By Stephen Nash
Nash is a visiting senior research scholar at the University of Richmond. He is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever,” published by the Univrsity of Virginia Press.
One of my doctors passed an anguished milestone this week: his first positive test for coronavirus came in. Of course, he told me, his first thoughts were for the distressed patient as they talked things through. But not long after came this forceful thought: the pandemic need not have happened. Roanoke County’s first case has also been reported.
Time and leadership matter: a doctor in Wuhan, China, the late Li Wenliang, warned of the outbreak on Dec. 30 but his posts were censored and he was arrested and threatened by his government. He died from the virus weeks later. The world lost precious time to contain the outbreak. We in America learned of it around Jan. 9, but President Trump and his choir downplayed the virus and compared it to the common flu. We lost critical time that could have been used to prepare. The president’s fateful misinformation campaign about the virus continues on now, with each press conference.
My doctor’s patient is a female in her 70s who had been traveling until a few days ago. She’s fit and otherwise healthy and her prospects for recovery are fairly good. Luckily, he was able to test her. This week a hundred of Virginia’s frontline health care providers signed a letter to Gov. Northam appealing for basic personal protective equipment: masks, disposable gowns, gloves and hand sanitizer — and, of course, those coronavirus test kits. “It’s now clear that without your intervention they will not be here in time, if ever,” the letter states. “We know the federal government has failed, but we need state and regional leaders like you to be part of the solution.”
And a short ways farther down that patient’s path, there’s a fork. If her symptoms worsen, she’ll need hospital care. But our hospitals are already stretching to meet demand, well before this viral siege has peaked. In large measure, that also could have been avoided.
The coronavirus, as you’ve probably read, attacks small air sacs in the lungs called alveoli. Patients whose infections progress to hospital care will often need a piece of respiratory equipment called a ventilator, to help them breathe. Other states are desperately short of both ventilators and hospital beds as the pandemic looms, and Virginia health officials have not been able to be clear about availability here. America’s top leaders have had years of warnings of our lack of preparedness for a pandemic; we’ve seen decades of cutbacks in our public health infrastructure; much of our social safety net is made of cobwebs.
Though your vote for sane leadership is a deadly serious matter, this is not a partisan issue. There is no Republican or Democratic coronavirus. In this interconnected world, the issue is what kind of health care and safety measures we Americans owe each other, and whether we intend to follow our best science or someone’s political agenda instead, when trouble is on the horizon.
Please observe the disciplines of distance and hand soap, and stay safe. This will not be the last viral scourge, nor the last science-based call for action on other global crises. Let’s make sure, when we’ve mobilized and survived this one, that we’ve learned its tragic lessons well.