Questions about the pandemic
After a year and eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, what lessons have we learned? How do we move forward?
To ask these questions honestly, we undoubtedly find ourselves needing to return to the past, to difficult and traumatic memories, to the days and weeks of isolation away from friends and family, to loved ones, friends, and coworkers gone and buried, to the long-term physical and psychological suffering we have endured, to job loss, to financial stresses, to a divided nation, to divided families, to the lack of national leadership and to the horrific news of an out of control virus.
In order to heal, recover, acknowledge what went wrong, and make positive steps toward a brighter future as individuals and as a nation, wisdom invites us to look back so that we can look forward.
This following blog post is my way of looking back as I come to terms with what’s happened over the last twenty months. It’s written in the style and tradition of a news article (I missed my calling I think) with some personalized comments throughout. I would imagine not everyone will agree with my analysis but I ask and hope that you might consider this perspective as you read. Sometimes seeing a situation, like a worldwide pandemic, through someone else’s eyes can open up nuances you hadn’t seen or been open to before.
Take a moment. Hold your breath. We’re about to take a deep dive.
Kirkland, WA: The Initial epicenter
It was late February 2020. I had been hearing about a new virus for the last few weeks, but hadn’t given it a lot of attention. A student of mine had come to class everyday sharing his concerns about a new coronavirus that may enter the United States.
Surely it was nothing to be too worried about. Don’t we have the best healthcare in the world, exceptional medical specialists and experts, and the powerful influence of a national government that can produce funds and supplies quickly? Surely this was not a cause for alarm.
I was about to learn that not only was it a cause for alarm, but that the virus was already in my own community where I live. About two miles from my home, a viral outbreak had occurred in a local nursing home. It began with just a few residents, and then spread to 81 residents and dozens of the staff in the following days and weeks. The novel (new) coronavirus had likely made it’s way into Washington state a month or two prior as other Covid cases and hospitalizations would later report. The truth is the virus had been spreading all across the United States unbeknownst to the majority of us.
After learning about the initial outbreak in my own community and then hearing this same news repeated on February 29 by former President Trump at a White House press briefing on national television, the gravity of the pandemic felt surreal and a bit daunting.
On a personal note, my wife contracted Covid in February (read her story here), my father-in-law in March, my mom in April the following year, and quite a few relatives over the last twenty months. While most of our relatives and family gradually recovered, two people passed away, and some of them still suffer long-term physical, emotional and psychological effects.
To say that they got through it easily or that it was exactly like the seasonal flu would be inaccurate. It was much worse, even for those who survived. My father-in-law and my mom came close to death’s door, and those who survived suffered tremendously.
Downplaying the pandemic
By the end of February of 2020, our former president had repeatedly claimed in televised interviews that there was nothing to worry about, that everything was totally under control and that cases were so few that the likelihood of the virus spreading was minimal at best. Only after being pressured by his top health officials (after cases and deaths quickly escalated) did President Trump finally declare a National State of emergency on March 13.
While the Coronavirus Task Force had already been established on February 26th a couple weeks earlier under the direction of Secretary of Health & Human Services, Alex Azar, those efforts were too often overshadowed by Trump’s frequent (almost daily) practice of downplaying the severity of the pandemic in the following weeks and months in White House press conferences, interviews, stadium rallies and on Twitter. Each of these mediums had an enormous effect in influencing and conditioning the language and the responses of Trump’s most ardent supporters, even to this day.
While there was a very short span of a few weeks, between the middle of March and the middle of April, when Trump seemed to take the virus seriously at the White House press briefings, this would be short lived as he became more and more impatient with the economic impact of the pandemic and its effects on his chances of winning the November presidential election.
What is even more disturbing is that Trump knew early on just how contagious and deadly the coronavirus is. If you compare and contrast what Trump said at his February 28th rally (click here to listen) in South Carolina to what he told Bob Woodward privately on February 7th (click here to listen), just 21 days prior, you will discover blatant contradictions. In fact, even when comparing his public statements between February 7th and April 3rd, contradiction became a hallmark of Trump’s Covid response. To a fault.
