Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Friday February 28, 2020
If the coronavirus hits America, who’s responsible for protecting Americans?
The outbreak of the coronavirus — and Covid-19, the disease it causes — in mainland China has provoked a response the likes of which the world has never seen. Hundreds of millions of people in the country have had their travel restricted; many have not even been allowed to leave their homes. All of this is aided by the vast Chinese surveillance state.
Meanwhile, though the number of new cases in China dropped to 406 on Wednesday, bringing the total to 78,000, China is ramping up capacity to treat tens of thousands of sick people, with new hospitals going up nearly overnight. Many people still haven’t returned to work, though some of the restrictions are being eased.
Draconian restrictions on movement and the intensive tracking of people potentially exposed to the virus are just some of the ways China — a centralized, authoritarian state — has responded to its outbreak.
What would have happened if the outbreak had started in the US — or if it comes here next?
The number of confirmed cases in the US is small: just 14, and 12 are related to travel. An additional 45 people who were sickened with Covid-19 abroad have returned to the US for treatment. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shifted its message on the likelihood of the coronavirus spreading in the United States. “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters in a press call. She said it’s a matter of “when,” not “if,” and that “disruption to everyday life might be severe.”
There’s still a lot we don’t about the virus. It’s a novel, fast-spreading disease to which people have no known immunity. So far, no vaccines or drugs to treat it exist, though both are being developed. That said, many of the cases of Covid-19 are mild, as Vox’s Julia Belluz reports. The fatality rate — which remains an early estimate that could change — is hovering around 2 percent. A virus of these parameters could spread very quickly.
While there’s much we don’t know about how this could play out with regard to how many people will get sick and how sick they’ll get, what we do know is the United States has dealt with outbreaks — polio, tuberculosis, and H1N1 flu, for starters — before, and many health officials have been anticipating a new one. There are lots of professionals at the federal and local levels who stand ready to try to stymie the spread of coronavirus in the United States.
That’s not to say our system is perfect, or even necessarily prepared for this incoming novel virus. But it’s worth thinking through what responses are possible in the United States and how they might become politicized. There are a few really important things to know.
The biggest one: Public health is a power that’s largely left up to the states, which introduces flexibility into our system. But it also introduces inconsistencies, local politics, and laws, with varying protections for civil liberties. The biggest question remains: Can our health care infrastructure handle an influx of thousands of new patients? (Continued: Vox)