Clearly, it is indisputable that Donald Trump has walked away from the pandemic. There is no strategy or even effort from the White House to control our worst pandemic in over 100 years. Trump actually says that he has done a great job controlling the virus, which is one of the most preposterous thing he has ever said, and that is a pretty high bar to leap.
Covid-19 cases are rising in parts of New York City, and the mayor is threatening business and school closures. Across other parts of the United States and Western Europe, outbreaks are spiraling out of control. President Donald Trump is comparing the coronavirus pandemic to the seasonal flu on Twitter.
What month is this again? Hundreds of thousands of deaths since the pandemic began in March, we seem to be right back where we started, like passengers trapped on a demonic carousel.
Everything could still get worse. This week, Anthony Fauci warned of a new surge in cases, as Americans move from the virus-dispersing outdoors into more crowded and less-ventilated public spaces in colder months.
What lessons can we learn from countries that are not experiencing such devastation from this killer virus (Trump says it’s no worse than the flu, but that is a bold faced lie. The Coronavirus has killed many more people than the flu does. Over 213,000 and counting).
FROM SOUTH KOREA: FEWER LOCKDOWNS—BUT MORE MASKS AND TRACING
Many Western countries have responded to COVID-19 outbreaks by immediately shutting down as much of society as is feasible. This approach is economically catastrophic in the short term, unsustainable in the long term, and possibly unnecessary in any term—if the authorities respond swiftly with other measures.
South Korea had an extremely successful COVID-19 response, and it never adopted widespread lockdowns. Rather, it used a combination of universal mask wearing, limits on crowds, contact tracing to quickly identify potentially infected individuals, and quarantine or isolation guidance to keep the sick and potentially sick away from healthy people.
The objection to masks in the U.S. (besides itchiness and tyranny) is that they’re crude, misused, and unproven in randomized-control trials. This much is true: Masks aren’t perfect. But their imperfection is often enough to make this disease less likely to spread—and less severe for those who get it. A new research preprint estimates that when an infected person and a non-infected person both wear masks, that can reduce the chance of transmission by up to 80 percent compared with a scenario where neither is masked.
Joshua T. Schiffer, an infectious-disease researcher at the University of Washington who co-wrote the study, found that if the healthy masked individual is infected, her viral dosage is slashed by a factor of 10. This reduces the likelihood that she develops a severe case of COVID-19. A larger body of research finds that masks reduce the spread of aerosolized diseases like COVID-19.
FROM VIETNAM: THE BENEFITS OF CLEAR AND ACCURATE PUBLIC-HEALTH COMMUNICATION
The Trump administration’s consistent lying on issues including, but by no means limited to, the pandemic has created a vacuum of institutional trust at the very moment it is most necessary.
Vietnam offers a particularly vivid example of what candid public-health communication might look like. Its Ministry of Health first alerted citizens to the threat of an outbreak during the second week of January.
In February, its National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health released a song—“Ghen Co Vy,” meaning “Jealous Coronavirus”—that advocated for social distancing and hand-washing. In April, the country imposed a fine on people who posted “false, untruthful, or distorted” information on social media. “This messaging engendered a community spirit in which every citizen felt inspired to do their part, whether that was wearing a mask in public or enduring weeks of quarantine,” a team of health and economic researchers from Vietnam and Oxford wrote in an essay summarizing the country’s response to the virus.
To date, the nation of 95 million has an official COVID-19 death count of 35, which is roughly the number of Americans who die of this disease every hour and a half.
FROM JAPAN: OPEN SCHOOLS, BUT DO IT SAFELY
Many cities have refused to open public schools, for fear that doing so will trigger a mass outbreak, and still others—including Boston—are delaying in-person instruction as positivity rates rise. As a result, America’s pandemic is becoming an education and family crisis, one that is particularly devastating for low-income and minority children—and their parents.
One nationwide survey co-sponsored by the Associated Press found that just one in four Black and Hispanic students has access to in-person instruction. As K-12 education, or some crude approximation of it, becomes a stay-at-home affair, parents are being pulled out of the workforce to serve as teachers. No surprise, the school-closing pandemic is mostly a tax on working mothers. Married women lost almost 1 million jobs last month, while overall employment surged.
America can’t go back to normal without school. But Americans don’t have to choose between health and education, or between health and parental sanity. Japan’s example proves that.
After containing the spread of the virus—more or less the same way South Korea did—it worked to virus-proof the classroom, as much as possible. In Japan, where most schools are back in session, schools have largely avoided outbreaks by enforcing universal mask wearing, encouraging kids to socially distance, and installing cheap plastic shields to interrupt the flow of aerosolized particles between students.
Using advanced computer models, Japanese researchers have demonstrated that cracking open a window and a door on opposite sides of a temperature-controlled room can properly ventilate a class with dozens of students. Masks, distancing, and ventilation: Yes, it might really be that simple.
Beating a pandemic is sometimes compared to a war, which brings to mind total sacrifice to defeat an evil enemy. But the problem with the war analogy is that it conjures a kind of all-or-nothing approach to virus mitigation. The West could dramatically improve its lot if it adopted a small number of measures to defeat the virus that are empirical, imperfect, and just enough.