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What the pandemic has taught us about science, society and our own selfish ways

Here are five life lessons we can take from our response to the coronavirus.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tape on the floor encourages social distancing during mass on Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent at Sacred Heart Church in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

I just want something good to come from all of this.

Look, it has been a horrendous year. More than half a million Americans dead, tens of millions fighting illness, high unemployment, mental health consequences abounding... the list could go on and on.

I’ve written about all of those things, and dozens of other topics, since the pandemic changed our world last March. And now that the calendar has flipped to March 2021, it’s a good time to think about what we can learn from this whole ordeal.

I’m not referring to the lessons specific to this pandemic: what coronavirus treatments work and which ones don’t, that you should avoid choir practice when you’re sick, and so on. I mean the ones that will be applicable for making a better America, a better Utah, moving forward — in sickness and in health.

What can we take from our darkest days? Here’s five life lessons.

What science can accomplish... with funding

One year ago, there weren’t many experts in coronaviruses.

“When this [new] epidemic began, I think there were three or four of us who answered the majority of the calls,” Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa, told STAT News at the time.

Why? Well coronaviruses usually cause colds. And the exceptions, the original SARS and MERS pandemics, didn’t move the needle much in our country. As a result, even after the SARS pandemic in the early 2000s, we only spent about $20 million each year on research into the coronaviruses. And much of that funding was thrown into understanding SARS and MERS specifically, not necessarily what this whole class of viruses could do.

We didn’t know how they spread, how they made people sick, or how to fight them. The good news is we were able to learn quickly once the scientific community put its efforts toward this pandemic, with the funding to match.

You can see the same impact money had on vaccine research. We actually spend about $4 billion per year through the National Institutes of Health on developing vaccines. That meant that before the pandemic began we had done significant work into the mRNA approach to making vaccines, even though we hadn’t successfully created a human-approved one.

Here, the new funding acted as an accelerant, condensing a decade-long process into one year. That has likely saved millions of lives.

But the coronavirus vaccine funding will have an even bigger effect going forward. The research during the pandemic has resulted in a trial mRNA vaccine for malaria, which kills about 400,000 worldwide annually. I’m sure the malaria vaccine won’t be the last of its kind.

During the pandemic, we’ve relearned the value of scientific research — spend during a crisis, sure, but more important, spend before one strikes.

Social disparities become catastrophic in a crisis

During this pandemic, women are suffering economically more than men. The most jaw-dropping stat came in December, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 140,000 fewer jobs in the month — women lost 156,000, while men gained 16,000.

But that statistic wasn’t the only one, as we saw time and time again how the pandemic impacted workplace equality. As another example: Hispanic unemployment grew faster than white unemployment, both in Utah and in the United States as a whole.

While the pandemic’s economic toll took larger shots at these groups, there were also big inequities in the health consequences.

For all of America’s history, minorities and poor people have had less of an ability to stay healthy, through no fault of their own. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges racial discrimination exists in health care, housing, education, criminal justice and finance — all areas that clearly and obviously can impact the health of an individual.

But even ignoring that discrimination, there are all sorts of barriers to equity in health. Minorities are less likely to be insured, are less likely to be able to take time off for a doctor visit, have lesser access to transportation, child care, and the wealth that can lead to the highest level of care.

For this pandemic, all of this was amplified as the virus spread more in places that are disproportionately minority-staffed: factories, farms, retail stores, restaurants and so on. Minority communities tend to live in households with more people, which means the virus can spread faster among families.

Here in Utah, the case rate in the Hispanic community was about double that of Utah’s majority white population over the past year, despite similar testing numbers. From April to June, the virus ripped through Utah’s Hispanic communities — about 50% of the people who tested positive were Hispanic during that time period. Utah’s population is about 14% Hispanic.

In the end, if we want to live in a fair and equitable society, we need to take a look at how our social systems hold up in the worst of times. This pandemic revealed there were larger disparities than many would have assumed.

The value of communication

Messaging matters.

My favorite example is a study comparing the audiences of two Fox News talk shows: those of Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. In the early stages, Hannity downplayed the pandemic — he compared the number of deaths to murders in Chicago, or car accident deaths, and once even said it was a “hoax” Democrats were using to shake the foundations of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Meanwhile, Carlson said the pandemic was a cause for concern and he said so early on — he had three segments on the topic from Jan. 28 to Feb. 25.

What was the result? Well, Carlson’s audience started social distancing three days earlier than the average Fox News viewer, while Hannity’s audience started social distancing five days later. Carlson’s show also surpassed Hannity’s show in ratings for the first time during the pandemic.

But those are just two TV shows. Our government should have been far better equipped to inform the public about what was going on.

