If Joe Biden is looking for a bumper sticker for his campaign against Donald Trump, I’d suggest this one: “Make America Immune Again.”
This pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated the fact that over the last 20 years we as a country have weakened so many sources of our strength.
We’ve simultaneously eroded our cognitive, ecological, economic, social, governance, public health and personal health immune systems — all the sources of resilience we need to get through this pandemic with the least damage to lives and livelihoods.
Mother Nature throws viruses, hurricanes, floods, droughts, heatwaves and pandemics at us to sort out who’s the fittest. And the ones who survive have one thing, and one thing only, in common: They are the most adaptive at generating the chemistry, biology and physics needed to meet the challenge
All of these immune deficiencies are the logical outcome of how we’ve let ourselves go as a country, how we’ve let ourselves be dumb-as-we-wanna-be for so many years — devaluing science and reading, bashing public servants for political sport and turning politics into entertainment, not to mention adopting horrible eating habits that have left 40% of Americans obese.
When the tide goes out
Warren Buffett was right: When the tide goes out you see who’s swimming naked. And now it’s us. We are still exceptional, but now it’s in the fact that we lead the world in total coronavirus cases and deaths from Covid-19.
The erosion of the collective societal immunity has been fed by many sources over the years, but none more than a Republican Party that has simply jumped the tracks. Donald Trump’s election was a by-product of our lost immunity, but his leadership has now become a giant accelerant of it.
At a time when we desperately need to be guided by the best science, Trump’s daily fire hose of lies, and his denunciations of anything he doesn’t like as “fake news,” has contributed mightily to the loss of our “cognitive immunity” — our ability to sort out truth from lies and science from science fiction.
At a time when we need a globally coordinated response to a pandemic, Trump has wrecked every alliance we have.
At a time when we need high social trust in order to have a coordinated response at home, Trump’s political strategy of dividing us and playing everything both ways — even telling people both to rise up against their governors and to lock down according to his guidelines — is the opposite of the “all in this together” approach we need to win this battle.
And Trump’s vindictiveness toward any career public servant who challenges his narrative has surely contributed to the weak response from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts are afraid to raise their hands to contradict the president.
What would it take to make ourselves collectively more immune to Covid-19? It starts with the understanding that the only thing these weeks of lockdown have done is slow the spread of the virus. We still need a sustainable plan for saving lives and livelihoods until we get herd immunity, naturally or from a vaccine. There are three basic approaches.
One is the Swedish approach of partial lockdown, protecting the most vulnerable and gradually allowing the healthiest to acquire the infection, recover and build herd immunity naturally.
Another is the Chinese strategy: strict lockdown followed by back-to-work flows, accompanied by masks, social distancing and the full use of China’s state surveillance systems to test, trace and quarantine any carriers of the virus to keep it contained until a vaccine can provide herd immunity.
We seem to be opting for a more democratic version of the China model — but in a totally haphazard, every-state-for-itself manner.
What are our prospects of success? I asked Dr. Vivek Murthy, Obama’s surgeon general, who just published a thoughtful and timely book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.”
“Even if we can’t be as aggressive as China in terms of surveillance and testing, the truth is, we are, at best, only 10% of the way there. Simply put, we are behind,” Murthy said.
Yes, a strategy of gradually lifting lockdowns based on different risk categories can make sense, he added, but only if every state has in place widely available testing that generates rapid results — results that are efficiently turned over to teams empowered to immediately trace and then quarantine the infected or the most vulnerable, in big towns and small, to block any further spread of Covid-19.
“Speed is everything,” Murthy said. “Time lost equals lives lost.”
The of tests we are doing — which Trump is always boasting about — is irrelevant unless you can reliably and quickly get a test when and where you need it, and the results can be converted into efficient tracing of others who might be infected.
In sum, if we are going to save the most lives while getting the most people back to work to prevent an epidemic of unemployment, depression and despair, it is going to require a federally coordinated, democratic version of the China strategy.
But Trump resists that kind of science-based, nationally coordinated approach, because it serves him politically to urge his supporters to resist his own administration’s health guidelines.
Trump seems to think he can bluster, bluff and talk out of both sides of his mouth with Mother Nature — the way he did in real estate and has done on so many issues as president, when his party could always cover for him.
But it doesn’t work that way with Mother Nature. She is not a contestant on “The Apprentice.” She is just chemistry, biology and physics. We’re the contestants on her show. We don’t get to fire her. She gets to fire us.
She throws viruses, hurricanes, floods, droughts, heatwaves and pandemics at us to sort out who’s the fittest. And the ones who survive have one thing, and one thing only, in common: They are the most adaptive at generating the chemistry, biology and physics needed to meet the challenge.
That’s all that matters. All those who can’t, get fired or, rather, are returned to the manufacturer.
— Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author