Covid-19: The Life You Save May Not Be Your Own

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Dedicated to Dr. Li and Chinese Journalists:

This blog is dedicated to Dr. Li Wenliang, Chinese ophthalmologist, who died from Covid-19 at age 34 in Wuhan China, February 7, 2020. Dr. Li was in the forefront of warning fellow medics about the disease and treating suffers December 2019. Chinese police told him to “stop making false comments” or be subject to arrest. They arrested him and seven other whistleblowers. 

Dr. Li in an interview from a quarantine room before his death stated: “It’s not so important to me if I’m vindicated or not. What’s more important is that everyone know the truth”. The Communist Party sent a note of “solemn apology” to Dr. Li’s family several months after his death. 

The Covid-19 virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has spread rapidly worldwide. It has cost the world over 80 million sick individuals, with almost 2 million dead to date. It has disrupted all economies, with disastrous consequences. Fifty percent of the world’s cases today are found in 4 countries: United States, India, Brazil, and Russia.  

China has all but recovered from the effects of Covid-19  but continues to arrest journalists who report facts on the disease. Zhang Zhan, the 37-year-old former lawyer and citizen journalist reporting from Wuhan over social media was sentenced in May to four years in jail for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” along with disseminating false information. Zhang has been restrained 24 hours a day and forced fed with a tube after she went on a hunger strike. Other journalists have been arrested for keeping archives of news articles on Covid-19 in China. These brave individuals are being locked up and persecuted. 

Covid-19 situation:

I first wrote about Covid-19 over six months ago. At that time, there were roughly 250,000 cases of coronavirus reported in the U.S. This fact alerted many in the population to troubles that lay ahead. Viruses, after all, can spread quickly like the flu during flu season. 

Warnings of large-scale effects began to appear formally in a relatively short period. Dr. Anthony Fauci, an American physician and immunologist who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases began to alert the American population to a pandemic with dangerous ramifications. President Trump, along with most members of the Republican Party, refuted these claims, and instead presented a rosy future in which the virus would magically disappear in a few months by spring.  

Today, the New York Times reports that the U.S. leads the world in the number of cases and deaths, with over 19 million reported cases in the U.S. and over 300,000 deaths, and still climbing. Five states alone—California, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New York— account for approximately 40% of the reported cases. There is no end of suffering insight for many individuals and families. A vaccine will not undo the personal and economic damage to date nor likely prevent new strains of virus from emerging and challenging our health. 

To cope with the existing virus and future epidemics, it is important to ask ourselves what we can learn from the Covid-19 pandemic and what activities can we undertake to address this catastrophe going forward? 

Observations for life:

Observation #1: 

Personal behavior matters: We need to grasp the fact that many individuals are their own worst enemy and endanger others as well. Social and epidemiological programs must be designed to address self-destructive behavior from the outset. Self-interest has failed in guiding masses of individuals to behave in ways that are beneficial to their health and the well being of others.

Many are confusing narcissism with self-interest: The “I” of personal health decisions and Covid-19 is riddled with an inner protest, which says, “Don’t tell me how to behave, to wear a mask or socialize at a distance. I’ll do what I want when I want. It’s my right to do so and no one can stop me.”  This psychological state has more in common with the fantasy of freedom commonly held by adolescents than reality; it is at its core, destructive. American culture, unfortunately, supports this sense of psychic omnipotence and invulnerability. 

The government needs to create a task force and organization dedicated to behavioral change, managing narcissism and self-destructive behaviors. Behavioral psychologists and other professionals need to be turned loose to create an new analysis, reward and impact programs to change behavior in a healthy direction. Make it pay to behave wisely. 

This is what we are up against: A large number of Americans engage in faulty behaviors that result in premature death. Despite the warnings of science, 40 years of solid data and communication, over 30 million Americans continue to smoke, avoiding warnings of cancer and respiratory disease. Heart disease caused by high- fat diets, stress, and sedentary lifestyle is rampant.  Obesity caused by eating processed foods high in sugar and fat results in predictable diabetes, which is widespread. 

Due to poor lifestyle choices, approximately 10 times the number of Covid-19 victims (to date) dies prematurely in the U.S. each year. This destructive behavior, which includes ignoring science and data, kills roughly 3 million Americans every year (Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). 

Asking Americans to wear a mask and social distance to protect themselves from Covid-19 is like asking them not to smoke, eat well, and exercise to live longer. It seems simple, yet based on data and health outcomes it’s almost futile. Yet, this wildly, irresponsible, destructive behavior is costing our economy hundreds of billions of dollars—pushing one trillion dollars— in lives and expenses. 

This is helping our deficit soar to critical levels never witnessed before. Mailing checks to people to survive financially is, ultimately, the result of lousy leadership and individual narcissism, not poor science or lack of strategies to contain Covid-19.  

