Thank you, Mother Nature, for gathering us all together under one common threat to bang us over the head with another of Nature’s painful lessons. The lesson that comes to us under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic is that our human race, all 8 billion of us, is now more tightly bound together than ever before. Compared to a century ago when the flu pandemic claimed more lives than this one will, we are now more tightly bound by travel, communication, shared news, the internet, and the global exchange of things. What touches some of us now, even sneaky viruses, may touch all of us. In the balance, I think this is good news, if we can learn to understand it.
Yet the perverse irony of our new-found bond is that we are now obliged to engage in a conspiracy of mistrust, at least here in the US. Under orders of our governors, most of us shelter in place to avoid the silent carriers, and to avoid being that silent carrier who could deliver the lethal droplets. We venture out for essentials when we dare, masked and gloved, assuming that all who pass us by, even our friends, are silent carriers. Those who defy these orders earn public scorn and clips on the news.
We assume the silent carriers are out there, but what do we know? We don’t know nothing. I don’t know my COVID status, and I don’t know the status of the people I share our house with, my co-workers at the clinic, the kids on our street, or the cashiers at my grocery store. In our southwest corner of Ohio, where the rate of COVID-19 cases is lower than much of the nation, what is more toxic to our economy and our social well-being than the virus itself is this mandate of mistrust we are obliged to engage in, for lack of something better.
So while you’re waiting for something better, like a vaccine or a treatment that works every time for every one, dream with me about what it will take for us to reestablish our ability to trust each other. Dream about the CDC developing a national COVID registry of test results linked to a free app we can all download to our phones. Dream about all pharmacies and clinical labs providing rapid and reliable COVID PCR testing, with the results automatically entered in the CDC registry. Dream about the Gates Foundation making it possible for anyone who does not have a cell phone to get a free device at your pharmacy that can operate this app like a phone. Dream about being prompted when it’s time for you to get your next test, and where. Dream about responding on a daily basis to a questionnaire on your phone that asks about your respiratory symptoms in the past week and your exposures to any COVID positive contacts or probable cases. Dream about this app alerting you when you have been within 6 feet of someone who has tested positive in the past two weeks.
Dream about knowing your COVID-19 status, which is updated daily on your phone (Green, Yellow, Red)—this will be your ticket to circulate freely among other green “19 negatives” you can trust. Dream of feeling safe on a bus or in a restaurant or singing in your chorus again. Dream about the fact that soon, once we have this level of understanding about COVID-19 in our neighborhoods and regions, the only people required to shelter in place will be the 10-15% who have been recently exposed (yellow), are silent carriers (red), or are “19 positives” (red). Dream about an economy that is freed from the bulldozer of statewide lockdowns and the mass paranoia of germophobia.
If Germany and South Korea and New Zealand could create this system of testing in a few short months and avoid crushing their economies, we can do more than just dream about it. This kind of “cure” is less expensive and far easier to achieve in the next six months than a vaccine or clinical trials for treatments or trillions of dollars in emergency aid. And this testing system will reach farther and faster to repair, if not cure, our crippled economy.
If such a system threatens your sense of civil liberties, compare life under widespread testing it to the liberties we have lost in lockdown and unemployment. In our country, our COVID deaths are just over one hundred thousand, our cases just over one million, and our newly unemployed in the many millions. Smart testing, the kind you and I dream about, could save millions of livelihoods in the coming months. What are we waiting for?