Column: Happy New Year?

Another year has passed, and we look forward to better times in 2022.  We deserve a better year than we had in 2020 or 2021.  The Covid pandemic kept us from cheering each other on, except at political rallies. Remote learning mandates gave us more time with our children than we ever wished for. Supply chain disruptions kept us from getting our Christmas ornaments and 3-D printers on time. Flight cancellations kept us from getting on overcrowded planes to watch people refusing to wear masks beat up flight attendants. Certainly 2022 will be better.

Will the pandemic stop in 2022? Maybe. Our last experience with a widespread viral infection was the flu epidemic of 1918. Unfortunately, that virus lingered in the United States for a full three years and wandered across the globe for eight. It left behind millions of dead folks and hundreds of thousands with residual deficits, including permanent lung and brain damage. There were no vaccines for that virus. The currently available vaccines may blunt the toll taken and shorten the duration of this current pandemic, but that assumes a high level of compliance by the population that has access to vaccines. That level of compliance has not been achieved. It also assumes that the vaccines will be widely available outside the United States and other industrialized nations.  That widespread access has also not been achieved.

Shall we be spared additional ‘variants’ of the virus? Perhaps. Omicron appears to be a kinder, gentler variant, but it could easily morph into something nasty. Given the high transmission rate of omicron, an evil twin of this virus could quickly reduce the human population on our overburdened planet by twenty to thirty percent. That will cut down on pollution from human sources, but most people (other than those in the Texas legislature) would probably opt for a more humane system for population control.

Does it matter that many people are refusing vaccinations? Hell, yes. Each infected person is the possible source of a variant, as well as a transmitter of disease. The unvaccinated individual is like a growth medium for the virus. If the virus is active in a million people, it has a million opportunities to become the species-exterminating variant we should be fearing.  If only one in a million infected people gives rise to that variant, the rest of us are toast.

Is public acceptance of disease control measures improving? On the contrary.  Healthcare workers are being demonized and threatened. We went from expecting the virus to politely disappear to demanding that the cure we heard from the customer behind us at the cash register at Walmart be given to our dying relative.  Healthcare workers are being threatened if they do not give horse dewormers (Ivermectin), autoimmune disease treatments (hydroxychloroquine), and other ineffective folk remedies to their desperately ill relatives. The effect of this coercion is to drive healthcare workers away.  An unprecedented number of physicians, nurses, and other healthcare providers report that they have decided to retire or seek alternative employment not involving hospital work within the next two years. Add those early retirements to the already depleted ranks of healthcare workers by virtue of their contracting Covid while on the job, and there will soon be no one to yell at or threaten at mom’s or dad’s or junior’s bedside. The notion that in times of crisis we come together for the common good has been debunked. In times like these we retreat to our panic rooms and turn on the television shows that echo our prejudices.

I tire of this pandemic talk. After more than nineteen months of this viral carnage, is there any value in urging our fellow citizens to avoid crowds, get vaccinated, wear masks? Hasn’t everyone heard the public service announcements and made their decisions to get a vaccine or wear a mask or buy a phony vaccination card or pay for a trumped up religious exemption letter from a church they never heard of or attended? Will anything short of burying a loved one whose last words were, “I should have gotten the vaccine,” change the decisions already made? I doubt it.

All things considered, 2022 should be an interesting year. Russia has 100,000 troops on the border with the Ukraine and enough military hardware to annex that country in a week. Afghanistan has stepped back to the Twelfth Century, and its ‘government’ has virtually no food for any of its citizens, other than those fighting for its political leaders. China is managing dissent of any kind the old-fashioned way: with prison and executions. India and Pakistan are finding new ways to antagonize each other and justify a pre-emptive nuclear strike. The United Nations has become a place for international diplomats to socialize but is no place for nations to unite. And the United States Congress, Judiciary, and Executive branches have given new meaning to the pledge that assures us that we are “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

On the other hand, the Webb space telescope was successfully launched last week and may see back to the beginning of the cosmos. Electric vehicles are gaining ground in many industrialized nations and may reduce carbon emissions much more rapidly than previously expected. Population growth is slowing dramatically in industrialized nations. Economic improvements are likely in the world’s major economies. Internet access continues to expand and enable more rapid advances in science and technology. Each year we edge closer to answering the ultimate scientific question: how did life begin?

On balance, the future looks bright, despite the inclination of political leaders to dither or wage war. The pandemic may not end, but we shall certainly learn how to survive it. Nations may quarrel over their boundaries and political formats, but if there are no more wars, our insights into the universe will make these debates seem petty in comparison to our gains in supporting life and liberty. Indeed, this could be a very, happy, new year.

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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