The Bob Woodward interviews
By the time the private audio recordings of Trump’s interviews with Bob Woodward were shared September of 2020, the damage of downplaying (and grossly misleading others about) the pandemic had already been done. Most of Trump’s loyal supporters (including those I knew) didn’t take the Woodward tapes seriously or flippantly claimed they were “fake news.” This sentiment was felt nationwide, especially (and unfortunately) in conservative talk radio and news.
The inconvenient admission of facts that former President Trump shared privately with Bob Woodward were as follows:
1. He acknowledged that the coronavirus is an airborne virus when he said, It goes through air, Bob. That’s always tougher than the touch. You know the touch, you don’t have to touch things, right. But the air, you just breath the air and that’s how it’s passed. So that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one: February 7, 2020 interview.
2. He acknowledged the coronavirus is more deadlier than the flu when he said, It’s also more deadlier than your, you know, even your strenuous flus. You know people don’t realize, we lose 25,000, 30,000 people a year here. Who would ever think that, right? I mean, it’s pretty amazing. And then I say, well, is that the same thing? This is more deadly. This is 5 per–you know, this is 5 percent versus one percent and less than one percent, you know. So this is deadly stuff (yes, he said this word for word–listen to the recordings): February 7, 2020 interview.
3. He acknowledged that the coronavirus can even affect young people when he said, Now it’s turning out, it’s not just old people Bob, but just today and yesterday, some startling facts came out. It’s not just old, older. It’s plenty of young people: March 19, 2020 interview.
4. He acknowledged that he always downplayed the coronavirus in the public when he said, Well, I think Bob, to be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down. Because I don’t want to create a panic: March 19, 2020 interview.
The Woodward tapes were a stark reminder that what President Trump regularly stated publicly in February and March in interviews, at rallies, and on Twitter was the exact opposite of what he said to Woodward privately.
By the end of April, it became abundantly clear that the former president wanted to be done with Covid because of the economic repercussions of a global pandemic. That, in addition to the fact that he was likely embarrassed for backlash he had gotten from medical professionals and the media for touting unproven drugs and remedies against Covid-19.
In early April, Trump had recommended the drug Hydroxycloroquine (used to treat malaria but unproven to treat Covid). While it is true that the FDA had temporarily approved emergency use authorization of the drug against Covid on March 28, they would later revoke this authorization three months later because the trial research had clearly demonstrated the drug was “unlikely to be effective against COVID-19” and that it caused “ongoing serious cardiac adverse events and other potential serious side effects.” Prior to it being revoked, the problem was not so much that Trump had encouraged people to take it, it was that he was touting it as a “game changer” (something he never should have done as it was in a trial phase). He was giving Americans false hope in a drug that had not been proven yet against Covid instead of leveling with them that the drug was in a trial stage. To complicate matters, President Trump continued to tout the drug even after the FDA revoked emergency use authorization, claiming their reasoning was political.
Then, on April 24th, at the final White House Covid Response briefing that had been happening almost daily since the early days of the pandemic, Trump made an incredibly dangerous statement. He alluded to a suggestion that bleach could be used to kill the virus. There was absolutely no clarification following his comment, like “but please, don’t swallow or take bleach internally in any way.” Unfortunately, poison control centers all across the nation received an uptick in calls because people with Covid (following Trump’s statement) actually swallowed bleach. Suffice it to say, by early May, the daily White House Covid Response briefings had ended while the White House Covid Taskforce worked quietly in the background.
Hundreds of thousands of people
By the time the audio recordings with Bob Woodward were shared publicly in the fall of 2020, the damage of Trump’s public rhetoric had been done. People who loved and supported Trump no matter what seemed to back him regardless of the damning evidence against his character and his culpability in escalating Covid deaths all across the nation. The truth is that President Trump and his administration’s lack of forthrightness, their consistent practice of downplaying the gravity of the pandemic, and the extremely slow effort to put into place aggressive public health mitigations easily contributed to hundreds of thousands of Covid deaths.
