Pandemic Reflections

I Bought Into American Exceptionalism Without Realizing It

After we settle into a new normal, we shouldn’t forget the lessons of the past year

As I look back on the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I can’t help but wonder why many of us weren’t more unsettled at the start of it all.

In early January 2020, my editor messaged me about the reports of a mysterious pneumonia-like illness out of Wuhan, China. As a science journalist, I’m careful to avoid hype in my writing. I wondered if I’d do more harm than good reporting on the outbreak. But my editor had been a foreign correspondent for TIME magazine in China when SARS was first identified in late 2002. He had reason to be concerned. My initial reaction was not exactly indifference, but I wasn’t particularly worried either.

My attitude started to change when the city of Wuhan went into complete lockdown on January 23. The pictures of empty streets were haunting.

Still, like many Americans, I never thought a pandemic would happen here. Ground zero was thousands of miles away, and after all, we had beaten back other infectious threats — SARS, MERS, Ebola. I should have known better.

More than a decade ago, as a health care reporter for a business newspaper, I wrote about a company that won a multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. Army to develop an Ebola vaccine. There was no active Ebola outbreak in 2010, so no one was paying attention to it. Of course, when the virus reemerged in West Africa in 2014, researchers raced to develop drugs and vaccines as cases mounted. I tracked this progress, too, as a reporter for a biotech newsletter.

I remember how afraid Americans were of Ebola. In November 2014, I started working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a contractor. I arrived on the Bethesda, Maryland, campus just a month after nurse Nina Pham was treated and released from NIH after recovering from Ebola. Pham had contracted the virus while caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian citizen who became the first U.S. Ebola patient. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), cared for Pham himself, and I was working down the hall from him as a writer in the agency’s communications office. Our phones rang constantly with calls from journalists writing about the virus.

It’s not all that surprising that we were more scared of Ebola than of SARS-CoV-2. The media and partisan messaging stoked our fears for months. Richard Preston’s 1994 bestseller, The Hot Zone, didn’t help. The nonfiction book birthed a number of myths around Ebola that have persisted for years. People thought they would bleed out and their organs would liquefy if they caught Ebola — symptoms that Preston admitted to exaggerating. By contrast, early reports of Covid-19 made it seem like a bad flu. The idea of coming down with a cough wasn’t nearly as gruesome sounding as the mythical effects of Ebola.

But America’s collective memory is short. We soon forgot about Ebola, like we forgot about MERS and SARS before that. Many Americans would believe these were diseases that happened to other countries, where people live near jungles and shop at wet markets. They don’t happen in the United States. And if they did happen here, surely we would have the resources to prevent a pandemic. Like many people, I had been lulled into a sense of complacency. I had bought into the idea of American exceptionalism without realizing it.

My last “normal” night was on Leap Day last year. My family came to visit me and my husband in Baltimore, and we went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday. At the restaurant, we talked and laughed, not knowing everything was about to change. Looking back, I didn’t appreciate that meal like I should have.

Even though I’d written about infectious diseases on and off for the past 10 years, I didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation until the World Health Organization officially declared the Covid-19 global outbreak a pandemic on March 12 of last year. The next day, Maryland went into lockdown.

The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the U.S. health care system, economy, and society. It has upended everyday life in ways we previously thought unimaginable. As of this writing, the U.S. death toll from Covid-19 exceeds 535,000 — more than the number of U.S. losses in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined.

The United States spends more than $700 billion a year on military troops and weaponry to guard against real and perceived threats. When this pandemic is finally over and we’ve calculated its vast economic toll, will we spare even a fraction of that to guard against the next one?

We know there will be more threats like Covid-19. There are hundreds of coronaviruses circulating in bats and other animals. All it might take is one opportune moment of cross-species interaction for one of those viruses to spill over to humans. We cannot let our guard down once the Covid-19 pandemic subsides. We shouldn’t live in fear of the next pandemic, but we should take the threat of the next one seriously — no matter where it emerges. We shouldn’t forget this time, and we shouldn’t be complacent.

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.

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