COVID-19 and the light at the end of the tunnel

“But we see light at the end of the tunnel.  Things are happening.  Things are happening.  We’re starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.” Donald Trump, April 6, 2020 COVID Task Force briefing. [1]

To me, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel means only one thing – you’re still in the tunnel. Such is the case with where we are in the COVID-19 pandemic. As of this writing, indications are that in most regions, the number of new cases per day has peaked. The testing ineptitude in some countries adds a degree of uncertainty as to whether that is true, but it is inevitable that new cases will reach a peak at some point.

The anticipation of this peak has led to a rush to “reopen the country.” The imperative to restart the economic engine is real and urgent. However, that urgency should not lead us to discount the very real possibility that the deceleration of COVID-19 cases may not be permanent.

Epidemiologists tell us that pandemics are rarely “one and done.” There will likely be secondary and tertiary rises in new cases. The question is can we use that scientific knowledge to shape a responsible strategy to entertain loosening the social distancing measures that have allowed us to reach the other side of the first peak. Or, will the light at the end of the tunnel be the proverbial train?

The 2004 Institute of Medicine workshop, “Learning from SARS: Preparing for the Next Disease Outbreak: Workshop Summary[2] clearly reported a second wave of infections had occurred in the 2003 outbreak (see figure below) and should have established the predicate for how to respond to COVID-19 in 2020. But as humans are so wont to do, that clear, unambiguous, science-based message is at risk of being supplanted by the desire to put self before society and politics before prudence.

In light of recent events such as protests to reopen America, I hope that politicians making such decisions will not be swayed by a vocal minority but will take a science-based approach to their actions. Some will, some won’t. In the end, that disunity of action will almost certainly result in a second wave of infections – possibly as large as the first.

As is frequently the case with humans, we may have the intellectual ability to identify a problem and determine its solution, but we often lack the collective emotional intelligence to implement that solution. In that regard, I guess climate change and pandemics are not all that different. The distinction is that one kills in decades and one kills in weeks.




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