In an interview with Dr. Sanjay Gupta back in March of this year, Dr. Debrah Birx, the former White House Response Coordinator, stated that the initial coronavirus surge (roughly from January through May 2020) led to one hundred thousand deaths. She went on to acknowledge that all of the lives lost to Covid following that initial surge (roughly June 2020-January 2021) could have been mitigated or decreased substantially by the Trump administration. In other words, these were avoidable deaths. But just how many Covid deaths could have been avoided through public health mitigations?
Based on her assessment, we could estimate that, following that initial surge (which had resulted in the first 100,000 Covid deaths), an additional 200-300,000 people died of Covid-19 in the remaining months of 2020 and the first month of 2021. By the end of the Trump presidency in January 2021, over 400,000 people had died of Covid-19.
It cannot be overstated that these deaths could have and should have been mitigated. However, because the former White House administration did not prioritize certain federal actions to support public health measures and mitigate Covid death, unnecessary and avoidable deaths occurred on a grand scale. So what could have been done?
Here’s a few top priorities that required a much stronger federal response: 1) stronger campaign, initiated by the White House, to urge Americans to follow the CDC guidelines to wear masks and social distance when in public spaces; 2) amping up and funding Covid testing sites all across the United States (Trump had claimed anyone could get a test back in March 2020, but this turned out to be entirely false); 3) creating, and perhaps mandating, a federal plan with clear guidance on contact tracing; 4) ensuring state and local authorities had access to the federal stock pile of medical supplies earlier on (which Trump also lied about multiple times); 5) consistently prioritizing the medical advice and recommendations of top medical experts and scientists instead of speaking off the cuff about things they (the Trump administration) knew little to nothing about. This is a short list.
In the interview with Dr. Gupta, Dr. Birx also spoke of a culture in the White House that was generally opposed to wearing masks as a mitigation against Covid. And they would later pay for it with multiple Covid cases among staffers and White House officials in the fall of 2020, including President Trump.
Rose Garden superspreader
On September 26th, the former president held a celebration at the White House Rose Garden to publicly announce his pick of Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the new Supreme Court Justice. While the event was outdoors, the seating was not spaced so people sat side by side in a tightly packed area on the garden. It became public knowledge that at least eleven people tested positive for Covid in the immediate days following the event, though there were likely more that were kept secret. Out of the one hundred people who attended, I counted five people wearing masks.
This event mirrored the political rallies Trump held in the Spring, Summer and early fall of 2020. Masks were “spotty” at best while the vast majority refused to wear them. Multiple states and counties reported Covid cases increasing dramatically after Trump’s rallies in their states. The connection is undeniable. With very few people masking up at his rallies, the coronavirus (an airborne virus) was given free rein to spread rapidly.
Trump tests positive for Covid-19
It is very likely that the event where the former president contracted Covid was the September 26th Rose Garden event. His wife Melania also contracted Covid as did leading White House officials and staffers. Trump was hospitalized for a period of time.
While he recovered, two things must be noted:
- President Trump had access to the best medical staff and specialists, as opposed to most Americans when they are infected with the virus.
- There is reason to believe that the White House covered up the severity of his declining health as he battled Covid and were scrambling to turn his health around. Unfortunately, when he recovered, it seemed he hadn’t learned anything from the experience as he continued promoting misleading and false information about the coronavirus and how to overcome it.
The unprepared president
In a White House briefing on March 19 of last year, former President Trump had publicly claimed that nobody could have been prepared for a pandemic like this. The truth is that over the last ten years multiple health experts have warned US officials that we must become more prepared should there be a catastrophic outbreak. Because of the N1H1 pandemic during Obama’s presidency and the SARS outbreak a few years earlier under George W. Bush, the Obama administration prepared a pandemic response manual for the incoming Trump administration. It was clearly disregarded. In fact, in 2018 the former president disbanded the national security council’s office on global health.
