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Wack: Coronavirus outbreak not surprising, worsened by political incompetence, cuts to funding

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The rapidly evolving outbreak of the new coronavirus, Covid-19, is going to continue disrupting routines for the foreseeable future. Those impacts will be as much from poor planning, bad decisions, and political stupidity as from the actual virus. The systems supporting modern society are very fragile and easily shaken, but also deeply resilient, which will lead to eventual recovery despite insufficient resources and political incompetence.

First, the basics: this virus is a member of a family of respiratory viruses that have always been around, causing minor colds and occasionally more severe pneumonia, along with many other types of viruses like the rhinoviruses, RSV, adenovirus, and influenza. We live in a sea of viruses and bacteria, and our immune systems are constantly battling infections. Vaccines give us a leg up on that warfare, but most of the viruses our body fights have no vaccine. There are just too many, and most only cause mild symptoms.

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Like many other viruses, coronaviruses can occasionally jump between humans and other animals, like dogs, cats, and farm animals. This is likely what happened with Covid-19, as the starting point for the infection in China is renowned for enormous animal markets, where humans and a wide variety of animals are packed in close quarters.

All living things mutate and change, and viruses can do it very quickly. Contagiousness is the ability to spread, and coronaviruses already are pretty contagious as a group. Virulence is the capacity to cause severe disease, and this is how Covid-19 has mutated into something more serious. It is both contagious, and virulent, which is not a good combination.

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Like influenza, which is also both contagious and virulent, Covid-19 appears to cause significant illness and death. However, recent hysterical media coverage lacks important context about how unsurprising this outbreak is. New viruses pop up all the time, and sometimes they cause significant illness. We’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. The global epidemic will run its course, we’ll adapt, and daily routines will return to normal. How we behave in the meantime will determine how much chaos we endure while it lasts.

Frequent and thorough handwashing, taking care of yourself, avoiding unnecessary exposures, and staying home when you are sick are about all any one person can, and should, do in this situation. The elderly seem to be the most susceptible to severe infection, so extra care should be taken with them.

Containing a very contagious respiratory virus is almost impossible, which is why we’re seeing the relative ineffectiveness of the quarantine measures so far. It is only a matter of time before we have cases of Covid-19 in Maryland and Carroll County. The good news is that the rapid spread is also evidence of silent infection, which means more people are being infected with little or no symptoms, which then means the virus isn’t as lethal as initial numbers indicate.

Our deeply interconnected international economy both enables the rapid global spread of new infections, and amplifies the economic impact of quarantines and travel restrictions. The stock market collapse and worsening economic forecasts are a direct result of our public health system being neglected and under resourced for too long. A number of federal health agencies endured $15 billion in cuts in 2018, and another $4.5 billion from the National Institutes of Health alone in 2019, billions more from other health agencies in the last three years. This resulted in the exodus of experts and shuttering of the very global health programs we need presently.

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State and county government health agencies are doing the most effective work, but it’s obviously insufficient. Federal agencies, gutted by cuts, maligned, and discredited by hack political appointees, will continue to struggle. For example, even at this late date, because of budget cuts and poor preparedness, the CDC is still scrambling to field a reliable test for the virus to assist with screening and identification of infections, while South Korea and China are screening thousands of people per day.

This was all foreseeable and foreseen. You can’t tear down government then expect miracles when the inevitable crisis arrives, as we are seeing today. Only government, well funded and ably administered, can tackle problems of this scope and complexity. The delusional fantasies of conservative small government policies will be one of the many casualties of this epidemic.

Right wing media is already counter-spinning events with propaganda that this is much ado about nothing, and calling any discussion of federal ineptitude as “weaponization” of a public health crisis. Meanwhile, the epidemic spreads, unchecked.

You get what you pay for, and if you don’t want to pay taxes and demand good government, then the coming chaos and disruption will become the new normal.

Dr. Robert Wack is a pediatrician who writes from Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.p.wack@gmail.com.

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