Do we have the will to prevail in this pandemic?

By Dennis Archambault

We are emerging from what some have called the domestic equivalent of war: the war against an invisible enemy – a contagion, in which those with scientific knowledge become enemies of the people. The social and political divisions in the country have been vividly exposed throughout the crisis. We have muddled through this conflict and may not have won. The NYTimes recently offered a sobering assessment: “Widely circulating coronavirus variants and persistent hesitancy about vaccines will keep the goal out of reach. The virus is here to stay, but vaccinating the most vulnerable may be enough to restore normalcy.”

The mortality rate for Covid-19 has surpassed that of World War II. Kaiser New Service journalist Carrie Feibel analyzed the metaphorical similarities between war and the response to the pandemic: “…the language of warfare permeates so much of the national discourse about the pandemic. Nurses work on the ‘frontlines.’ Coronavirus is described as an invisible ‘enemy.’ The country is ‘battling’ the virus…

As a metaphor, ‘war’ becomes a call to action and a recognition of sacrifice. On Jan. 15, then-President-elect Joe Biden announced his vaccine distribution plan, declaring: ‘We’re in a war with this virus.’”

Many take offense with comparing the pandemic to war – a “good war” as World War II was known. That war and most wars last several years; the worst month of the pandemic in the United States may be ending after one year. “The parallel is quite dangerous because the virus is not an ideology, it’s not a war against the state,” says Martin Evans, a British historian. The virus may not be an ideology, but there certainly has been ideology in society’s response to the disease. In some respects, resistance to the public health measures needed to contain and ultimately eliminate this threat could be seen as a war against the state – just as those who resisted public health regulations saw them as limited personal freedom. Ultimately, the well-being of the state was – and is — at stake.

Perhaps it’s best if the metaphor is that of an “invasion,” or even an “alien attack.” Metaphors aside, the nation has been confronted with an enemy, and to quote the old American cartoon, Pogo, “The enemy is us.”

As Authority Health and other community health organizations work with cultural groups and neighborhoods to find people who need the coronavirus vaccine and can’t get it, as well as address vaccine hesitancy, there is an open question as to whether the nation will finally get beyond the politics of the pandemic and win the battle. Now as the nation pushes to return to normalcy – sometimes faster than public health experts would recommend – there needs to be a call to unity from disparate corners of American society that rises above partisan differences.

Last year at this time, we were in lockdown, uncertain about what the virus is or how to protect ourselves and our community. We needed personal protective equipment. We needed ventilators. Manufacturers assumed the mantel of “Arsenal of Health.” We hunkered down in the face of the enemy, supporting our neighbors and essential workers, even planted “victory gardens” as Americans did during World War II. But, sadly, we have been a nation divided by multiple stressors. Ironically, resistance to a unified front has been cloaked in patriotism and freedom. Even if the war analogy is inappropriate, no one can question the lack of unity in our response to the invisible enemy.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.