Trump’s claim that nobody could have been prepared was patently false. Any serious investigation has demonstrated that pandemic preparedness was not a priority of the former president. The Trump administration’s lack of preparedness was only compounded by the ongoing delays in contact tracing and Covid testing.
Some people rightly suggest that placing the entire blame on the former president is unfair and unhelpful, and it’s true that Trump was not alone to blame for the our nation’s patched up response to the coronavirus pandemic.
President Trump was enabled.
Enabling a pandemic
Likely the most influential and toxic enablers were the very ones feeding Trump the misinformation and disinformation he often touted–news outlets, like FOX news, OAN, and Newsmax. All three of these outlets traffic regularly in conspiracy theories, as they did with Covid, and tout them as facts. While Fox has, at times, backpedaled their comments throughout the pandemic, their wild and dangerous medical suggestions have had a tremendous impact on their listening audience, many of whom are Republican voters.
Coming in a close second on the enabling front were Republicans in the United States Congress. According to a study done by Pew Research, the vast majority of Congressional Republicans in the House and Senate largely pushed back on public health measures and mandates in 2020, with the exception of the first couple months of the pandemic and often viewed President Trump’s response as being perfectly adequate. In addition to this, a significant number of Republican state governors have also consistently pushed back on public health measures, like mask mandates, during the entirety of the pandemic, while others began implementing them for the first time in the fall of 2020 as Covid cases continued to rise in their communities. Still others, after having them for much of the first year into the pandemic, recently cancelled them as they became more and more unpopular (as Governor Greg Abbott did in Texas in March of this year).
A costly “freedom”
Most disappointing of all (at least for me personally) has been fellow Christians, primarily those who identify as evangelicals, who have taken the party line by protesting or outright refusing to follow their state’s public health measures like masks and vaccines. They have often touted “personal freedom,” whether religious or otherwise, over societal responsibility and claimed mask mandates are government overreach. Some even claim that masks don’t work to protect people from the virus (which, when fact-checked, is patently false).
The problem is that the coronavirus is an airborne disease and is highly contagious, especially the Delta variant. A good mask, if worn properly, will significantly reduce the chance of spreading the virus when breathing near others.
Many Christians I know personally have also joined the bandwagon of “freedom of choice” over societal responsibility thinking that was the higher road. But let me ask you, are you truly free if you are spreading a potentially deadly virus to others? If your “freedom” causes others (perhaps even those in your own family) who are more vulnerable than you to get Covid, how is that “freedom” worth fighting for–especially if they die? Even if you survive it, but they don’t, please tell me how your selfish behavior is in any sense a reflection of Jesus?
And even for those who survive it, don’t you understand or care that Covid produces varying degrees of physical, emotional and psychological suffering in it’s victims during the immediate days and weeks following infection? For others, the long-term physical and psychological effects of Covid can even last for weeks and months following initial recovery (i.e. Long Covid)?
Consider too that contracting Covid can also have long-term economic effects like job loss (depending on the severity of one’s experience with Covid, its effects on one’s body and strength, medical benefits, sick leave availability, and the general understanding an employer has during one’s recovery) and other financial setbacks in the process of recovery?
Why be so cavalier about spreading Covid? How in any sense does this attitude reflect Jesus to others?
As the mask mandates continued across the nation last spring when students returned to schools, there was a new public health measure to push back on: vaccines. What has been odd about this push back, in part, is that in the months leading up the November election, the former president had regularly praised the vaccination effort, Operation Warp Speed. You would think that his supporters would have been first in line to get the vaccine. The former president himself was vaccinated in January before leaving office, after suffering from Covid just a few months prior. It does, however, make one wonder why he hadn’t publicly announced being vaccinated in the final stretch of his presidency.
