“It feels like writing ‘Bad things are about to happen’ on a napkin and then setting the napkin on fire.” ~Colin Carlson

Editor-In-Chief, Chester “Trip” Buckenmaier III, MD, COL (ret.), MC, USA

This month’s quote comes from Dr. Colin Carlson, a research professor specializing in infectious disease from Georgetown University who commented to reporter Ed Yong in The Atlantic magazine article entitled “The pandemic experts are not OK—many American public-health specialists are at risk of burning out as the coronavirus surges back” July 7, 2020. This comment struck me, because it sums up the last several months of watching SARS-CoV-2, dubbed COVID-19) spread out-of-control around most of this country. It has been heart-wrenching to watch exhausted healthcare workers, battling on the front lines of this pandemic, pleading with Americans to take this viral epidemic seriously.

Included in this group of heroes are the multitudes of essential workers. They toil in their regular jobs, unable to work from home, to keep our society running. Our nation owes these individuals a debt of gratitude that we will never be able to repay. This editorial is in honor of all these heroes who exemplify Bob Dylan’s definition of a hero, “A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” I ask everyone reading this commentary to look for opportunities to thank or do something special (a surprise $20 tip and ‘thank you’ for example) for these wonderful folks who quietly keep our systems running despite the unconscionable behavior of many others.

To suggest that our nation’s response to this COVID-19 epidemic has been inadequate is a laughable understatement. Notwithstanding the litany of senior government officials touting the “incredible job,” the present administration has claimed to have accomplished in response to the epidemic. The trending data of new COVID-19 cases in this country compared to other first world economies is pitiful. New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy is a glaring example that a free society can and has confronted the COVID-19 pandemic successfully and beaten the disease. How was this accomplished? With New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the helm, along with the support of New Zealand’s business community, the government listened to their scientists and adopted an aggressive and strict program countrywide in response. The government limited travel early from outside the country to reduce spread. They mobilized industry to provide protective equipment for healthcare workers. They aggressively tested and contact-traced. And they mobilized the public through an education campaign to social distance and wear masks. New Zealanders also enjoyed consistent direction and messaging from their government institutions, backed up by Prime Minister Arden’s appeal to the public’s sense of civic duty, to comply with social distancing guidance and endure the pause in economic activity. This mix of science-driven policy and unequivocating leadership received broad public support from New Zealanders. Today, New Zealand is back in business and essentially COVID-free, while the United States continues to battle the pandemic with no clear end in sight.1

Even more damning regarding our collective response to this pandemic are the ridiculously small changes Americans were asked to make in their lives to combat this outbreak, namely shunning crowds and wearing a mask when activities like going to the grocery store are unavoidable. Somehow these minuscule acts of personal altruism toward our fellow Americans have evolved in the warped minds of many to be an assault of government on their personal freedom. Sigmund Freud defined this group best when he said, “Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”

America’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has attempted to provide Americans a recipe for dealing with the evolving epidemic based on the best available science. His advice today is simple: Avoid crowds, and when you cannot, wear a mask and limit the exposure. His recommendations are increasingly questioned. Sen. Rand Paul, (R-KY), speaking to Fauci during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing stated, “It is a fatal conceit to believe any one person or small group of people has the knowledge necessary to direct an economy or dictate public health behavior. … We shouldn’t presume that a group of experts somehow knows what’s best for everyone.” Fauci said in response, “The only thing that I can do is, to the best of my ability, give you the facts.”2

While I cannot speak for the rest of you reading this column, this is my first pandemic, so I appreciate the opinion of experts. From my perspective, the “fatal conceit” rests with any politician who ignores the advice of a career infectious disease scientist during an epidemic that has already claimed the lives of over 135,000 American citizens. 

Is this an angry editorial? Yes, it absolutely is. As a federal physician serving the country for over 30 years, this United States public health failure is intensely painful to observe. It is challenging to advise my daughters in their 20s that they should avoid bars or not attend a close friend’s wedding reception with more than 100 guests when the nation’s leaders are distancing themselves from the nation’s top scientists. The sad reality is that most Americans, despite their government, are doing their best to follow the guidance of America’s health officials. They do this despite the constant images on the nightly news of packed crowds at beaches, parks and bars as states prematurely open back up. The altruistic and patriotic behavior of the majority of Americans who social distance and wear masks for the safety of others is wasted by the thoughtless few who hoist their next bar drink and loudly proclaim their freedom as they spread the virus.

The essence of American freedom recognizes our individual responsibility to prevent your personal choices from impinging on the freedom and, in this case, the very life of fellow Americans. The Black Lives Matter movement, the ongoing battle over economic inequality, LGBTQ rights and, yes, the COVID-19 pandemic are all variations of this same theme. When we as individual members of our society cease to concern ourselves with how our personal choices impact fellow citizens, it is akin to “writing ‘Bad things are about to happen’ on a napkin and then setting the napkin on fire.” We should not be surprised when this individual behavior burns us as a country.