Observation # 2: 

Marketing can make a difference: Improve marketing of science and examples of behavioral success; generate positive stories, and images that are concrete and human. Scientists and science-based organizations will need to make a concerted effort to ensure that Americans avail themselves of the vaccine. This must be incorporated into a national campaign featured on every media outlet. The anti-vaccination crowd will be out in force, trying to use doubt and faulty information to counter positive claims. The anti-science ethic in our society is, unfortunately, quite high and quick to be featured in the press.  

Observation #3:

Use existing organizations to leverage messages: Put corporations and organizations to work cooperating on enforcing health protocols and messaging. No one should be able to shop without a mask in any retail outlet including grocery, banks, apparel, restaurants, and gas stations. No mask in public means any access to purchase goods or services is denied.

Observation #4: 

Politics is extremely important: Pass congressional and federal laws making it a crime for individuals to avoid health-related protocols like wearing a mask or meeting in groups without masks. Ticket and fine retail establishments, individuals on the street or other public places. We have laws against jaywalking, smoking in public spaces, creating second-hand smoke, and smoking within a certain distance of buildings. Laws governing public behavior have succeeded in changing many individual behaviors in social spaces. These are critical for managing epidemics like Covid-19.

Hold leaders responsible by fining them for verbal or image-making behavior that furthers the spread of disease. Open up the potential for lawsuits for inciting behavior that increases rates of contagion or death. The fine could be calculated on the impact of the incitement, which can be calculated statistically. Inciting behavior that increases spread of disease is tantamount to crimes against humanity and should be classified as such. 

The Republican Party, in particular, has glorified individuals who refuse to wear masks and social distance, accelerating the spread of the virus. These individuals should receive up to two tickets for $350.00 per ticket and then, jail time for 30 days with bail set at $50,000. The prisoner should pay for the costs of jail time. Spreading the virus can be as deadly as driving a car under the influence of alcohol.

Observation #5:

Technology is necessary, but not sufficient to protect us from contagion health risks. The appeal to the vaccine as the primary savior of a bad situation has proven bankrupt as a strategy. The government avoided or made light of social and behavioral changes necessary to reduce cases for many months prior to the discovery of a vaccine. This has resulted in a significantly higher number of cases and deaths, perhaps several million cases and 75,000 deaths. 

No technology in and of itself is a solution. Individuals and social groups need to change their behaviors in order to defeat the contagion of a virus or other diseases. This will be especially difficult in the U.S. where many individuals behave more like narcissists than responsible citizens. This includes leaders who actively downplay or subvert social cooperation in addressing problems. 

What to do next?

Call your representatives to:

  1. Rebuke China for denying the existence of the disease, costing the world months of lost time critical to successful management. Demand the Chinese government place $5 billion into a global fund for communicable diseases, prevention, research and management; and demand that journalists be freed from jail for trying to tell the truth about Covid-19. Place calls and send emails to the Chinese embassy itself. 
  2.  Create U.S. laws governing Covid-19 and other communicable diseases; make it illegal to avoid wearing a mask in public; sanction representatives who avoid science-based rules and flaunt guidelines and practices. Increase taxes on those individuals that refer to wear masks in order to pay for economic damage caused by super spreaders.
  3. Use the UN to sanction and fine leaders and countries that flaunt rules based on science to govern the spread of the virus including leaders such as President Trump, President Bolsonaro, Brazil and President Lopez Obrador, Mexico. 
  4. Health workers are heroes. Highlight their skilled and selfless efforts by creating compelling stories and images, and granting them social and economic rewards. Tax rebates would be a good start or free health insurance for 3 years.  
  5. Create a government office of behavioral change and health outcomes to address diseases caused by or exacerbated by behavior; emend insurance contracts to reward healthy behavior; triple health insurance rates for super-spreaders or violators of no mask and social distancing rules; 

Tell your friends to get with the program by:

  1. Wearing a mask in public, practicing social distancing; getting tested and vaccinated; don’t socialize with relatives or friends without precautionary methods and practices in place; tell persons not wearing a mask in public to put them on. 
  2. Calling representatives that flaunt good practices and tell them to shape up and stop causing the spread of Covid-19; work against them;
  3. Using social media to promote inspirational stories of health workers; 
  4. Urging corporations via phone or email to promote good practices to defeat Covid-19;

Failures to manage Covid-19 are primarily the result of faulty leadership and modeling poor behavior, which can be changed. Behavioral changes wouldn’t have eliminated the virus, but the effects would have been far less devastating.  We can learn from our mistakes, and we can have a more realistic template for addressing the spread of the next pandemic – and there is little doubt that there will be a “next pandemic.” Moving beyond narcissism and adolescent behavior, in the end, has survival value. 

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