Dr Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent
For more than six months now, I have been getting up at 4:30a.m. and ploughing into a seemingly endless stream of reports, studies, data and conjecture around the Covid-19 pandemic. Like so many of us, my house has become my office, my gym, my restaurant, my world. When I finally go to bed, usually around 11:30 pm, I often feel exasperated about this ongoing crisis.
There can be few more frustrating places to study the pandemic than here in the United States of America. A couple of months ago I wrote an essay titled, “If the United States were my patient,” pondering what it would be like if the country were a flesh and blood person afflicted with a stubborn infection.
Checking back in on that patient recently, she is clearly not doing well at all. It is as though we have been watching her bleed out in front of us, arguing over treatment, ignoring symptoms, too busy apportioning blame to unite, organise and help her pull through.
Of course, a big part of the problem has been the patient herself. After just a few short weeks of following doctors’ orders, she chose to turn her back on the advice of health experts. She didn’t like what the doctors were saying and stopped taking the prescribed medicines because they were unpalatable.
Some of that is perfectly understandable. Stay-at-home orders were always going to have real and painful consequences, as they have around the world. With many jobs lost and businesses going under, the debate about easing these restrictions was justifiably passionate and far from simple.
But some of the other medicines, like practicing social distancing and curtailing some daily activities, while inconvenient, really should have been easier to take. Bafflingly, wearing a mask created more political friction here in the US than it did physical discomfort. Even as cases and deaths rose alarmingly, many people have refused to take even basic steps.
Amid all of this, it is easy to become disheartened, but the past week has offered a little light amid the gloom. To begin with, even if reluctantly, there is now something that more closely resembles unity on the issue of masks. While recommendations can never be as compelling as orders, it does seem likely that more Americans will commit to wearing them. Other countries such as the UK, another outlier in the Covid-19 fight, are also succumbing to more stringent mask rules. There is a sense that, finally, the majority of people understand why.
We have also started to see some very promising signs around possible vaccines. One of the leading candidates, being developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, appears safe and induces an immune response, although more research is still needed. That will take time. After AstraZeneca suggested to a congressional hearing that a vaccine could be available as early as September, the UK’s vaccine task force has dialled back somewhat, indicating it will be unlikely to be widely available before 2021.
Reporting on developments like this can be challenging. Part of the problem is the speed at which they are moving. We have all been living with this crisis for months now, so people crave any optimistic signs as they yearn for a return to normalcy. Even experts are not immune to this. On a few recent occasions, after speaking off the record to bullish scientists, I have followed up and found little data in studies to support their optimism. Frustratingly, at a time when full and immediate transparency has never been so important, the scientific picture around Covid-19 has never been so opaque.
Much as we all want a vaccine to come along and end this crisis, history tells us that patience may be needed. The road to solid science can be full of potholes, speed bumps, blind spots and hairpin turns. If you are not careful, sometimes that road can lead you straight off a cliff. While we wait for science to rid us of Covid-19, we need to focus on the things we can control.
A few months ago, I spoke to my colleague Fareed Zakaria about his perspective on the virus. He reminded me that, at the height of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each other, they collaborated on a campaign to rid the world of smallpox and worked together to vaccinate many countries.
This stuck with me. The pandemic has created a common enemy like no other in modern history, but it has not united us. We can all play our part in changing this mindset, and that begins with a return to basics. We know we can dramatically slow down the spread of this virus, as countries like Italy have shown. Obeying social distancing guidelines, wearing masks and refraining from activities that pose an
infection risk all help.
Committing to this medicine is imperative. Yes, it is challenging and inconvenient, but look at the example of New York, which was in a dire situation a few months ago, yet through a disciplined and coordinated effort has made enormous strides in controlling the virus – and compare it to states that reopened too early or eschewed basic guidelines.
Combined with as much testing as possible, these simple steps can help us to keep the virus at bay while we wait for a vaccine. If we keep our eyes on the prize, together we can turn this around.