BC's Tales of the Pacific | Important questions for a post-Covid-19 world

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IN many countries around the world, there appears light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel.  Curves are flattening, new cases are levelling off or dropping, and videoconferencing is at an all-time high.  As we start down the back slope of this pandemic, we are wise to look back on how we handled this crisis, because have no doubt, there will be a next time.

Which measures taken by government worked and did not work? We do well to honestly ask if shutting down stores and restaurants helped reduce the spread of the virus.  We also do well to ask if the massive amount of money spent to stimulate the economy resulted in positive benefits.  Logic may suggest that these things had a positive impact, but I would like to see some data on that.  A good way to answer these questions is to compare regions that imposed such controls to those that did not.  If cities that kept businesses open and did not practice social distancing did not experience higher infection rates than those that did, how can we say those measures made a difference?  I’m not saying they did or didn’t, I just want to be sure.

How accurate were projections, and who was most accurate? It seems that modern society has become addicted to models.  In the 1970s scientists predicted the earth was headed for another Ice Age, said it was irreversible, in fact.  Twenty years ago, some of the same scientists predicted we would all be dead by now by global warming.  Remember Al Gore’s warnings?  Coastal cities such as New York and Hong Kong were to be under water by 2020.  Society was not going to make it to this year if we did not change our carbon emitting ways.  We did not change and yet we’re still here.  Why?  

Because these predictions were based on models.  Scientists input certain factors into a computer program and ran it.  To illustrate, say I model a water ecosystem consisting of algae, crabs and parrotfish.  What happens if I drastically reduce the number of crabs?  Disaster strikes!  Of course, because I only input three kinds of life.  My model left out the thousands of other life forms in any ecosystem, did not account for outside factors such as weather, increases or decreases in the other life forms, and a million other factors could not be accounted for and therefore not factored in.  But that won’t stop me from calling a press conference or making a documentary about how we are killing the planet by crab fishing.

Many of the models used to predict the course of Covid-19 have proven inaccurate.  The death tolls in most countries are far lower than the models suggested, and in some cases they are higher.  Modeling is a tool, but only one imperfect tool, to help us assess a situation.  We do well to remember that the next time around.

To what extent did government exceed its authority and are we alright with that? By now we are starting to see that governments everywhere greatly exceeded their authority when fighting Covid-19.  Civil liberties were suspended, orders were issued that no one had the right to issue.  For example, in many countries governments simply ordered churches to close their doors.  Some were punished if they held religious services.  In the United States, according to the First Amendment of the Constitution, the government does not have the right to do that.  One could argue that was exactly the wrong thing to do, since many people need to reach out to their spiritual leaders in times of crisis.  That abuses of authority occurred is undeniable.  The question for us is: do we consider that Covid-19 represented such a dire threat to public health and safety that we were willing to temporarily allow these abuses?  And what about next time?  A dangerous precedent has been set, what legal experts refer to as a slippery slope.  We need to ask under what circumstances can the government issue an order to close all churches again?  Who makes that decision?

How did the health care industry do?  As a group, doctors and nurses performed heroically.  How do you feel about the health care industry as a whole?  Did they get caught with their pants down?  How did the industry measure up once it appreciated the size and scope of the crisis?  How confident are you in health care the next time around?

How did we as individuals do? In my locale, many people ignored stay-at-home orders and even orders to wear masks in public.  However, I did notice a definite decrease in traffic on the roads and fewer people in the few stores that remained open.  Do you think the public in general responded well to Covid-19 and its subsequent response?

What can we do better next time? This is the question that really matters.  To an extent, all the rest of this is for the history books, but we need to learn what worked and what didn’t so that next time we won’t be so, what is the word, sloppy.  Do we need a plan?  Do we need more government control or less of it?  Is a medical crisis even the proper venue for government action?  Don’t forget, not long ago an American congressman worried that if too many people moved to Guam the island would “capsize.”  How comfortable are you with that guy making decisions for you in a medical crisis? 

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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