By Dr. Leon S. Malmud
On Dec. 7, 1941, our nation was attacked by the naval and air forces of the empire of Japan. Our response was swift and united. The president and Congress promptly declared war.
There were many critics of Roosevelt, including the isolationists, Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semites. Nevertheless, the nation instantly mobilized.
Political opponents immediately tempered their rhetoric, recognizing that the greater enemy was Japan and Hitler’s Germany, which had also declared war upon us. Within our nation, the loyal opposition ceased finger pointing at an administration which had neither prevented the attack on Hawaii nor the anticipated attack upon the Philippines. Instead, we rallied around the leaders that we had, united against a greater enemy.
We are now under attack by the COVID-19 virus. China delayed informing the world of a potentially fatal virus, and we were denied the opportunity to mobilize our first defensive strategy, that of national containment. We are now employing our second line of defense: mitigation.
We have within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the world’s leading biopharmaceutical industry and in our universities a host of extraordinary, competent civilian generals and admirals whose training and experience qualify them best to confront this new enemy. Those abilities are not vested in the knowledge or skill of politicians, nor in the chatter of the media.
Even the press, an essential “fourth branch” of our democracy, has focused more on the economic consequences of this battle and unvalidated morbidity and mortality statistics largely provided to us by China, the same nation that bred the pandemic and whose leadership’s credibility is already well established by its denial of the large-scale theft of American intellectual property. Does Biblical history teach us that Moses could trust Pharaoh?
We are now finally capable of producing our own mass screening and valid testing. Its primary immediate value is in reminding the public of risk and demanding action at a national level. Its longer-term value will reside in the kind of information that will permit us sooner, rather than later, to restore our productivity and free us from our current psychological and physical bondage.
For now, we must focus on the journey. This time it will not take 40 years, not 40 months, perhaps not even 40 weeks. When released, we will participate in a renewed birth of productivity and freedom.
On a human scale, we know that we will sustain losses. A certain number of us will become very ill and tragically some will perish. However, this is not the time to predict and count our losses.
It is the time to constantly, repetitively remind ourselves of the rules of our journey. No nation, nor its generals, ever achieved victory by publicly focusing on its potential or actual casualties while still engaged in battle. We must now be totally focused upon the tactics and strategy needed to win this war.
It also means that during this journey that if we must we will subsist on the current equivalent of the bread of affliction – social isolation and suspension of employment. We also know with certainty that we and our descendants will remember our deliverance from this plague and celebrate it further enhanced values and methods to avoid its recurrence.
During this difficult journey, our role remains a simple one. Frequent handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when soap and water are not available, or alcohol-based hand cleaners as an alternative when soap and water are not available, surface cleaning with bleach-containing material.
Keeping social distance. Eliminating opportunities for crowds to gather. Eliminating unnecessary travel locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. We must regard each of our own bodies, as well as others, as possibly already infected with this virus, symptomatic or not. Therefore, we must avoid contact with others who do not reside at home with us, or risk spreading disease including to those whom we love most.
We already know from overseas reports that certain members of society are at greatest risk. They are those over 70 years of age, and those who are identified as immunologically impaired. All of these people should be required by law for their own safety to “self-quarantine at home,” be rewarded for doing so, or suffer the consequences should they foolishly choose not to do so. We also must provide resources for them.
For all others, we are now producing the means to screen and return them to work as soon as is possible. Some, including the older and immunologically impaired citizens, could work at home, if suitable for home employment. Most businesses have standards of productivity for office workers. Those standards could be applied to work at home.
We are America. We will prevail. We are a nation imbued with concern for each individual human life. That demands the least number of casualties possible. But let us not focus on the numbers. Thus far we are measuring the unknown with the unknown.
Let the experts dwell on the statistics so that they may advise our federal government with regard to strategy. No great general has ever led his troops into battle telling them and predicting what number will die. Even if we wish to engage in such negativity, we do not as yet have sound data on which to base such destructive assumptions. Our goal remains victory with as little human misery as possible.
This is the time for us to demonstrate the best in all of us. Allow our commander-in-chief the opportunity to inspire the best in us with truthful, apolitical and, hopefully, inspirational rhetoric. For all of us, whether we voted for him or not, he is our elected leader. We implore him to lead our nation to a righteous victory over this insidious microscopic Invader.
Our nation has faced greater threats before. In each case, we prevailed. Earth may merely abide. Our nation under God will more than abide: We shall prevail.
Leon S. Malmud is the dean emeritus of the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.