Physician Viewpoint: What we should learn from the coronavirus experience
Looking back at the various stages of my life, I am struck by the tensions that shaped our collective experience at each stage.
There was the cold war and the intimations of the Orwellian dystopia it conjured. There was the oil crisis, which gave birth to thoughts of alternative energy sources. There was the AIDS epidemic, which challenged us to confront our socio-sexual biases and realities.
Later, while I was in medical school, authors like Robin Cook and Michael Crichton would capture the imaginations of my classmates and me with stories about pandemics and microbes threatening humans with extinction. And during graduate school, I marveled at the power of genetic engineering and its promise to create crops resistant to blight and new drugs produced through recombinant DNA cloning technology to treat disease. Life, progress and potential ebbed and flowed but seemed to be moving steadily in a direction beneficial to humanity.
Nothing prepared me for this “Age of Coronavirus,” where time would stop, lines demarcating night and day would blur, homes would be converted to bunkers and there would be no place on the planet to escape the threat.
But not all is bleak.
How we respond
When time stops like this, we have an opportunity for an objective reassessment. We can look at how we can better promote humanity and temper progress with humility and respect. There are larger realities this experience can help us confront and internalize to benefit humanity, without respect to ideological differences. Consider the following.
We are a global people in a global economy. Recent movements toward nationalism did not protect anyone from the effect of coronavirus. Pride in one’s country is important, but not to the point that it leads to separatism, elitism or a sense of superiority and entitlement. Coronavirus has destroyed people and economies in all corners of the world without regard for gender, race or nationality. We all bleed red, and as pathologist, I have seen that we are far more similar than different from each other in our biology, cognitive resonance and fears. Rather than regarding our differences as a threat, this crisis compels us to see our individuality and uniqueness as an asset. It calls on us to be attentive to new or differing ideas instead of dismissive and to assess information and knowledge for its own merit rather than based on who presents it.
We need to reassess our healthcare gestalt. We are the richest country in the world with one of the worst healthcare ratings.[a] This was true before the COVID-19 crisis and has been accentuated during the pandemic. The reality that patients have died due to lack of respirators and other resources is as horrifying as it is preposterous.
This situation could have been avoided. Numerous healthcare, public health, epidemiology and other entities have forecasted this day years ago.[b] Although the pandemic of 1918 was the notable first over the past century and has become the point of reference for infectious disease experts, public health officials and economist alike, the tiger has been poked numerous times since then. The occurrence over the past few decades of SARS, MERS, swine flu, bird flu and other influenza/coronavirus species-related epidemics is the elephant in the room that should have garnered serious attention and prompted us to prepare for a crisis on the order of COVID-19.
We should etch the current zeitgeist into our core. Performing regular SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunities, threats) analyses on various healthcare sectors should help triage efforts and resources on micro (hospital/region) and macro (national/global) scales. The profound impact of the COVID-19 should be respected as a deterrent against partisanship, politicking and personal gain. To the extent possible, our collective motto should be, “We can exist only by working together.”
We must realize that the value of any enterprise is in its people. As a physician, I am aware of how our healthcare workers and first responders (police, fire, paramedics) have been lauded as heroes. However, additional praise should go to every other service provider who is providing selfless support to the society in need: the cashiers and staff at the local supermarket, local food providers who offer curbside delivery, gas station attendants, delivery/courier services and all others who are taking personal risks to serve all of us.
The message we should help promulgate is that these people represent all walks of life: immigrants, single mothers and fathers, those called to duty caring for parents or children while they also serve society on the front line so everyone can function. Without them, everything stops. The simple fact we need to recognize is, we all rely on and support each other to some extent. If we become truly conscious of this fact, we may begin to reframe the human value of each of us and see ourselves as a principal commodity of any industry.
We all should smile more. I know it may sound kitschy, but smiling has been shown to offer health benefits.[c] Smiling costs nothing, and it can mean everything to the receiver in addition to having a positive effect on your well-being. In a microsecond, it can yield unexpected dividends in transforming a mood or imbuing a situation with positive energy. And any such effort often pays it forward to someone downstream, who then raises the disposition of others with a smile. Observe any positive coronavirus story, and it invariably comes with a smile.
An opportunity for positive change
I believe the coronavirus saga presents us with an opportunity to truly change humanity for the better. We live in an unprecedented time in human history. Experiences such as this one bring out the best and worst of humanity. At such a time, we also have unprecedented opportunity to have a positive impact on the world by realizing that we as humans and the planet we live on function as a symbiotic organism. We cannot dissociate from our collective consciousness, just as we cannot remove our brains and expect to function. This is not to minimize psycho-socio-political realities that are necessary to engender stability and calm and to promote commerce and progress. Rather, in this “coronavirus-centric” time, we all are pushed toward self-reflection, leading us to reorient our definition of value. If we change ourselves for the better, however slightly, we change the world.
a. “U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health,” National Research Council; Institute of Medicine; Woolf, S.H., Aron, L., editors, National Academies Press, 2013.
b. Fan Y., et al., “Bat coronaviruses in China,” Viruses, March 2, 2019; and doi:10.3390; Berger A., et al., “Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) – paradigm of an emerging viral infection,” Journal of Clinical Virology, January 2004.
c. Norwood, E., “Surprising Health Benefits of Smiling,” Henry Ford Health System, Henry Ford LiveWell, Oct. 5, 2017.