When the time came for the vaccine rollout under the Biden administration, Republicans and Trump supporters (not always mutually inclusive identifiers) were some of the most resistant groups to getting vaccinated. And one of the most hesitant and resistant religious groups among those Republican voters were evangelical Christians, particularly white evangelicals, who overwhelmingly supported and voted for Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Why has this been the case?
There are likely many reasons, not least the incredibly effective campaign that raised doubts about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and the violent movement that led to January 6th. This year has been costly on many fronts, but all too often for the wrong reasons.
Delta variant, rising hospitalizations & the CDC
The reality is we are still in the middle of global pandemic. While vaccination rates have gone up since August thankfully, they are not yet high enough. There was a dramatic increase in cases of unvaccinated people infected with Covid over the summer months following the CDC’s new mask guidance in May. The new guidance stated that fully vaccinated persons did not need to continue wearing masks in most places (except Covid hot zones) with the added caveat that unvaccinated people should still continue to mask up everywhere, especially indoors and in densely packed places outdoors.
The reasoning for the CDC’s updated guidance was twofold: 1) the scientific data from early spring had indicated that very few vaccinated people were becoming “breakthrough” cases (meaning they weren’t becoming infected with Covid-19) due to the strength of the Covid vaccines, so recommending masks for vaccinated people seemed obsolete; 2) continuing to require unvaccinated people to wear masks in most places may serve to be an incentive to get vaccinated. However, with no way of telling who was vaccinated or unvaccinated (unless private businesses required a vaccination passport), unvaccinated people all across the United States chose to not follow the CDC’s guidance. The result was that the coronavirus spread among the unvaccinated in record numbers, and the vast majority of Covid hospitalizations (typically 90-99% depending on the region) were of unvaccinated people. The CDC’s decision was clearly premature, even if well intentioned.
It didn’t help that following the decision to be lax on mask recommendations for vaccinated people, the delta variant, a more contagious strain of the coronavirus, began spreading all across our nation. This is why there has been such a high uptick in Covid hospitalizations among the unvaccinated. As more and more unvaccinated people stopped wearing masks, they became more susceptible against the delta variant. Counties and states where it spread the most were those with low vaccination rates.
To make matters worse, breakthrough cases were increasing among even the vaccinated because of how contagious the delta variant is. Normally this would not be a cause for alarm, since fully vaccinated people who later get infected typically experience only mild to no symptoms. But when a vaccinated person gets infected with Covid, they still carry the full viral load of the virus (due to the infection, btw, not because of the vaccination), which means they could unintentionally transmit the virus to an unvaccinated person, who will go on to experience the full weight and force of the virus (unlike the vaccinated person).
While vaccines decrease the likelihood of vaccinated people from getting infected with Covid exponentially, vaccines do not eliminate the possibility of getting infected. Typically, vaccines include a weakened form or dead form of the virus. When injected in the body it is intended to create an immune response that imitates an actual viral infection so that when (or rather if) we are infected, our bodies will have learned how to fight the virus much quicker and more efficiently. It must be noted that an immune response from a vaccine is not a viral infection.
The three Covid vaccines in use in the United States are similar in that they initiate an immune response in our bodies just as traditional vaccines do. While the J&J Covid vaccine uses the more traditional virus-based technology, Pfizer and Moderna use mRNA material to create an immune response. What is mRNA? According to the University of Maryland Medical System, “mRNA is a piece of genetic material that cells use as “instructions” to create certain proteins [called “spike proteins”] in the body…In the case of the mRNA vaccines, your body is never exposed to the germ but is still able to produce an effective immune response.”
The more people who get vaccinated in local communities and states, the more we can build our resistance against the coronavirus, and its variants, until we are no longer at pandemic level worldwide. On the flip side, the longer we wait to get vaccinated as a nation, the more the virus can reproduce other strains (called variants), perhaps even variants more powerful than the delta variant. As has been hypothesized, and is in the realm of possibility, if this happens, our best vaccines thus far may not be able to stop the spread of new variants.
