4 minutes reading time (707 words)

Europe and Asia Contend with the Surge

The assertion of a couple of weeks ago was that the U.S. was doing a miserable job of dealing with the pandemic as compared to other nations. The charts and graphs seemed to tell the story as everybody else was seeing the number of cases diminish, the number of hospitalizations decline and most importantly the number of fatalities were falling.

The opposite was taking place in the U.S., and the natural conclusion was that the U.S. was handling all of this badly. The reasons for the different experiences were many and varied. The Europeans and the Asians knew what they were doing, and they were well ahead of the U.S. That was last week. Today the Europeans and Asians are dealing with significant surges that have driven the daily numbers of infections, hospitalizations and fatalities to highs not seen since March and April. This is not the dreaded second wave, it is an extension of the first one.

The public health authorities have asserted the outbreak can be attributed to the fact that lockdown procedures have been eased, and they are likely correct. The U.S. started that relaxation a little earlier than many nations and thus experienced the surge sooner than others. Now Japan, Korea, China and the nations of Europe are relaxing the lockdown, and they are also experiencing a resurgence of the infection. On the one hand, this observation would seem to indicate a course of action appropriate to the pandemic. Every country in the world should simply shut everything down completely and demand that people stay in their homes for the next several months and perhaps years. That would do the trick.

Unfortunately, the utter and complete destruction of the world economy would mean trillions of people out of work, billions of businesses closed forever and massive waves of conflict and war driven by desperate people. Obviously, such a shutdown can't occur, but what then is the plan?

The partial shutdown has not ended the pandemic threat. As soon as the restrictions are lifted a bit the virus surges again. This is the nature of a viral infection. On the other hand, there is a need to continue some kind of control over the spread or the death toll could be catastrophic. The fatality rate for COVID-19 is not nearly as high as it has been for many other viral outbreaks (bird flu is 40%, SARS is 10%, Marburg is 80%). The fatality rate for COVID-19 is 2.2%. With a rate this low, perhaps it would be better to just let the disease run its course. That means accepting the deaths of some 3 million people in the U.S. from COVID-19. That is not acceptable in the eyes of most.

This is a near insoluble problem. If no efforts to control the disease are undertaken, the U.S. loses 3 million people. If extremely strict control is exerted, the economy crashes to the point that millions are plunged into total despair. They will lose their jobs, and thus their homes and every other aspect of their lives. There has been a death toll from this economic collapse already. It only stands to get worse if the lockdowns persist and strengthen again.

There is one very tiny glimmer of hope at this point. The renewed surge in the U.S., Europe and Asia has not only been tied to the loosening of the lockdown, but to the behavior of the population. It is not that stores and restaurants have been opened; it has been the behavior of the public. It is possible for people to shop, eat at restaurants, go to work and generally interact as they did before if they remain focused on controlling exposure. If there is to be a solution that does not condemn 3 million people to death and/or the utter destruction of our way of life, it will require every person to take personal responsibility. Wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance and be vigilant regarding one's health. Given the alternatives, this should not be that much to ask; but all over the world, it has been extremely difficult to get people to do these extremely simple things, and it is very hard to understand why.

— Chris Kuehl, Ph.D.

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Sunday, 09 August 2020