Sixteen years ago, in the very early days of medical genetic testing, I received a positive result for one of the BRCA mutations, which are correlated with a vastly increased risk of breast and ovarian cancers. I began interviewing doctors and genetic counsellors, in order to decide whether to have preventive surgeries—and, if so, which ones. I quickly understood that the science of cancer prevention had a tunnel-vision problem: I was counselled to undergo surgeries that would lower my risk of cancer but vastly increase other health risks. I joked that cancer prevention would be the more successful the sooner I died of something else.
What made my predicament more difficult was that the medical advice I got wasn’t wrong. Preventive surgeries were the best options available for me to live a longer life. But the advice was dispensed without regard for, or at times even acknowledgment of, the damage that these surgeries would do to my health. I agonized over the risks, the uncertainties, and the irreversible nature of my decisions. In the end, I to have the surgeries, albeit not in the order and not nearly on the time frame that was recommended back then. I am now older than my mother or her aunt, who also had the mutation, ever lived to be. But I was profoundly changed by the surgeries. My life now is not fully continuous with my life before the interventions. I like some of the changes and regret the others. I also know that, if I had not been mindful of the unintended consequences of my decisions, my health and my quality of life today would be the worse for it.
In the United States, we are in a similarly terrible predicament now, as a society, as I was as a person with a body. The measures we are taking to save ourselves from a global pandemic of the novel coronavirus are changing us in fundamental, possibly irreparable ways. By instituting lockdowns and deploying a variety of emergency powers across the country, we are destroying our economy, our social fabric, and our political system. We will never be the same. Whether we change for both the better and the worse, as opposed to the solely catastrophic, will depend on how mindful we remain of the damage we are doing as we attempt to save ourselves from the pandemic.
The economy has already taken the biggest sudden hit in memory. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and many more will become unemployed in the coming weeks. Inequalities in wealth, opportunity, and access to health care have become even more glaring than they were just a couple of weeks ago.
The social fabric is being torn in unprecedented ways, owing to school closings, a widespread shift to working from home, social distancing, sheltering in place. Whereas we used to share dozens of experiences a day with friends, acquaintances, and strangers—from riding the subway to working in an office, standing in line at lunch, going to a concert, eating at a restaurant, chatting to an Uber driver—many of us have been reduced to sharing only isolation and the fear of chance encounters, if either of those can be said to be shared.
Our political system, frayed as it was, is under extraordinary stress. The Supreme Court has delayed cases. The Justice Department is extreme powers. The Trump365体育现金 Administration is the crisis as an opportunity to push through a more extreme version of its agenda. The President now lies to the nation daily ,not only on Twitter but also on live television, during briefings that he has turned into versions of his rallies. The election campaign is in a state of suspended animation. The borders are effectively closed. At the federal level, there is a real possibility that the coronavirus will paralyze the work of Congress, leaving the White House without check. At the local level, quarantine measures either have stopped or will stop all town councils, school boards, and community meetings. Local news media, an endangered species before the crisis, may have been dealt a final, fatal blow by the coronavirus.
In the past week, several high-profile writers have raised the possibility that emergency measures taken against the pandemic are too drastic. The founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, David Katz, writing in the Times, has that the threat of the pandemic is overestimated. The paper’s opinion columnist Thomas Friedman this argument. But the problem is that, after the Trump Administration wasted the time that was available to prepare for the pandemic’s spread, by instituting widespread testing and creating additional hospital facilities, today’s Draconian measures are both necessary and probably insufficient. As the President careens365体育现金 toward lifting preventive measures, in order to help the economy at the expense of human lives, we will increasingly find ourselves in the absurd position of demanding that the government drastically curtail all manner of freedom.
The low bar set by the incompetent, self-obsessed, lying President makes any halfway-competent public servant sound brilliant. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s popularity seems to have spiked simply because he is acting and speaking rationally. “In this time of crisis, with little concrete information available, I need Cuomo’s measured bullying,” Rebecca Fishbein on Jezebel, in a piece called “Help, I Think I’m in Love with Andrew Cuomo???”
We tend to throw the word “authoritarian” around a lot, usually to mean anything that we perceive as less than democratic. But one of the technical definitions of authoritarianism is a regime in which one person or a single group of people make all governmental decisions, denying the public participation in political life. (This distinguishes authoritarianism from totalitarianism, where people are forced to participate all the time.) When we virtuously retreat to our homes, deserting public space and delegating all authority to one man armed with emergency powers, we are creating a society as close to the textbook definition of authoritarianism as has ever actually existed.
365体育现金So what do we do now that so much economic, social, and political damage has already been done? We have to start talking about the damage, and thinking about tomorrow. We have to recognize that what we are doing to avoid being killed by a virus is also killing us as a society. We have to make it a priority to restore the social fabric.
365体育现金One tool that will be necessary for this project is an antibody test, which will tell people whether they’ve already had the coronavirus and recovered from it. (Antibody tests for the novel coronavirus exist, but the tests that are currently available—or, for most people, not available—are tests that check for the presence of the virus. People who have already recovered will test negative.) It is currently assumed that people who have recovered from the infection might have immunity to it, at least for a period of time. Provided they’ve been quarantined for enough time, these could be the people who can volunteer at hospitals, with food and service delivery, at schools. A large enough number of people with immunity, mobilized intelligently, could not only help prevent new infections but also help remedy some of the inequalities that the crisis has exacerbated.