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John J. Ryan: The war against COVID-19 is being fought on the wrong front

We should have paid more attention to those who allowed COVID-19 to come into our homes and schools.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather as the Salt Lake County Council holds a brief meeting on the mask mandate, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022.

From the beginning, those fighting the war against COVID-19 have been contending with the wrong enemy. In addition to targeting the virus, we should have placed far stronger efforts against those who allowed COVID-19 to settle down into our homes, received it into our communities and even accepted the virus and all the consequences it brought.

The anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, anti-social distancing groups are winning this war, if they have not already won.

From the outset, the message from the medical and scientific community has been the same, promoting social distancing, supporting mask use and, in time, advocating for the benefits of vaccines. In contrast the message on the side that has allowed the virus to propagate has constantly changed and evolved.

At one point, the argument was that the flu was much worse than COVID-19. Then the focus shifted to our children. When it moved to a fight for civil liberties against wearing masks, they came armed to our statehouses to force their point home. Once the vaccines were introduced, the methods changed to intimidation around messenger RNA and innumerable ethical concerns became a disruptive force. Then misinformation around pre-treatment and the accounting behind COVID-19 death numbers became prevalent.

As in any war, the ability to adapt is integral to success. The inability of the medical and scientific community to modify our argument has contributed to the failure to control and contain COVID-19.

It is time to change the front on which we are fighting COVID-19. We need to more directly counter the people and the messages that have allowed the virus to propagate. The continued presence of COVID-19 is a major threat to the economic wellbeing of the United States both in the boardroom and in the living room. Although unemployment rates remain low, inflation is now a significant threat.

Arguing that the economy is best strengthened by allowing life to continue as usual despite the virus might be true in the short term, but as it contributes to worker shortages and supply chain disruptions, the longer the pandemic continues, the greater the threat to jobs.

In addition, if we continue to fail in the fight against COVID-19, and other countries successfully contain it, specifically China, the national security of the U.S. becomes at risk, and the role of the U.S. as the dominant superpower becomes threatened. This, plus the virus’ continued omnipresence, creates an inability to address our national interests both at home and overseas.

Our ability to commit to efforts that target poverty, health, democracy and infrastructure, all of which again directly relate to job creation, becomes weakened. These issues do not go away by accepting the virus into our communities.

Finally, it would be a matter of immense national pride if the U.S. were the first country to defeat this virus. This success could be added to the enormous list of accomplishments in the short history of the United States and would truly be a shared success.

This era is going to go down in history either way. It would be preferable to highlight a defining success in defeating the virus, rather than archiving the large part of the population who directed the country to obey the virus and accept the consequences, despite the easy availability of life-saving measures.

Those measures of masks, social distancing and vaccines remain the backbone of our fight in this pandemic, but efforts to implement these as mandates have stalled. A war is not won without changing tactics or messaging and, at this stage, winning the war against COVID-19 does not require mandates. It requires patriotism.

John J. Ryan, M.D.

John J. Ryan, M.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Medicine, and director of the Pulmonary Hypertension Comprehensive Care Center, at the University of Utah.

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