The pandemic news is both wonderful and horrible.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The Moonshot and the Bubble
Late last year, in discussing with me the rapid, successful development of anti-Covid vaccines, my cousin the doctor (and medical school professor, and very bright guy) – described the feat as a “moonshot.” I’d imagine others have also applied the term to that effort. But I’ll gladly give credit where credit is due for the first time I heard it used that way.
Indeed, the massively life-saving achievement merits the moniker. Just recall how grim the prospects seemed barely a year ago. A skeptical April 30, 2020 New York Times analysis dismissed the most optimistic predictions, of at least 12 to 18 months, as masking “a grim truth behind this rosy forecast…” It noted the inevitable steps and frequent missteps that make vaccine development typically a matter of many years rather than months – if it pans out at all.
In fact, Pfizer’s and Moderna’s trailblazing mRNA vaccines built on years of prior research, much of it government-funded. But churning out these medicines so quickly remains the equivalent of humanity landing on the moon. That so many of us are socializing, hugging and breathing so much easier right now seems miraculous.
We’re in a kind of bubble, though certainly one we should relish after a long, hard slog and not one that I’m predicting will burst. We’re not quite back to normal. But I’ll take quasi-normal over the thoroughly bizarre world that was 2020.
On June 15, California “reopened,” which means many though not all Covid restrictions have been relaxed. Here in the small, waterside city of Benicia, where I live, a new brewpub now welcomes patrons; it replaces a venerable café that closed during Covid. Tourists are tentatively returning to check out the local arts and gallery scenes. The other day, my wife and I gathered with some neighbors for bocce-and-wine for the first time in an awfully long time.
The city’s annual July 4 parade and fireworks remain canceled. But Benicia’s first Juneteenth celebration was a blast. The weekly Farmers’ Market has resumed, albeit with masks still required for the time being, as is (wisely) the case for going inside many businesses. Some folks still stroll down the main street masked – whether because they’re immunocompromised or out of simple, understandable caution.
At the same time, Benicia is part of Solano County, which has witnessed a slight rise in cases in recent days. As the indefatigable, heroic “Benicia Independent” blogger reminds us, after daily chronicling the pandemic’s course in the city and county for over a year, “COVID is still out there – TAKE CARE!”
In sum, it’s still weird and worrisome. But also oh so wonderful.
Meanwhile, Back on Planet Earth
Our bubble nonetheless floats amidst a world awash with Covid. While official tallies of daily death rates and total fatalities in India are “only” 1,200 and 390,000 respectively, these figures are probably vast undercounts. An accurate conservative estimate would double those Indian numbers; the actual fatality total there could even be over four million and climbing. Meanwhile, Brazil’s official death count has now topped 500,000, second only to 600,000 in the United States. (We’re Number One.) But, as in India and other nations, both of those figures likely underestimate the true tolls. We actually could be pushing one million deaths in America alone.
The picture in many other parts of the globe is also daunting. With less than one percent of its population vaccinated, Africa is experiencing a surge of cases; 22 countries reported increases of 20 percent last week. Peru may have the worst per capita mortality rate in the world, while parts of East and Southeast Asia that dodged the Covid bullet earlier on are reeling now. Though they remain in better shape than many other countries, there have been troubling outbreaks in Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and especially Malaysia.
Meanwhile, the prevalence of the Delta variant, originally identified in India and more transmissible and dangerous than the original virus strain, grows both abroad and at home. This comes even as the fully vaccinated rates remain below 35 percent in several, mainly southern states. While fully vaccinated folks thankfully are at very low risk from this mutation, the protection drops substantially for those who have only had their first jabs from the two-shot regimens.
Those of us living in relatively inoculated states and nations occupy not only geographically privileged places. We also may be living in temporal bubbles (admittedly a Star Trekkish term) as well. With the Delta and potentially other variants’ rates rising, and so many Americans remaining unvaccinated, we could see a spike in deaths as those mutations spread and when autumn and winter force more people indoors.
It’s tempting to shrug our shoulders and leave willingly unvaccinated Americans to their self-selected fates, even as each illness and death is a tragedy. But exposure to unvaccinated Americans puts immunocompromised people, kids who can’t get shots and other populations in substantially greater danger, as well as slightly increasing risks for the inoculated.
Against this backdrop, late last month the leaders of the World Bank, the World Health Organization and other institutions called for a crash program to increase vaccine supply and distribution, so as to vaccinate the globe as fast as possible. The subsequent pledge of President Biden and other world leaders to donate a billion doses to poorer nations falls far short of satisfying that need. It’s been justifiably criticized by the WHO and other authorities.
The pledge is disappointing as a humanitarian, economic and even self-interested matter. The longer Covid rages around the world, the greater the chance that vaccine-resistant variants can arise, threatening us all. It’s true that one of the miracles of mRNA technology is that it can be adapted to neutralize new variants. But untold human and financial prices could be paid before that happens.
In other words, we need that crash program. We need another moonshot.
One closing thought for the unvaccinated (and the rest of us) in the United States: If there was ever a time for Americans to appreciate what we may take for granted and what people elsewhere would practically die for – and are literally dying without – this is it.
Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.
To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.