Take contact tracing. Here in Utah, there wasn’t much consistent talk about what contact tracing revealed — essentially that clusters of people hanging out indoors was the largest source of spread — until November, when a new public health order was put in place. In Japan, they’d been hammering that since May, telling people to avoid the “Three Cs:” Closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact settings.

Masks are probably the most obvious example of a failure in public health communication. Early in the pandemic, health leaders said masks somehow didn’t help the general public, while they did help the doctors who worked with coronavirus patients. While that may have been a statement used to keep protective equipment in the hands of the medical community, it also was intentionally misleading — and once you’ve intentionally mislead the American public, they’re going to be more skeptical when you tell them to actually wear masks later.

In Utah, Dr. Angela Dunn’s consistent, authoritative presentation was a bright spot — but the inconsistent follow-through from elected officials frequently muddled the message.

Half-measures don’t work

It was possible to tame the pandemic, if we wanted to. Australia cut cases and deaths to essentially zero, but even Canada’s moderate example would have resulted in 75% fewer deaths in our country.

But we didn’t really want to. Instead, our government created a legion of half-measures, ensuring the virus would continue to grow exponentially.

Take the lockdown in March and April, when we gave “essential worker” status to such a large group of people. Have a real estate license? You could travel around freely. Work in construction? Sure, leave your house. You’re an accountant? Well, that’s financial services, so head to the office. The result was an ineffectual lockdown that only meant cases were mitigated, but never eliminated — unlike the lockdowns in Asia and Australia.

Germany’s example would have resulted in 66% fewer deaths, thanks to rigorous contact tracing. Our contact tracing relied too much on the hope that Americans — and Utahns — would answer their phones or choose to download an app. By the peak of the pandemic, our contact tracers were overwhelmed, and there just wasn’t much of a preventative impact.

Or take mask mandates. A University of Utah study found statewide mandates were far more effective than local initiatives at both saving lives and encouraging business. But instead, governors around the nation, including then-Gov. Gary Herbert, hemmed and hawed, only recommending a mask instead of mandating one. That didn’t happen until November.

“Sometimes we’ve gotten it right and sometimes we’ve gotten it wrong,” current Gov. Spencer Cox said in a news conference last week. “We made other mistakes earlier by not doing masks, by not mandating those earlier, which could’ve helped and maybe saved some lives.”

In Utah, we shipped masks to people who needed one — great idea! Except we shipped cloth masks instead of protective N95 masks or even pretty-effective-and-more-available KN95 ones. Those cloth masks are better than nothing, but we fell short on true protection.

Over and over, we tried to cheat on our approach to the pandemic, always half-committing to these measures. The result was a transmission rate that always hovered above one, ensuring cases would grow and grow for months.

Americans think of themselves first — and Utahns are no exception

Back in October, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation drew headlines for predicting there would be 500,000 dead Americans due to COVID-19 by the end of February, a prediction which proved pretty darn accurate. But, there was a hopeful caveat: 130,000 of those deaths would be prevented if mask wearing became universal, reaching 95%.

Those lives were not saved.

Indeed, mask-wearing never reached or came close to those levels nationwide. Here in Utah, it only reached about 75%, and has hovered there since October, according to state data. Hundreds of thousands of people just decided not to wear them — “my mask protects you, your mask protects me” wasn’t reason enough.

Back in November, Utah’s government blasted every cellphone with an alert, asking people to refrain from spending time with those living outside of their household. Rates of this kind of activity fell by a paltry 14 percentage points; most people just kept doing what they were doing.

To be clear, millions of Utahns and Americans did the right thing and sacrificed for the well-being of others. A majority did their best to abide by health guidelines, wore a mask, stayed away from others and largely in their homes.

But there were so many exceptions. A whole fraction of America, a whole fraction of Utah — 20% to 40% depending on the activity, but it’s somewhere in that range — selfishly chose to defy these steps, demonstrating a commitment to asserting their “individual freedoms” over the health of their community. In other countries, there are also those who ruin good things, there are just usually fewer of them.

Before the pandemic, I would have considered Utah an exceptionally community-oriented state for a variety of cultural reasons. But when push came to shove, I don’t know that you can argue we were any different than anybody else. Utahns’ mask compliance rates were below average, and we kept visiting stores and restaurants at a rate well above the national average.

We, in Utah, had the fourth-highest rate of COVID-19 in the nation. In terms of changing our behavior to protect our community, too many of us weren’t willing to. There’s a certain degree of sadness to that, I think.

There’s also a pragmatic lesson for future crises, though: you can’t count on Americans, on Utahns, to row in one direction. Even with the lives of hundreds of thousands at stake, some aren’t going to be on board. We’ll need to take that into account into our decision-making — maybe implement more selfish, individual-level incentives to push people to do the right thing.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist. He is also one of The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utah Jazz beat writers. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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