Monday, October 5, 2020

One lesson from living through a pandemic: you're not that special

There seems to be a certain hubris among a subset of humanity in which members of that subset perceive that fundamental laws of nature just don't apply to them. If I were a clinician, I would be tempted to try my hand at a bit of armchair diagnosis. I shall refrain. Instead, let's try something a bit more down to earth.

We as a species, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc. are capable of contracting and transmitting this very highly novel coronavirus dubbed COVID-19. It's a virus that knows no boundaries. We know that in the absence of effective treatments and vaccines (which will take a while to be developed to the point to where they can be given the green light for mass distribution), we have only a few means available to us in order to have some hope of slowing down transmission of this virus: masks/face coverings, physical distancing, and proper hand hygiene (and probably proper hygiene in general). Under the worst case scenario, curfews and lockdowns can be used to reduce transmission, but those are probably best used sparingly and only when the other available options are not working. Those are the facts on the ground. That's our reality. Some nations have really risen to the occasion, and have generally minimized transmission and death rates. Their experiences are hardly perfection (South Korea and Germany for example are still prone to spikes in community spread), but generally about as good as we could expect under these particular circumstances. Clear, consistent leadership certainly helped. In the US, we did not quite have that experience. As a result, there is some argument as to whether we ever quite emerged from the first wave of this pandemic. 

Trump, who for the time being is the US President, downplayed the seriousness of the virus. He mocked basic safety precautions (something I find ironic, given that any biographical info I am aware of about him suggests he's something of a germaphobe). He's encouraged his hardcore followers to also mock safety precautions and to essentially throw caution to the wind. In the interim, he's held in recent weeks a number of outdoor rallies without physical distancing or masks, indoor rallies and events without physical distancing or masks, denigrated testing, and treated the pandemic as if it is essentially a thing of the past. The reception for the most recent Supreme Court nominee was arguably a superspreader event. Over the last week or so, numerous individuals associated with that event and the debate have tested positive. Trump himself tested positive, although questions about when he first tested positive are unclear as of this writing. There's a reason why the Bidens have been getting tested since the first Presidential debate a mere week ago. 

Since I am not a medical doctor, I will gladly defer to those who have that expertise. What I do know as a layperson is that the combination of medications Trump is currently receiving since both his admission and arguably premature discharge from Walter Reed suggest his case was and is very serious. Footage I saw of him on the White House balcony made it clear that he seemed to be struggling to breathe and that he might be in some pain or discomfort. As someone who has experienced pneumonia before, I have some idea of what it feels like to struggle to breathe. I had something going for me at the time: youth. I was in my early 30s and trying to finish up remaining PhD coursework before going to work on my dissertation prospectus. I was out of commission for two weeks. One course in particular I went from holding my own to wondering if I would pass. That I just barely missed an A was a minor miracle, and one for which I am grateful. I made one mistake early on in my diagnosis: I didn't take it seriously enough, and that set me back. I was lucky to not end up hospitalized, or worse. But I recovered. After a good while, I was back to baseline. But that really did take time. So, the pneumonia that is common with COVID-19 is something I understand fairly intimately. I also understand that the meds Trump takes now are ones that can have all sorts of physical and psychological side effects that should give all of us pause. And yet, Trump is continuing to act as if he is somehow special. He was claiming in footage shot Monday that he thought he might even be immune to COVID-19. Thing is, he's still infected and still contagious. 

As to what the future holds for Trump? I have no idea. What I think I can predict is that Trump has modeled a set of attitudes and behaviors that at least his most ardent followers will acquire (if they haven't already) and imitate. In other words, this is just basic observational learning in action. I have little doubt that we'll see more brazen attempts to flout expert medical advice, as the role model himself has led the way. I have little doubt that his followers will show disdain for those who aren't "moving on" to Trump's and their satisfaction. It'll probably get worse now. What I'd say as a professional is that whatever opinions they wish to hold, the facts are what they are. One does not need to be a virologist to understand that when a person with no natural immunity and no willingness to use whatever preventative measures might actually work, the virus is highly likely to win every time. In other words, none of us is special. The sooner we grasp that basic concept, the better. 

I am reminded how zombie films (and TV series) tend to work. One typical subplot is for one of the characters to get bitten and to hide the fact that he or she has been bitten from the other characters in the group of survivors. Maybe they genuinely think they will somehow beat the zombie virus and be okay. Maybe they're too afraid that they'll be cast out (which would be an adaptive group strategy). The end result (even in comedic zombie films and TV satires) is not good. 

We're not that special. Prevention is no guarantee of survival, but hubris is one nearly certain way to needlessly end up in harm's way. Stay safe.

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