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An Unsolicited Opinion: Flawed responses to the 2019 novel coronavirus

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If you’ve been on the internet or talked to another human being in the last couple of weeks, you’ve heard about the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Each day the outbreak continues it brings new reports of deaths, transmission and fear. People on the internet are handling this rapidly unfolding crisis with the practiced caution and rationality that Twitter is known for. In other words, social media is a dumpster fire of misinformation, conspiracy theories and xenophobia. As misinformation spreads, I think it’s worthwhile to sift through the information currently available and evaluate the productivity of different responses to the crisis.

Over the past week, China has reported an almost exponential increase in coronavirus cases. By Tuesday, there were more than 24,000 reported cases and 492 deaths, reports CBS. In the Harvard Gazette, Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, admits that most epidemiologists following the outbreak closely think that it is “quite a bit” more widespread than the reported cases suggest. Mina says that “many people also think that there’s probably over 100,000 [cases] in reality out in mainland China. … We can assume that [the outbreak] … will continue increasing in scale.”

Many other experts have reached similar conclusions. In response, the U.S. government has taken aggressive steps to try and prevent the virus from taking hold here. The Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are enforcing a travel ban that bars all non-citizens who have recently been in China from entering the country and is requiring all U.S. citizens who have recently traveled to China’s Hubei Province to be quarantined for up to two weeks.

While many people on social media are borderline hysterical about the coronavirus, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows that “a majority of Americans don’t see this as something that is necessarily going to strike here.” In my opinion, both hysteria and lackadaisical denial are unproductive takes on the possibility of a 2019-nCoV pandemic.

While Americans might feel like the aggressive response by the federal government will protect them, travel bans don’t always stop the spread of a disease, reports Vox. While quarantining people can work, the practice becomes a lot less effective if people can spread the disease before they show symptoms, as some experts told the New York Times regarding the 2019-nCoV.

But most importantly, while the Trump administration is now engaging in security theater that flouts the advice of the World Health Organization, the administration has spent the last two years systematically undermining America’s ability to defend itself against a pandemic.

In 2018, the Trump administration fired all members of the government’s pandemic response chain of command. In Foreign Policy, Laurie Garrett writes that her calls to key U.S. agencies yielded consistent responses of “distressed confusion.” Garrett notes that an independent, bipartisan committee formed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that U.S. preparedness for a pandemic was so dire under the Trump administration that the “United States must either pay now and gain protection and security or wait for the next epidemic and pay a much greater price in human and economic costs.”

In other words, the United States appears to be woefully unprepared for a pandemic. And while you might have seen headlines over the past couple weeks assuring Americans that they should be more afraid of the flu than 2019-nCoV, most experts are taking the possibility of a global 2019-nCoV pandemic with a high possible death toll very seriously. So, that safety and insulation from the virus that many Americans currently feel? It’s likely that those feelings of security are misplaced.

This is, of course, not to say that hysteria is a better or more rational response. In fact, I don’t think we’ve really reckoned with what the consequences of widespread misinformation and hysteria fueled by social media would be in the context of a deadly, global pandemic. This failure is all the more reason for the Trump administration to get its shit together and develop a competent, well-funded bureaucracy capable of dealing with such a pandemic. Even if 2019-nCoV never gets a foothold in the U.S., a pandemic that reaches American soil is inevitable.

*Edited on 4/30/2020

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