OP-ED: Challenges of the new COVID-19 reality

Dani Fessler
York Jewish Community Center
A temporary patient screening and testing area, for the COVID-19 Coronavirus, is shown outside the Emergency Department at WellSpan York Hospital in York City, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

“Go, my people, enter your chambers, and lock your doors behind you.

Hide but a little moment, until the indignation passes.”  

Isaiah 26:20

Like Isaiah’s biblical charge, today we, too, are being charged with maintaining social distancing for the benefit of our health and that of the community. Many of us will or have already entered self-isolation, and a total quarantine of the population no longer seems an imaginary scenario but a close and all-too real one.

Humanity will remember the spring of 2020. It seems as though the coronavirus pandemic will be one of the more — if not, the most — memorable events of our age. Most people have no experience with this sort of thing. The consequences, be them political, economic or even cultural, will be felt long after the pandemic passes.

Though, unlike similar historical phenomena experienced by humanity, this pandemic strikes when we — as a species — are at our strongest. For example, the Black Death of the 14th century spread from East Asia to Britain in a span of 10 years and between 25% and 50% of the entire world’s population died. By the time the contagion was gone, no one had any idea what it was, what caused it, how it spread or even how it could be stopped.

Today, however, a mere two months after the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, humanity already knows what virus caused it, mapped that virus’ entire genome and developed several ways of determining whether a person was sick or not.

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The 14th century, however, had no stock markets, no airliners and no tourist-economies. Our financial landscape and the ensuing fallout is very different from that of the 14th century. In many ways, while our modern world is more advanced, clever and complex, it is also more fragile.

The main concern caused by the coronavirus is not the number of people who will contract the illness nor the number of people who will suffer from its symptoms nor even sadly the untold number who may die. The main concern right now is the rate of infection and how — if not slowed — may lead to the imminent overload of our hospitals and health care systems, which — at the same time — must care for other patients, with other illness, some of whom will also need life-sustaining measures.

This pandemic could become an even greater global catastrophe if rivalries and disunity between people continue. Instead, if we choose to cooperate with each other, humanity can and will move past this event with minimal damage compared to the plagues of the past. Professor Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book The History of Tomorrow: “In the arms race taking place between germs and doctors, the doctors will eventually outpace the germs.” Our scientific knowledge and abilities will allow us to overcome this pandemic.

Nonetheless, the reality of this pandemic creates a certain paradox. It mandates isolation while greater cooperation is needed. The best advantage we have over the virus is information and communication. A coronavirus virion in Italy can’t send info to its counterpart in China; we — on the other hand — can. What a Milan doctor discovers in the morning can save people in New York come evening. What China and South Korea learn about containing the virus could help save tens of thousands of lives around the globe … if only this information is shared.

There are those who blame globalization for this pandemic. Instead of blaming it, we should instead use it through knowledge-sharing and joint efforts to develop a vaccine. Additionally, we can learn from countries that used their industrial power during times of war to help the war effort, and apply it to our situation and use our industries to pump out medical supplies, which hospitals are sorely lacking. International cooperation, through management of the global effort, could create an effective supply chain and prevent any shortages.

For these and other things to happen, we need leadership. Lacking such international leadership, all countries now face similar problems. Unfortunately, there is no responsible adult in the room. Facing the Ebola outbreak of 2014, the U.S. was the responsible adult. During the 2008 Economic crisis, the U.S. was that responsible adult. Since then, the U.S. has resigned from the position of responsibility and the world is the lesser and more vulnerable. In the age of “America First” and local interests, we have lost our solidarity. Could the reality of coronavirus change this?

Could this reality open our eyes and make us understand that every citizen in the U.S. must be eligible for basic health care, regardless of economic status? The virus spread from person-to-person whether they have health care insurance plans or not. Every person in the world that does not have access to basic health care puts at risk every one else. Keeping the Iranians healthy will keep the Israelis and Americans healthy, because the virus crosses boundaries and cultures quickly and without prejudice.

In these days, leadership has a central role to play in managing the crisis and leading us to safety. First and foremost, the leadership needs to tell us — the people — the truth, because that is how you gain the trust and thereby the cooperation of the populace. The public will cooperate when it believes its leaders and can trust that the information they provide is real and essential for the sustaining and saving of life.

In these days of a global pandemic, the need for a united world drawn together by mutually beneficial cooperation, knowledge rooted in facts and brave leadership that speaks the truth and disregards narrow interests is coming ever clearer. For now, though, as we stay at home to protect ourselves, our families’ and our communities’ well-being, it seems we’ll have plenty of time to consider all this.

— Dani Fessler is president and CEO of the York Jewish Community Center.