My Turn: Think the pandemic is over? Think again

  • mactrunk mactrunk

Published: 3/16/2022 6:02:28 PM
Modified: 3/16/2022 6:02:16 PM

It is rather clear to me that COVID exists in two versions — it is simultaneously a medical, material entity, a virus that mutates, infects and follows patterns that are discernable to scientists, but it is also a public narrative, subject to the vicissitudes of the news media, the convenience of political ambition, and to the fractured attention spans of a distracted collection of casual observers. Few of us are scientists, so the version of COVID, airbrushed and shaped by the processes of mass dissemination, is, ultimately, the one that defines public policy and behavior.

The most widespread COVID narrative at this moment seems to be constructed around a belief that we are at a definitive moment, like the instant when the sun sets, or the spring equinox is announced on the calendar — COVID is on the immediate cusp that divides the pandemic from its endemic remnants. It is not a perspective without evidence. Reported case numbers and reported deaths are dropping precipitously, both in the U.S. and globally.

Historically, pandemics have not raged eternally, but follow an inevitable curve that resolves into a reassuring conclusion. Therefore, it is hard to argue against the lifting of mandates, the practice of abandoning masks and distances, and the long overdue return to the proverbial normalcy that has been hovering just out of reach for so long. Yesterday, I noted that of some 40 people at Planet Fitness, I was one of three still voluntarily masked after the town had voted to lift mandates. Is there any reason to reexamine our surging optimism? Is it possible that our anticipated future has been distorted via some combination of political manipulation and wishful thinking? Once upon a time COVID denial was an exclusively right wing thing, but now Democratic governors and local officials are lifting mandates. If both parties agree on anything, it must be true. The pandemic is done, right?

The U.S. news media had been crickets on the recent spike in COVID cases and deaths in South Korea. That might be the result of nothing more than the usual myopia in the news, where most of the planet is bathed in shadows until, let’s say, a war breaks out in Ukraine, and we tune into a global episode completely unaware of the context - that U.S. slight-of-hand has been active in Ukraine for decades. Now, China and Taiwan are on lockdown from Omicron II (the so called “stealth variant”) so that U.S. news media can no longer avoid the Asian pandemic.

South Korea, as most people know, has been a model nation for responsible public health mitigation.

That government reacted swiftly and with an application of national resources that shamed most wealthy western nations. COVID has been contained in South Korea for over two years, but suddenly it has threatened to rage out of control. Two hundred and sixty nine COVID deaths were officially given for this past Friday in South Korea — an unprecedented number. Recent case counts of Omicron II have just spiked to some 46 times the highest COVID counts for 2021.

A short piece in The Seattle Times last week noted that the normally civic minded citizens of South Korea are burnt out on COVID restrictions. A recent move to reopen restaurants and public service venues, combined with South Korean elections, that brought people into crowded proximity, and highlighted COVID restrictions as a voting issue, are the likely causes of a huge COVID spike. Sound familiar?

The worsening COVID conditions in South Korea coincide with the publication of a monumental study from the world renowned British medical journal, “The Lancet,” which estimated that the global excess deaths during the pandemic are probably three times as high as the official COVID death counts. The authors of the study very cautiously speculated that most of these excess deaths can be attributed to COVID-19, while acknowledging that the pandemic also caused indirect increases to mortality by, for example, limiting access to hospitals and increasing economic and emotional stress.

The unmistakable conclusion from The Lancet is that an enormous gap separates grim COVID realities from the inadequate and partial counts presented by government health agencies from around the globe. This study did not blame undercounting merely on political and corporate opportunism, but suggested that shortcomings should be, “at least partly related to a paucity in extensive testing, medical practices, or state guidance on what should count as a death from COVID-19.” In other words, The Lancet authors were tiptoeing around any sort of accusation of systematic, political mendacity.

The convergence of evidence is overwhelming. Wastewater data in the U.S. and in Europe is already noting that COVID is once again on the rise. Whether or not the news media picks up on these trends responsibly, the likelihood is that politicians, media and citizens are taking grave risks and making unsupported assumptions.

Phil Wilson is a retired mental health worker who was employed in Franklin County for 25 years. He lives in Northampton.


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