There are certain historical moments from my seventy one years of living on this earth that will never be erased from my mind. Thinking of them is so visceral that it feels as though I am literally back in a time of long ago. I can still recall exactly where I was sitting in my English class when I learned that John Kennedy had been assassinated. I see the images of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsing to the ground with clarity. As impactful as these events were they do not hold a candle to the magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic that has been sweeping across the globe. I never imagined experiencing something like this even though I have harbored a fascination for such life-changing moments for most of my life.
As my days in isolation continue to find myself having a jumble of conflicting emotions and thoughts. One moment I’m laughing at the antics of people doing their best to remain positive and light-hearted, and the next I am sobbing over the many losses that I have witnessed. I marvel at the selflessness of those who sacrifice to help us all and grow angry when I see people who appear to only care about themselves. I enjoy exploring the scientific data and research surrounding the virus while questioning those who seem to be guided by conspiracy theories and unfounded beliefs. When a single day brings so many contradictions it’s easy for me to wonder if I am being led astray or shown the best route to survival.
We are presently engaged in what I believe to be a paradox, or as a German doctor called it, a preventive paradox. Since we took measures to flatten the curve of illness and death the contagion has been far less than some early predictions indicated. Now there are those who sincerely believe that we were all led astray with regard to the potential magnitude of Covid-19. These same people furthermore believe that in the process of hiding in our homes we have ruined the world economy for naught. The truth is instead no doubt far more complex.
We will never know what would have happened if we had all simply ignored the march of Covid-19 across the globe. It is theoretically possible that millions would now be dead. Because we were somewhat proactive once we saw what was happening in places like Italy we were spared a “Pearl Harbor” moment in many parts of the United States. We managed to put out the fire before it became uncontrollable, but since the cause of our good fortune is in some ways invisible many among us are not linking it to the positive effect. In other words instead of seeing our safety measures as the reason for the lack of death on an unimaginable scale there are those who think that we are seeing fewer deaths because the whole scenario was a hoax from the beginning. Since we cannot go backward and try the experiment without safety protocols we will never be able to prove to the doubters that the measures that we took to control the virus are the reason for it’s lesser overall impact. That is indeed a paradox.
As we begin to reopen the world we will be engaged in yet another experiment in which the stakes are high. If we are cavalier it is possible that the virus will circle back on us. If we get it right we will slowly be able to return to a more normal lifestyle. In truth we may never be able to completely verify our results without a control group as is the core of the scientific method. Sadly creating a control group that literally does nothing more than live life as always would be a dangerous game in this instance. While it might verify that certain measures taken did prevent monumental tragedy that is obviously not an approach that we would want to use.
Instead we have historical precedents to guide us. We know for example that cities that reopened too soon and too vigorously after the initial wave of the Spanish flu endured far more deaths from the recurrence of the epidemic than those that proceeded with caution. While no two viruses are exactly the same we can still draw important conclusions from studying the various pandemics that have rocked human history. Rational thinking demands that we accurately link causes to their logical effects as well as being willing to accept the possibility of multiple explanations for the same outcome. Therein lies the confusion that we all face. It is as though we have a gun pointed at our collective heads with one bullet in the chamber. Will we be lucky or will we forever regret our decisions? Little wonder that we at times feel as though we are going crazy and that the world may never again be quite the same.
I find comfort in thinking of the entirety of history. The world has experienced the cataclysm of erupting volcanoes and black plagues, wars and revolutions and somehow humankind has found a way to rise up from the rubble again and again. Regardless of what the coming weeks and months may bring I am confident that we will ultimately triumph. It’s what we humans do.