If the Chinese had indeed attempted to design a virus that would disrupt American society as much as possible, they could not have designed a more perfect pathogen than the novel coronavirus that is causing the United States all manner of difficulties—physical and mental breakdowns in health, economic shrinkage, and increasing hunger, to name a few. It is a unique combination of easy transmission, relatively low virulence, and surprisingly diverse symptoms that makes this virus so damaging to human society.
If the virus were slightly more difficult to transmit, we wouldn’t have to worry about wearing masks. The disease, COVID-19, would be self-limiting. Hospitals would not have to face waves of gravely ill patients who overwhelm the capacity of our emergency rooms and ICUs. But it does spread very easily, through the air and, to a lesser degree, on surfaces.
If the virus were more virulent, no one would be protesting the wearing of masks or the closing of businesses. Fear would be openly justified, and most Americans would do their best to both avoid the virus and to restrict its spread. But it is not very lethal. It is not Ebola or Marburg. The mortality rate is low and is decreasing as medical science develops better treatments. But when you combine easy transmission with even a low mortality rate, the afflicted overwhelm the health-care system and the deaths keep piling up.
The virus also produces a variety of symptoms, some of which linger and are perhaps permanent. For most people who are infected, the symptoms are either mild or even nonexistent (although there is some evidence that the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs may experience damage even in the absence of obvious symptoms). But for others, the symptoms are severe. One of our neighbors, who experienced moderate symptoms, is now suffering from asthma, which makes it difficult for her to walk even slowly uphill. The doctors think this will eventually disappear, but this is not a certainty. This multiplicity of manifestations is another unique aspect of this disease. If it were just like the common cold or influenza, it would be much easier to treat. But it isn’t.
Unfortunately, the easy transmission and relatively low lethality of this virus create a perfect formula for the politicizing of this illness. The reason for this is that the only way to contain the spread of the disease is to ask humans to do things that are difficult. Practicing physical distancing, shuttering businesses that rely on high social interaction, and wearing masks are not things we want to do. The obvious short-term consequences of doing what we need to do to stop the spread of the coronavirus include increasing unemployment, a shrinking economy, and a disruption in such public goods as in-person education. In the hands of a leader who measures his success by economic growth, low unemployment, and a robust stock market, who has never been able to see long-term benefits from short-term sacrifices, this pandemic presented a perfect situation to create the worst of all worlds, which is exactly what we have in the United States.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Jacinda Ardern, the former-Mormon prime minister of New Zealand, pushed for very strict measures. Consequently, this country of almost 5 million citizens has experienced a total death toll of 25. Yes, 25. Utah, by contrast, has a population of 3.2 million and has experienced 732 deaths as of today. In the past week, 60 Utahns have died. That is 2.4 times as many as New Zealand has experienced during the entire pandemic. And Ardern was recently reelected in a landslide, showing that Trump’s priorities were exactly backward. In order to preserve economic health and, it can be argued, political popularity, you have to control the virus first. Of course, Trump has never learned anything from either his own failures or the successes of others.
And New Zealand isn’t even the best case. Taiwan, with a population of nearly 24 million, has had a total of 7 deaths. Yes, 7. A couple of weeks ago, I read a news report that Taiwan had gone 200 days without a local case. They don’t even need to wear masks, but they probably do.
In the very early days of the pandemic, before things shut down, we had a student computer programmer at BYU Studies who was from Taiwan. He was wearing a mask to work, at a time when the U.S. was not yet encouraging this practice. Obviously, he was listening to his government’s health experts, not ours. The Taiwanese were ten steps ahead of both us and the virus.
Many Americans still have massive confusion about the concept of freedom. Freedom has become a conservative rallying cry. But it seems whenever the government requires something that will eventually bring us more freedom in the long run, these benighted souls somehow get offended and claim that the government is overstepping its bounds and is taking their freedoms. But I ask you who has more freedom right now—the people of New Zealand and Taiwan or the people of America? This is a stupid question, but most Republicans probably can’t answer it, because they have been so indoctrinated in hatred of government that they don’t understand that there is freedom to do things and freedom from things, and often abusing the freedom to do things deprives you of the freedom from things, like widespread illness and economic ruin. These protesters of government overreach would, of course, never protest the 20-mile-per-hour speed limit in school zones. But what is the difference between that and a mask mandate?
Republicans have failed in a similar way with health care in general. They keep perpetuating myths and ignoring widespread evidence. Of the top 100 nations on earth, only one does not have universal health care. Guess who? And guess why? Because the Republicans misunderstand their favorite principle: freedom. They think government providing or guaranteeing health care for all citizens takes away our freedom. But my friends in Germany have much greater freedom in their health-care choices than I do. And they pay half as much as I do for high-quality care. Who really has freedom?
Returning to the topic I started with, the novel coronavirus was perfectly created to expose the idiocy of those who put economics above public health. By contrast, it has revealed the brilliance of those who put public health first. I say “created,” but it was not concocted in a Chinese laboratory. It was designed in the laboratory of Mother Nature. And she has more surprises than this in the wings. Global warming is probably the next crisis we will face, and sadly, the Republicans are facing it with the same combination of inverted priorities, willful ignorance, and stubborn denial that they have exhibited in making America number 1 in coronavirus deaths.