It is because of the high rates of Covid cases among the unvaccinated in May and June, that the CDC updated their guidance yet again in July, making a full reversal, and began recommending masks again for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people when indoors. This clearly frustrated a lot of people, vaccinated people included. No one likes wearing masks. But their decision makes perfect sense. We cannot let the coronavirus, in any of its variant forms, have free rein to spread.
It’s time for all of us, no matter our political persuasion, to take a posture of humility and listen to our medical professionals. The coronavirus, and the delta variant of the virus, does not ask whether a person votes Republican, Democrat or Independent. It does not discriminate. It just spreads.
To fellow Christians
To those who refuse to wear masks or get vaccines without carefully considering the scientific basis for them, let me ask you to consider the following.
I believe in miracles and divine healing as many of you do. But believing as much does not disqualify other methods of healing rather than immediate divine healing. Who’s to say God is not using the medical community anyway? Don’t we all bring our gifts, talents, and learned skills to the table of life, just as those in healthcare do?
Don’t you see a doctor for ailments? Don’t you get surgeries when you need them? Don’t you get prescription medicine from pharmacies? In a similar way, we wear masks in private businesses, in churches and in densely populated areas because we would rather be conduits of health and wholeness than spread a potentially life threatening disease to others. We seriously consider vaccination under the oversight of our doctors as a further way to both protect ourselves and others. We make the bold decision to care more for others than we do our own “freedoms.”
Btw, touting personal freedoms over community responsibility is something the apostle Paul was sharply against. See the entire letter of 1 Corinthians, the closing chapters of Romans, and his short letter to the Philippians (especially chapter 2).
I suggest that getting vaccinated and wearing masks is in keeping with the way of Jesus. Resisting them at all cost is much closer to another being and force at work in the universe.
What have we learned?
Each of us has to answer this question for ourselves because we each of us has processed this last year differently. For most of us, I would venture to say, this pandemic and the virus that caused it has touched somewhere close to home as it has for me. While you may not live near the original epicenter as I do, Covid has made it’s way into your community and into your own life.
While I would naturally hope that you have experienced little to no death in your families or close networks, this hope might be too much to hope for. And I grieve with you for your losses.
However this pandemic has affected you, I pray that somehow you will discover comfort and hope where you need it.
How do we move forward?
Hopefully the tragedy of our nation’s patched up handling of the pandemic will give us pause to be more prepared for future pandemics. Hopefully masks, social distancing and vaccines won’t be so highly politicized. But then again, this is America, a country that often touts personal freedom over societal responsibility. Although, from time to time, Americans show up, so maybe they will in the future.
Hopefully, my fellow Christians who have not reflected the Jesus they claim to know will come to terms more with the gravity of our responsibility as followers of Jesus to reflect the healing love of Jesus to others in our world, which requires sacrificing temporary conveniences so that others can experience long-term blessing–in this case, wearing a mask and getting vaccinated in order to curb the spread, suffering and death instead of selfishly touting personal freedoms.
I urge you, if it applies, to apologize to others when and where you did not reflect the love and healing presence of God. Make good on that apology by making steps in the opposite direction. Practice good. Practice loving your neighbors as you love yourself. Do it all in the name of Jesus.
I pray for God’s grace in my life as well. That in my attempt to speak the truth, I won’t sacrifice patience or mercy as I have done too often.
May your grace and strength guide us Lord to carry out your will–to love our neighbors in a similar way that we love ourselves.
Hopefully, even better.
Click on the blue links throughout this blog article for news articles and video source material.
What does America’s coronavirus response look like abroad (opinion video)
How America Bungled the plague (documentary)
Totally Under Control (documentary)
Totally Under Control (trailer)
Other blogs on the coronavirus pandemic:
Blog was last updated September 28, 2021