically useless. It was cut to pieces by the German tanks and artillery. Like their military predecessors during World War I, the Poles on the eve of World War II had planned for the last war. They were oblivious to the impacts of technological advances.
As we approach two years since the Coronavirus pandemic began, it becomes clear that our epidemiologists and other public health officials throughout the world have done the same thing. Secure in the knowledge gained through decades of study and the writing of scholarly papers, they caused the implementation of policies that were equipped to fight this pandemic – 50 years ago.
Lockdowns, isolation, contact tracing, etc. all may have made sense, except for one thing. The proponents of these policies didn’t understand the impact of modern technology. This technology facilitated lockdowns far greater than had been possible during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, which resulted in its own unintended problems. They also failed to appreciate the impacts of a global supply chain, which made attempting to isolate almost self-defeating.
Had this pandemic occurred even ten years ago, offices all around the globe could not have shut down. We didn’t have Zoom, Microsoft Teams, almost universal remote internet service and the other technology that has allowed the information economy to keep running from people’s houses and allowed schools to attempt to shift to “virtual learning”. Perhaps that would have been a blessing. With all the office workers staying home, many of the businesses that catered to those workers, like the restaurants that served lunches and catered affairs, have been destroyed. With children staying home from school, those parents who could not stay home suddenly had no way to go to their jobs, and still face endless days of 24 hour parenting.
Virtual learning has proved to be a bad joke. Our children are way behind in terms of where they should be academically, to say nothing of emotionally. The poor, who may not have secure internet service, have suffered the most, resulting in increased economic and social inequality. With the coming of Omicron, the nonsensical claims that “children are resilient” finally seems to be giving way to an understanding of the damage we are doing to our young, who have the least to fear from the Coronavirus, to say nothing of the damage to their parents.
Perhaps now, two years into the pandemic, with Omicron causing cases to spike to the highest levels ever seen, we should shift the paradigm. It may be time to forget all the “truths” our epidemiologists thought they knew, and instead look at what actually has happened as we move into the next stage of this international disaster.
Of course, it will be easy for people of all political persuasions to blame others for the failures of the last two years. We either did not lock down hard enough, opened up too fast, attempted to place mandates that were doomed to create backlashes, or made some other mistakes. Had we only done things the right way, meaning their way, that would have made all the difference.
That thinking leads nowhere. No society has handled this well. Israel is now on its fourth shot, yet its cases skyrocketed following Omicron. The WHO, which clearly has its own set of issues, is warning that constant vaccinations and boosters is not an effective long-term strategy.
Unless societies go full authoritarian like Mainland China, the lockdown/isolation mode has its limitations. Permit me to suggest that we look at what has happened these last two years and base our actions on that, instead of what we might have thought before. To that end I suggest a few basic concepts that we can follow as we move into the next phase of this ever-changing pandemic:
Everything that can stay open needs to stay open, including schools (especially schools). At the beginning of the pandemic, the “experts” reviewing the events of 1918 said that the localities that locked down hardest and cancelled the most events (like St. Louis as opposed to Philadelphia) recovered most quickly from the pandemic. It is questionable whether that has held true this time. Israel and many places in Europe locked down harder than the United States, but the US has generally done better economically. Further, the closing of schools in certain places for over a year as we switched to “remote learning” has resulted in issues that may continue to manifest themselves for decades. It’s time to make sure that, as we fight the pandemic, we do so in a way that gives people their normal lives back as much as possible.
Politicians should not impose mandates that they will not follow themselves. Hello UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, California Governor Gavin Newsom, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, New York Congresswoman AOC and many others. Nothing is more likely to increase cynicism toward public officials than for politicians to act in ways directly contradictory to the obligations they demand of their own constituents.
No politician should be allowed to say that he/she will just “follow the science”. In most cases, and certainly pertaining to the pandemic, science cuts in many directions. Epidemiologically it might be better to isolate people, but emotionally and educationally that causes many other problems. These decisions have to be made by politicians. That’s the reason we put them in the positions they are. Science also can be manipulated and corrupted. Science can be our guide, but the actions we take are political and to be decided by politicians, who in a democracy are answerable to the people.
No scientist should be engaged in any “takedowns” or attempts to demean or belittle other scientists with whom they disagree. After two years we still don’t know how this pandemic started. The actions that recently came to light involving Drs. Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci in the United States as they pertain to the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration are extremely troubling. We need our scientists trying to find the way forward and working to see how this pandemic came about in the first place so we learn how hopefully to stop another one from happening, not engaging in personal attacks.
The best way to prevent serious COVID symptoms is to get and stay healthy. If the science shows one thing, it is that one of the most serious co-morbidities is obesity. Thus all politicians should encourage people to get moving. Walk, run, ski, skate, bicycle, lift weights, just get moving. All schools should reestablish physical education. No parks or beaches should be closed. All gyms should be open, and all politicians should make a point of using their bully pulpits to encourage physical fitness.
Most importantly, Use Common Sense. Was it really a good idea to isolate all seniors in nursing homes for over a year? Was there a stupider move during this entire two years than California using police boats to chase surfers out of the water (what were they going to do, infect the fish?). You often can find a rationale for any proposal, but let’s look at each with a jaundiced eye and think about it. Is it logical? Does it really make common sense?
As we move into 2022, the only thing we really know about the Coronavirus is that even now nobody knows very much about this virus. Certainly, nobody knows to the extent that someone can predict its future course or tell us what policies really are best for the society as a whole. All countries face their own specific, unique circumstances, but as a planet we’re all in this together. Regardless of whether the decision makers are in Jerusalem, Washington, London or Addis Ababa, let’s keep on top of our officials and scientists to think anew about fighting the biological pandemic that we face now, and not revert back to strategies of the past.