Stan Christensen: Rowing upstream against COVID-19 in Utah

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign detailing COVID-19 procedures and precautions at Sugarhouse Nail Co in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 22, 2020.

Learning is like rowing

Upstream, not to advance

Is to drop back.

— Chinese Proverb

We have all been learning how to live with and navigate the deluge of COVID-19. We have seen that we can “flatten the curve” and not overwhelm the health care system, but we haven’t been able to achieve this without tremendous economic sacrifice. The hardship this created, combined with a lack of clarity on health-related milestones and goals, has led to a complacency that is causing us to drift backward.

The state’s rapid march through the color-coded risk phases from Red, to Orange to Yellow and now, in rural areas, to Green, has given us a false sense of security, causing us to relax. Most of the state is now designated as “low risk,” despite the fact that new infections and the rate of virus spread currently exceed what they were when we were designated “high risk.” It feels like those in charge predetermined that we would only be swimming in one direction on the risk scale.

We first began drifting downstream when our leaders shifted their focus from health to economics, rather than effectively balancing the two. Choices were made to open the economy well in advance of our reaching important recommended epidemiological milestones, and the results are now clear. Our average number of new cases is skyrocketing, and the positive test rate is now at 8% with community spread increasing. The downstream result will unfortunately be an increase in premature deaths.

So, how can we get back in the boat and start rowing upstream, while balancing economic and health related interests?

First, we need to resist all politicization of the battle against COVID-19. Politicians and the media have worked to lure us into false divisions. The virus doesn’t care which party we belong to or what we believe, and unwaveringly follows the science of epidemiology. COVID-19 is our common enemy and we have to have a collective strategy to defeat it. That means coming together rather than marginalizing and stereotyping one other.

Second, we need to balance health and economic interests, rather than seeing them as opposing forces. Because we all want to get back to normal, we need to work effectively together until we have a vaccine. Instead of demonizing public health agencies, we should see them as our allies in getting us back to work, school, and church.

The CDC has published guidelines intended to facilitate our safe return to our former lives, and following them will save lives. We can achieve tremendous gains against the virus if we all simply wear masks in public. Seldom has there been an opportunity to gain so much by doing so little. It is estimated that wearing a mask decreases the virus’s ability to spread by 80%, which translates into many saved lives.

Third, we need to focus on our responsibility to each other, rather than on our individual needs and personal freedoms. Temporary adjustments are seen by some as attacks against our civic, religious, and personal freedoms, rather than as responsible acts in the battle for our mutual wellbeing. We live in a community. While we value our own freedoms, we should place equal value on others’ rights to health and safety. Our right to behave in ways that are likely to transmit the virus should not trump others’ rights to stay well and remain alive.

The way we approach taking care of one another, especially the most vulnerable, will be a measure of our collective moral integrity. We should not compromise this mission in the name of individual freedom.

While we would never have chosen the journey of rowing upstream against this pernicious virus, we have little choice but to continue doing so. Rowing together, while recognizing and balancing our differing viewpoints, can help us move effectively through this turbulent time together.

Stan Christensen

Stan Christensen lives in Salt Lake City and currently teaches negotiation at Stanford University. Previously he worked at Conflict Management Group, where he helped resolve complex political, cultural and ethnic disputes.

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