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Tribune Editorial: Who we rely on as our coronavirus experts is critical

Health before crony capitalism. Open schools first. Support workers. Do your part. What we learned at one year mark.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, left, Gov. Spencer Cox and and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn take turns answering questions in the ongoing pandemic during a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 11, 2021.

As Utah and the nation mark the end of a full year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and our reactions to it, there is reason for hope.

Maybe more hope than we deserve, as the rapid development and distribution of a vaccine is making up for a lot of denial, selfishness and efforts to politicize or monetize the crisis for personal gain at the expense of public health.

What we should have learned — what we should have already known — is that a common problem such as a globally spread virus cannot be solved by acts of selfishness. It has to be all for one, and one for all, or it’s all for nothing.

It is not time to relax. It is time to really bear down on ending the ongoing pandemic, and knowing how to deal much better with the next one.

Health before crony capitalism

Utah’s official reaction from the gate was to give a lot of taxpayer dollars to private companies to do what state and county health officials and the state’s premier health care systems were already set up to do.

State leaders also raised false hopes and risked millions of dollars in public money by scurrying after a malaria drug that, for coronavirus purposes, turned out to be a dud. That’s a mistake that’s made when politicians rather than physicians are in charge.

We must shore up existing state and county health departments so they are prepared to do such things as set up clinics and vaccination stations. When dealing with public health emergencies, people who are experts in management and budgets should be in a supportive role, not the lead.

Open schools first

It took some time to determine that COVID-19 was not as much of a danger to young children as it is to older adults. And the next pandemic may not break that way. But opening schools should always have been a priority over opening restaurants, bars and health clubs, which are both less essential and more dangerous.

With $2.5 billion coming to state and local governments in Utah from the American Rescue Act, our schools should do all they can to make up for lost time, extending the school year, offering summer catch-up programs and improving online offerings for teachers and families who still feel hesitant about in-person instruction.

Schools are also one of the better ways of transmitting one of the best methods of disease-prevention known to humanity: knowledge. That includes both emergency information when necessary and a better job of teaching the principles of science as routine.

Support workers

Some jobs that we may not have given much thought to before — those who stock shelves in grocery stores or drive delivery trucks — suddenly became known as “essential workers.” Anything that’s essential needs to be paid for, and next time we should move more quickly to boost the pay and insure the safety — including access to vaccinations and other health care — of those so employed.

At the same time, employees and owners of not-so-essential businesses — restaurants, bars, retail stores, health clubs — were not to blame for the pandemic. Governments at all levels should be quicker to compensate them for the losses that occur when stores, cafes and such are shut down in the public interest.

Do your part

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox was right Thursday in pointing out that an act of the Legislature that will end the state’s mask mandate on April 10 is not the end of the need for people to wear masks in public. (That’s a comment that would mean more if, instead of just shifting the blame to lawmakers, the governor would veto that so-called endgame bill and really make the Legislature take full responsibility for what may come.)

And President Joe Biden was right that evening when he said we have a chance to get out of this, and a chance to fall back if we don’t all do our part: get vaccinated, wear masks, care about others.

Common decency, if not the law, should dictate that people moving about have a responsibility to everyone else — passersby, fellow customers, wait staff, clerks — and should still wear masks until the adult population has at least had a chance to be fully vaccinated. An event that is not that far off.

“We should care about each other,” Cox said. “And if you don’t care about other people, then don’t go to places where other people are.”

Or, as Biden put it, “I need you.”

We should, of course, have already known that. If we haven’t had that brought home to us by what has happened over the past year, then it has been a very bad experience indeed.

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