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What Covid-19 Tells Us About Our Biased Pretenses

By: Nadia Benjelloun

Photo by James Jonathan

A Justifiable Fear, or a Melodrama?

There is no doubt that there ever was as violent of an outbreak as covid-19. Or is that just what we are made to believe? It seems we have all gone through the similar stages of dismissing it at first, calling it the same as the common cold, saying influenza is a likelier killer, and noting that we’ve withstood other epidemics. This was followed by waves of optimism, where we’d post about it on social media, attempting to educate the masses on the risk of misinformation, informing on safety measures such as washing hands and social distancing, and the advisories on travel, rescheduling or canceling social events, being under the impression that it can only affect the old or the immunocompromised, and moving to online schooling or work from home. Then, as things got serious, and the virus was transitioning into a pandemic, along with the waking call that it can affect anybody and in any way, and not just in health, but in employment too, people began to panic, hoard on supplies, warn friends and families, diligently monitoring symptoms. Finally, though it took some time, and others are still having trouble heeding to the advisories, most have reached a level of acceptance, and have adjusted to quarantined life as the new norm. The songs, memes, gifs, and posts out there about being quarantined or the virus itself, is just a sliver of a reflection of not only how people are past it but try to find the silver lining.

It was not long before leaders started calling state of emergencies and work and travel limitations for their respective countries. Somewhere by the start of to mid- March, more than one location had claimed authorizing beginning clinical trials for a possible vaccine. Some are hopeful that this will all blow over by summer. We are getting ahead of ourselves.

Why is it that we are so pressed for a vaccine or treatment? Does this seem like a stupid question to you? Let me elaborate.

Drug testing and clinical trials normally take at least a couple of years, with phase 1 lasting until at least up to 6 or so months. (1) So what? Isn’t it a good thing that we might be able to reach a turnaround to all this chaos much sooner? What I’m asking though, is why does it seem like we’re suddenly at the capacity to do so?

It’s because covid-19 emerged in industrialized countries first. A professor of microbiology and immunology, Dr. Stanley Perlman, from the University of Iowa, had said, “Given the urgency of preventing further spread of the virus, this [rapid pace] is understandable.” (Radcliff, 2020) (2) No it’s not. When both Zika and the Ebola virus broke out, both targeted mainly areas considered to have developed or third-world countries. While it was pinned up in our news, health measures, funds, and an expedited appeal to find a vaccine was not reported in the same tone of insistence.

The first positive case of Zika in humans was reported in Nigeria in 1954. (3) The first epidemic was in 2007 in parts of Micronesia, then again in 2013-2014. (4) It wasn’t until cases had first been reported in Brazil in 2015 and spread throughout the year to other countries in South and Central America, now bordering a very close risk to North America, that the WHO, recognizing that it could reach the rest of the Americas, (when it already did, just short of the United States and Canada) finally declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in 2016. (5) As of today, there is still no approved medicine or vaccine for zika. The most that has come out of it, is that CDC released guidelines for schools. (6) With the trace of Zika having been minimal in the US, no extreme measures were taken, and life continued as usual. It could very well make a comeback, but just as done then, the level of threat will be pushed back in the list of priorities, even though there is no concrete treatment to combat it yet.

Ebola faced a similar gap. Ebola virus disease was discovered first in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, eventually leading to outbreak after outbreak over a span of 40 years! (7) It took thousands upon thousands of lives, numbers that could be the population of your entire hometown. But numbers that high are just a statistic when comes from fantastically, distant, countries “somewhere in Africa.” The harshest outbreak was the latest one, that lasted from 2014-2018.  Or so the internet will tell you. If you googled when Ebola started, lest you dug deeper, it will tell you that Ebola started in 2014. That is because, that is when international travelers carried it from their visits in Africa into Europe and the US.(8) The lives of those affected were severely disrupted, the socioeconomics taking a toll so damaging, it made the 2008 recession look like a walk in the park.

Luckily, a cure is available now for Ebola, along with a few existing vaccines. All thanks to Dr. Muyembe’s constant investigations, who also happens to be the one responsible for its discovery back in 1976. You remember him, right? Remember how viral his work in the National Institute of Biomedical Research went when they successfully developed an effective drug, and how it made breaking news deadlines for weeks on end? No, doesn’t ring a bell? Of course not, it never happened. He’s from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Who would remember an African microbiologist and his breakthrough? His long overdue credit was only given to him late in 2019. And I bet, most of you who are reading this, are only learning about it for the first time.

Congratulations America, You’re Number 1, and Not in the Way You’d Like

            There is a joke going around, that the United States likes to think itself the first in everything, even though evidence shows that it doesn’t place first in anything (education, economy, healthcare, social life and wellness, etc.) but now it finally has its chance. It is number 1 in newest positive cases for coronavirus around the world. Congratulations.

            I recently asked a professor of mine, why the US has been so slow on its response to the spread of covid-19. She explained that it is a complicated matter. But she went on to say that one of the reasons is that Asian countries like South Korea and Singapore have endured SARS before in 2007, and as a result, were better prepared in this second round. On top of that she added that the “Trump administration in particular is woefully prepared and didn’t take this as seriously as it should have in January and February.  For example, in 2017, the president dismantled the national pandemic response team that had been put in place by the Obama administration in response to Ebola and did not reinstate it when the COVID crisis started in Asia and then in Europe.” And to think, they thought they were going to “flatten the curve.” There are many health experts out there who also express a similar disappointment.

What We Took for Granted and Our Arrogance

It goes without saying, that the experience of corona virus so far, is like having a cold. The sniffles and the annoyance of a blocked nose suddenly reminds you of how you took breathing through your nostrils for granted. You repeatedly wish to regain your sense of smell and promise that you’ll never overlook the subtleties of your good health again. That’s how travel and socializing look to us now. The idea that you couldn’t participate in some activity before because of some frivolous excuse of money or not having time will surely be reevaluated in the future as we learn how to live a more minimalistic life these days. But what’s even more arrogant of us, is to assume that it will end.

How blessed are we to be able to have conversations where we consider a future with an ended pandemic and a readily available vaccine? We are lucky to have been struck by such a disease during the digital revolution. Though it first grew out of China, any Tom, Dick and Harry could have looked it up on their smartphones in seconds and educated themselves on the latest updates of covid-19. It’s part of why we all knew at least one person who attempted the hero’s cape and posted and forwarded myth-busting corona facts, making sure families were well-beyond prepared to shelter in their homes in the early stages of the pandemic. I doubt the polio cohort could have felt that reassured in the late 19th century.

That being said, conversations that circulate around the student populations sound the most absurd. Seniors are weeping about missing graduations ceremonies; others complain about cancelled or postponed music concerts and sporting events. Oh, how the Yemenis, Syrians, Palestinians, Kashmiris, and Uyghurs must laugh at us now. The uncertainty of the lockdowns, the anxiety of travel bans, and the fear for loved ones is still nothing in comparison to what they’ve felt and must continue to feel for a lifetime. It is as the saying goes, just a taste of our own medicine.

However, we are not entirely at fault. This is what is due to happen when we are at the hands of selective empathy. It’s the reason why, if I were to ask how many of you have heard of hurricane Katrina, a majority of you would mentally raise your hands, as opposed to if I had asked about cyclone Idai, which was worse and hit the South-West Indian ocean basin in March 2019.

I do not ask that we neglect our current situation with Covid-19. Wherever you are in the world, take appropriate precautions. But I would like to remind us, that while we undergo this global crisis, to take a step back, take a breather if you must, and reflect a little bit…not only what does this mean for us, but also what does our actions say about us?


End Notes

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