No virus should tear us apart.
I recently created the infographic that has in some ways become the defining image of the COVID-19 pandemic. The graphic is simply two curves and a straight line. The curves represent the number of new disease cases overtime under two scenarios — no response and collective action — and the potential to exceed the health system’s capacity to provide care to all who need it. It’s a simple epidemiological tool that goes back to the origins of the field. It’s significance, however, goes way beyond the science.
The high peak is a virus running wild through a population, hitching a ride on people as they unknowingly pass it on to stranger, coworker, friend, and loved one. It portrays cases piling up as more and more people get the uneasy feeling that a sickness is coming their way and treatment may not be available.
The high peak is selfishness, disregard for our neighbors, and fear of the foreigner. It means fighting for precious and dwindling supplies at the market and begging for lifesaving services at the hospital. It is chaos.
The low curve describes a challenge contained — triumph over a deadly threat through feats of individual and collective action small and large. It depicts coming together as a community to preserve precious capacity so we don’t have to decide who lives and who dies.
The low curve is love and caring. It’s people buying groceries for their elderly neighbors too scared to leave their house. It’s families isolated behind closed doors singing out open windows, spreading a joyous sound that travels where no virus can go.
Social distancing, isolation, and quarantine are the tools we use to flatten the curve and keep the number of people who are ill at any time under a manageable level. These terms sound so sterile and clinical, conjuring images of faceless workers in Tyvek and masks going about the grim business of caring for the infected. These are the edicts and mantras of our time. In a society where loneliness is already an epidemic, it sounds so cruel to tell people to physically separate, but that doesn’t mean we must come apart.
By spreading through personal contact, viruses exploit the very thing that makes us human — our need for connection. They can destroy spirit as well as body and rend a community’s social fabric. Whether this happens is up to us. Social distancing is about giving people space, not ignoring or, worse, shunning them. We have created so many ways to connect, magical technology that helps people come together. Now is the time to put these tools to good use.
The virus doesn’t travel on an elbow bump. The virus is washed away in 20 seconds. The virus doesn’t fly on a hand wave, or a smile, or a call to a neighbor simply asking, “Are you OK, can I get you something?”
The virus doesn’t stop leaders from being open, honest, and compassionate with the people they serve, explaining in simple terms what they know, what they don’t, and how we all should respond. The virus should inspire leaders to foster trust in the institutions tasked with protecting our health and safety. Our leaders should be celebrating the dedication and courage of those who chose government service rather than blaming and tearing them down.
The virus is a reminder that the public health professionals who work tirelessly to plan and respond to emergencies from small to pandemic-sized matter. We support them when we listen and comply with restrictions designed to keep us — and the people around us — safe. We also support them when we vote for candidates who run on platforms built on sound science, reliance on expertise, and competence.
COVID-19 has focused the world’s attention in a way few other events have. Some want to blame the “other,” to literally separate the world into us and them. Some want to give the virus a foreign name, an epithet to be used as if it were a weapon launched at us. They want to build high walls to keep some people out as if the virus picks its hosts by nationality. The virus is simply a product of the same evolution that gave us the capacity to love and come together as a community in collective action against a common adversary.
Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both mused about an alien invasion, not out of some strange fantasy, but as a desperate hope that somehow, an attack from beyond would bring our world together. 2019-nCov — the coronavirus — is this year’s invader. It’s our choice whether we come together or fly apart.
Drew Harris, a population health and health policy analyst at Thomas Jefferson University, is a member of The Inquirer’s Health Advisory Panel.