Musing on COVID in the USA

This was initially written for friends who live outside the United States. It grew into something more, so I hope you also find it interesting if you’re an American. To be very clear, I am not a doctor, so take what I say as the musings of the common man, largely uneducated on the subject he’s screaming about, sitting on a couch, remote in hand. You’ve been warned.

My Perspective

Vietnam and Singapore, the two countries I’ve lived in during the pandemic, have valued public health over economic growth. I’m not giving Singapore a pass on how they treated their migrant workers, nor am I saying the Vietnam government is without fault for the current outbreak they are experiencing. I am simply saying that the government and citizens of both countries value public health over economic growth during the pandemic.

Please understand that I speak to both the government and citizenry when I reference a country by name. The reason for that is because there is only a slight separation of the two during a pandemic. To weather a storm as great as the one we are all experiencing, the collective is what matters, not the individual. You can do everything right, wear your mask, get a jab, limit your chance of exposure, but if those around you are not taking things seriously, then there is a much greater chance that you will fall ill.

I gained incredible respect for the Singaporean people while living among them for six short months in 2020. The government provided clear, honest, detailed, and transparent updates regularly. The country’s citizens tuned in and complied with their directives. I use the word “directives” because that’s what they were. There was no mask recommendation in Singapore; there was a fine if you did not wear your mask in public; it was the law. Today, Singapore has weathered the COVID storm, not without its fair share of challenges, but with grace compared to the vast majority of the planet.

I lived in Vietnam for approximately ten months until visiting family in the United States in June 2021. During that time, Vietnam was able to maintain a Zero COVID Policy. What that means is that their goal was to have zero COVID cases in their country of 96,000,000. I’m happy to say that they largely succeeded. I’ve heard that Vietnam “got lucky” from the International media, foreigners, and Vietnamese alike. I don’t see it this way. Throughout 2020 and 2021, independent of having zero cases or one case in the country, we wore masks in public spaces, malls, grocery stores, standing in line to get a coffee, stepping into a restaurant, and even walking down the road under the blazing tropical sun. Vietnam’s success was not based on luck; their success was based on the belief that their neighbor’s health was more important than their personal comfort. No one put a gun to their head; they did this because it was the right thing to do. Today, the situation in Vietnam is very different. Like much of the planet, they are battling the Delta variant. I would argue that they are also doing so with grace.

Thoughts on America

Over the past year-and-a-half while living overseas, I have summed up America using short statements, such as “failing forward” and “giving themselves self-inflicted wounds,” but both are incomplete. I’m now saying that the United States values economic growth over public health. I find this to be obvious in both policy and the actions of her citizenry as a whole.

The US government is a dumpster fire of partisan infighting and bad ideas. A year-and-a-half into the pandemic, the government is still unable to speak in a singular voice. Should I get a vaccine; yes or no? Should I wear a mask; yes or no? Is my vaccine effective against current variants; yes or no? The messaging that the United States government provides to its citizens is awful. Could they do better? Of course, they could, but will they? The people of this country deserve better; full stop.

I’m not letting the American people off the hook. For brevity, I’ll break up Americans into two distinct groups; the unvaccinated and vaccinated. As much as people would like to believe, Party lines do not separate them. Statistically speaking, there are more Democrats vaccinated than Republicans, but to stop there is lazy.

Barring the crazy anti-vaccine hippy crystal lickers on the Left and the conspiracy theory jokers on the Right, there are many good reasons to question the vaccine. I’m not saying they are correct; I got my Pfizer jab within 24 hours of landing in the States. I’m just saying that there are reasons to be wary of the shot. Reasons I’ve heard for not getting the vaccine are the lack of FDA approval, already contracting COVID and having natural immunity, and the vaccine being developed too fast. These are all valid reasons to be cautious. The people who hold these beliefs will only get vaccinated if their views change. This kind of change will take time. I do not claim to know the answer on how to get beyond this impasse, but calling these people uneducated, stupid, and deplorable is not helping. It only hardens their resolve. Unfortunately, I am not hopeful for this language to improve.

Among the vaccinated is where I am the most disappointed. The vile things I’ve heard them say about the unvaccinated are repulsive. “Let them die, let them lose their jobs, let Darwin take control, and of course, there will be fewer Republicans” are just a few that I regularly hear from the vaccinated in America. If this group wants to be identified as the educated class among us, they must also do better. They must lead by example, and above all, practice empathy for those who hold different beliefs. Once again, after spending three months in the States, I am not hopeful.

What It Would Take

My final thoughts are simple. Americans need to, for a short period, hold a different set of values. They are proud, and they should be proud of what they have accomplished under arguably the most prosperous capitalist system on the planet. With that said, a system that values one’s worth based on how much capital they have amassed is not what they need to navigate out of a pandemic. Not to put too fine a point on it, Americans must act more Asian, or at the very least look outward and be open to the idea that we are not the best at everything. A basic set of data that I cobbled together can be found below to illustrate my point.

As of 2020, the United States makes up 4.2% of the estimated global population of 7,800,000,000 alive. However, as of August 14th, the United States reported a fourteen-day daily average of 129,701 new cases, whereas the world reported a seven-day daily average of 639,006 new cases. If these numbers are correct, America accounts for 20% of the total global cases. Let that sink in; 4% of the global population, 20% of the global cases. The anal-retentive among us will say that seven is not fourteen and that this is a false comparison, or that some countries are not reporting their data, or that August 14th is a weekend, and I would agree on all points. With that said, by how much is that 20% number off? One percent? Five percent? Twenty percent? I would argue, it just doesn’t matter. As uncomfortable as it is for our national ego, numbers don’t lie. Again, I cobbled these numbers together from the New York Times website and using a calculator. If you have better data, please share it; I’m genuinely interested.

There are places on this planet doing much better than we are in the United States. It doesn’t take much effort to see that Asia was battling the Delta variant when the CDC recommended the mask mandate to be taken away for vaccinated people. When Asian countries learned of the Delta variant, they acted swiftly. For example, when Delta started showing up in Vietnam, they reacted by stopping all flights into their country, extended mandatory quarantines from fourteen to twenty-one days, mandated the use of masks in public, and limited the number of people who could gather together. Asia was valuing public health over economic growth. These actions hurt their economy but saved lives. I am not saying that you should stop listening to the CDC, but that single policy change projected a false sense of security; they should do better. Once again, the American people deserve better. Listen to the CDC, but it’s up to America, her government and citizenry, to practice restraint.

Finally, I hear over and over again about herd immunity. The basic idea is that if we get a large percentage of a local population inoculated, the disease will magically disappear. I have a distinct feeling Dr. Anthony Fauci regrets ever saying that out loud. People I speak to keep referencing what seems like arbitrary numbers, “if we get 80% of the USA vaccinated, then we’ll have herd immunity.” My contrarian thought about this is, what if it doesn’t produce herd immunity? What then? What if we all do what we’re supposed to, get vaccinated, wear our masks, bring the world to a 90% vaccination rate, and people still get sick? What if we just need to be better people? What if we need to treat those who are different from us better? What if this is just a by-product of a global population hitting seven billion people? What if this is out of our control? What if we must change?

That may seem dark. I don’t want to leave you with the belief that Americans are incapable of change, so here’s my personal favorite 2021 statistic. According to Experian, the average balance on credit cards at the end of 2020 was $5,897. That is down 11.04%, from $6,629 at the end of 2019. You’re welcome.

In summary, America must change. We must value public health over economic growth. We must wear a mask not because it benefits us, the vaccinated, but because it provides the time needed for the unvaccinated to become comfortable with the jab. Unfortunately, I am still not hopeful.