COVID-19: A Natural Disaster We Could've Controlled and Didn't

Our leaders need to understand and be guided by science.

Posted Apr 30, 2020

Eugene Lu/Shutterstock
Source: Eugene Lu/Shutterstock

While we are still at the mercy most natural catastrophes like earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes, volcanic eruptions and landslides, floods, droughts and wildfires, there is one type of natural disaster we can now do something about. Viral and bacterial outbreaks leading to epidemics and pandemics. Indeed, epidemics and pandemics, and their devastating repercussions, have shaped and defined many aspects of human civilization for centuries.

For instance, when the bubonic plague arrived in Constantinople in the 6th century, the historian Procopius wrote that for several months, the pestilence killed up to 10,000 people a day in the capital. By the time the plague fizzled out, in A.D. 750, a new religion, Islam, had seized a large share of Byzantium’s eastern territories and the Franks had conquered vast swaths of Western Europe.

Subsequent pandemics would violently change the course of history again and again in the coming centuries. Smallpox, brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadors in 1492, killed up to 20 million indigenous Americans, annihilated the Aztecs, and allowed Europeans to colonize the devastated areas. And in the 19th century the czarist regime in Russia mercilessly cracked down on the public with strict cholera quarantines thus fueling resentments that later exploded into revolution.

But it is now the 21st century. We have a much better understanding of viral and bacterial illnesses and infections than at any other time during our existence. We have an arsenal of antibiotics that is dwindling alarmingly due to resistance through overuse, but can still eradicate a slew of potentially lethal bacterial infections. Even some viruses can now be treated and vaccinated against.

Interestingly, vaccines have been around a lot longer than most people realize. In 1796 the English physician Edward Jenner found a way to protect people from smallpox by taking material from a blister on a cowpox victim and transferring it to another person’s skin. And in the 20th century great advancements in vaccination were made (e.g., pertussis in 1914, diphtheria in 1926, and tetanus in 1938) culminating with Jonas Salk's crowning achievement of finding a vaccine for polio in 1955. These misery preventing and life-saving efforts advanced all through the ensuing decades and continue to progress in the present day.

Beyond the game-changing and possibly civilization saving impact of our current vaccine technology, the science of epidemiology (the branch of medicine dealing with the occurrence, spread, distribution and ways to control disease) has grown too.

In my view, one of the greatest accomplishments of epidemiology is the understanding of herd immunity. That is, the resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population. This occurs when about 90 percent of the population is immune to the disease in question; a number that is usually only achieved through vaccination. This means the 90 percent of the population who are immune to the illness will prevent the susceptible 10 percent from getting sick due to radically limiting the disease's transmission.

Hence, when the necessary scientific and medical infrastructure is intact, in place and adequately funded, our species is capable of preventing, radically containing and even eradicating these deadly scourges from the human population. Thus, in our present era, the devastating loss, pain and suffering brought on by some pandemics are avoidable. Sadly, COVID-19 caught us flat-footed. We could have prevented, stopped or better contained this devastating natural disaster but we failed to do so despite more than 10 years of epidemiological alarms sounding its inevitability. But instead of taking these matters as literally deadly serious, our highest ranking, elected leaders denied, discouraged, defunded and dismantled the very front line institutions charged with preventing these catastrophes (i.e., the CDC, NIH and WHO). What’s more, a shocking number of Americans—our herd—refuses to avail themselves and their children of modern vaccines due to ignorance and obstinance rooted in scientific illiteracy.

This is why we need our country—and more importantly our leadership—to understand and be guided by science like epidemiology and embrace the life-saving blessing of vaccinations. To do less is socially irresponsible and puts our whole species at risk. (As does the lack of foreign countries' epidemiological transparency.) 

But sadly, as long as it remains easier to fool people than it is to convince them they’ve been fooled, we will probably remain vulnerable to the natural disaster we can currently control.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well!

Copyright 2020 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified health professional. The advertisements in this post do not necessarily reflect my opinions nor are they endorsed by me.