Too Little. Too Late.

At last, the end is in sight.  No, I am not referring to the Covid-19 pandemic. I am referring to 2020, the year that gave birth to a new vocabulary for Americans, including such terms as pandemic fatigue, Covid deniers, mask refusers, stimulus package, and excess mortality. We have entered the era of NewSpeak, an English dialect first predicted in 1948 in the novel “1984” by the novelist Eric Blair.

In keeping with his view that a totalitarian government would change the meaning of words to suit its own purposes, he wrote this dystopian view of the future under a fictitious name, George Orwell, at least in part to avoid retaliation for so grim a prediction of the ends to which governments would go to ensure their own domination over the masses.

And so it is with 2020, the year that America was assured that a “foreign” virus was no match for the ever capable government machinery that would expel it if it tried to come here from there. For nine months we have heard how wonderfully successful the government has been in protecting us from this unAmerican plague.

By New Year’s Eve we should be able to celebrate this success with no more than 310,000 dead and a few million permanently disabled Americans. Success is the NewSpeak term for more dead and disabled people over the course of nine months than combat deaths and disability suffered over the course of four years in World War II.

Our leaders tell us that “victory” is in sight. This is a NewSpeak phrase uttered interminably over the 10 years of the Vietnam War. Our victory is at hand because a vaccine has been developed against Covid-19. Perhaps, the virus will behave and not mutate, and the virus will allow the vaccine to interfere with its spread. I hope so, but since the development of antibiotics, antivirals, and vaccines, Nature has repeatedly demonstrated how clever she can be. Bacteria and viruses can and do change frequently, and that change is not usually to our advantage.

Many of our fellow citizens insist that the pandemic is a hoax. I wish them well, because if they get sick, they will find that most hospitals in America cannot care for them properly. Intensive care units (ICUs) in many hospitals are at or near capacity and some are at 200 percent capacity. This means that if the Covid denier has a stroke or heart attack or bleeding ulcer, he or she will not get the attention or resources that were available just one year ago. 

Deny this plague if you will, but do not deny that it will diminish your health care and that available to those in your community. If you do not bear the insufferable burdens of wearing a mask, washing your hands, avoiding crowded conditions, etc., you may not die from this virus, but you will most certainly help the virus spread and kill.

The irony here is that in most jurisdictions if you intentionally spread HIV to another person and that person dies, you may be held culpable for murder.  If you knowingly spread Covid-19 to another person and that person dies, you can run for public office and no jurisdiction will indict you for manslaughter, let alone murder.

As our neighbors die from this plague, our leaders debate a “stimulus package,” another NewSpeak term for survival assistance. Americans are starving, losing their homes, facing eviction from their apartments, and defaulting on their loans and our leaders call the money our neighbors need to survive this catastrophe “stimulus.”  Healthcare workers, hospitals, and even funeral homes across our country are overwhelmed. They do not need a stimulus: they need a life preserver.

To those who insist that this viral infection is just a flu-like illness that only affects the old and weak, I suggest they look at the excess mortality numbers for our country. This means look at the overall deaths from all causes in 2019 and compare that with deaths from all causes in 2020. What those numbers reveal is that 300,000 more people died from all causes in 2020 than in 2019. 

These additional 300,000 deaths were not from motor vehicle accidents or drug overdoses or gunshot wounds. The numbers for those causes of death did not change substantially between 2019 and 2020. The additional 300,000 dead were from that “flu-like” illness, a death toll never before achieved by any flu over the past 100 years.

But, let us assume that Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna or some other company has developed a vaccine that will stop the spread of the virus or at least reduce the death and disability toll. The earliest a majority of Americans could be vaccinated would be six or seven months from now. With thousands of Americans dying and tens of thousands being permanently disabled each week by this virus, we could be looking at an additional half a million Americans dead and millions more disabled.

Of course, that assumes that most people will agree to get the vaccine, a highly unlikely situation. Our Covid-deniers will certainly not line up for the shots. Even the majority of New York City firefighters, first responders who have been up to their elbows in the Covid horror, have said they will not get the vaccine as soon as it is offered to them. The general public does not trust those advocating the vaccine. 

Consequently, the pandemic will continue through most or all of 2021, unless the virus decides to mutate and simply disappear. Even if it does us the favor of leaving of its own accord, we can be confident that another lethal agent will get a foothold somewhere on our crowded planet and threaten the health and welfare of our fellow humans.

Perhaps, we shall be ready for the next plague. Perhaps we shall have mechanisms in place to identify, isolate and eliminate the threat. Alternatively, we may simply declare “Losing is Winning” in the NewSpeak dialect Eric Blair predicted our leaders would embrace.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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