Problems we face cannot be solved by wishing them away or by refusing to understand the science.

First published in February 2020.

The outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus, with over 28,018 people ill and 563 deaths, is but the latest emergence of an infectious disease that tests the capabilities of our healthcare systems. And the spread around the world points to improvements that we need to make to be prepared against the threat.


The origin of the virus is at present the subject of speculation, but from what has been learned so far, it appears to come from food markets in central China that specialize in the selling of wild animals for human consumption. It would be easy to say here that such sources ought to be avoided, but the transmission of pathogens from domesticated animals to humans has been going on since the Agricultural Revolution, and as our population continues to grow, the demand for food will only increase.

Trump and his followers might chant, “build that wall!” in response, but the reality is that demographic and technological trends make borders impossible. We are rapidly approaching eight billion human beings on this planet, and we have the machines to allow every single one of us to go anywhere in a handful of hours. Drawing lines on maps has always been something of a fantasy, and now it is an act of desperation.

This is not to say that efforts at quarantines are entirely misguided. But we have to recognize the limitations of that solution and to understand that isolating people who are identified as having been infected will only work as a part of a broader plan.

Chinese officials have sequenced the genes of the Wuhan coronavirus, and that information is available, thanks to the international effort of public health agencies. Which is to say, we have essential data for fighting the illness because of what the right wing would call “socialist medicine.” And this leads me to the first of my two points here. To fight potential global epidemics, we need a healthcare system that guarantees access to quality care for everyone.

An example of this is the number of people who are now in quarantine, 195 Americans as of the end of last month. Organizing this is done under the authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the federal level, but the states also have powers to issue quarantine orders, and the range of enforcement options is wide.

For people who are placed under quarantine, those who work for a company with fifty employees or more are covered by the Family Medical Leave Act. A company with at least fifteen employees brings the Americans with Disabilities Act into effect. In smaller companies, workers have to depend on the generosity of the owner. Most Americans work for firms that are under the regulations of the above laws, but not quite twenty million do not. A universal care system that includes treatment of potential epidemics would bring the resources of the entire nation, rather than expecting a fragmented set of responses to deal with the problem.

A universal care system would also guarantee access to medical treatment for people who might otherwise try to push on through the symptoms of a developing illness, rather than pay the fees that doctors and pharmacies charge in our for-profit model. And if we enact Medicare for All to include public funds for research, coming up with the genetic sequences and vaccines would not be subject to a corporation’s bottom line. This will be all the more important as we face an increasingly warming planet. While pointing to any particular weather event or disease outbreak and drawing a connection to climate change is poor form, what can be said is that as global average temperatures rise, so will the burden of epidemics of many types.

Donald Trump’s response, given to Sean Hannity in an interview prior to the Super Bowl, was to say that “we pretty much shut [transmission of the virus] down coming in from China,” as if all problems could be solved by declaring them solved. For people who do not understand the science of climate and epidemiology, easy reassurance may be comforting, but a reality TV star should know that a story arc that lasts through the whole season and across the summer break will bring in more viewers. I phrase things this way because the right wing has adopted the stance that a wave of emotion substitutes for working policy. As long as supporters feel that they are on the right side, where they are marching off to does not seem to matter to them.

Those of us on the left get attacked as elitists or as effete intellectuals — as people who use words like effete with little provocation — but the world is complex. The problems that we face cannot be solved by wishing them away or by refusing to understand the science that explains them and their solutions. And dealing with these challenges requires us to go beyond timid policy choices.🔷

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[This is an original piece, first published by the author in on 5 February 2020. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Pixabay.)