“What is happening is much worse than you thought it was. You’ll realize that just being able to breathe air in your own house, it’s something that you should already be grateful for.”
“Stay at home.”
“Don’t fuck up.”
The COVID-19 death toll in Italy has passed China. China has 22 times more people than Italy. The Italians have been trying to sound the alarm to the rest of the world for days now, and while some countries have heeded those warnings, the United States and the United Kingdom have not.
In the meantime, health workers in the United States are sounding every alarm they can think of. A hospital in Georgia says they went through five months of supplies in six days, and a pediatric surgeon in New York City has taken to the New York Times to declare that “the sky is falling”, and to urgently call for more resources.
Our health care system is mired in situational uncertainty. The leadership of our hospital is working tirelessly — but doctors on the ground are pessimistic about our surge capacity.
Making my rounds at the children’s hospital earlier this week, I saw that the boxes of gloves and other personal protective equipment were dwindling. This is a crisis for our vulnerable patients and health care workers alike. Protective equipment is only one of the places where supplies are falling short. At our large, 4,000-bed New York City hospital, we have 500 ventilators and 250 on backup reserve. If we are on track to match the scale of Covid-19 infections in Italy, then we are likely to run out of ventilators in New York. The anti-viral “treatments” we have for Covid-19 are experimental and many of them are hard to even get approved. Let me repeat. The sky is falling.
I say this not to panic anyone but to mobilize you. We need more equipment and we need it now. Specifically gloves, masks, eye protection and more ventilators. We need our technology friends to be making and testing prototypes to rig the ventilators that we do have to support more than one patient at a time. We need our labs channeling all of their efforts into combating this bug — that means vaccine research and antiviral treatment research, quickly.
It’s not hard to see that a healthcare system built around annual profits would view the creation of a stockpile or production capacity to meet a massive crisis like this as “needless waste”. Nothing like this has happened since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, and while it’s my hope that the death toll for COVID-19 will be less than that, it will be more than it needed to be, and it will be higher because of how we’ve designed both national and global production and supply chains.
It’s also not hard to see that in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, politics revolving around a religious faith in capitalism magically solving everything, plus open scorn for experts and expertise, has made the problem worse. In the US, a huge amount of blame is being placed on the notoriously irresponsible “spring break” crowd for continuing things like mass gatherings at beaches, but until just a few days ago, the White House, various Republicans, and Fox News were actively downplaying the danger of this outbreak, and all of their concern seemed to be for corporations, for the stock market, and for their own wealth.
That’s starting to change as the full scale of what’s facing us becomes clear, but as has been said many times, in a situation like this, delays cost lives. I posted a few days ago about how Vietnam was approaching their pandemic response, and I wanted to showcase another example that seems to be getting things right.
Cuba is often maligned in the United States, and while Barack Obama took steps to normalize relations between the two countries, Trump rolled that back. In the past few weeks, Cuba was brought up repeatedly to attack Bernie Sanders, because apparently it was bad of him to praise Castro’s successful literacy program, while condemning his authoritarian rule. During my very brief stay there in the summer of 2001, I did see a lot of things I didn’t like – people were very careful about what they said, and who they said it around, the authorities seemed to know more about our schedule than we did, and about 50% of the television programming available was a never-ending stream of long Castro speeches, patriotic songs, and cartoons about resisting the evil American empire. I have to say, the more I’ve learned about the United States and its foreign policy over the years, the more sympathetic I am toward that last line of thinking.
As much as they’ve been known as an authoritarian regime, however, Cuba has also become known for its medical system, and for its willingness to provide medical assistance to other countries. That pattern has continued with the COVID-19 pandemic as Alan Macleod reports on Mintpressnews.com:
While the United States government is complicating efforts to treat coronavirus across the world and is using the pandemic to increase pressure on countries already struggling under U.S. sanctions, including Iran, Syria, and Venezuela, the small island of Cuba, itself a target of Washington’s ire, is leading the fight against the spread of COVID-19.
And while the Trump administration slashes the Center for Disease Control’s budget amid an imminent pandemic, China appears to have gotten to grips with the coronavirus outbreak. Beijing reported only 16 new cases of the virus today, and there are now more total cases outside mainland China than inside it.
Integral to reducing the number of deaths is a Cuban antiviral drug, Interferon Alpha 2b. The drug, according to Cuban biotech specialist Dr. Luis Herrera Martinez, “prevents aggravation and complications in patients, reaching that stage that ultimately can result in death.” It has been produced in China since 2003 in a partnership with the state-owned Cuban pharmaceutical industry. Interferons are “signaling” proteins, explains Dr. Helen Yaffe of Glasgow University, an expert on Cuba. These proteins are produced and released by the body in response to infections and alert nearby cells to heighten their antiviral defenses. It is not a cure or a vaccine to COVID-19, but rather an antiviral that boosts the human immune system.
Cuba has used it to fight outbreaks of Dengue Fever, a common occurrence on the mosquito-plagued island. The Castro government was forced to develop a strong pharmaceutical industry because of the constant U.S. embargo. Cuba estimates the decades-long sanctions, continually declared illegal by the United Nations, have cost it over $750 billion.
Today, the Cuban government offered haven to the stranded cruise ship, MS Braemar. The ship has five confirmed COVID-19 cases on board and had been turned away by both Barbados and the Bahamas.
Despite confirming its own first cases, the island is continuing to export medical professionals to the rest of the world. Yesterday, Jamaican Health Minister Christopher Tufton announced that 21 nurses from its neighbor would arrive imminently, the first of more than 100, he hoped. But they have also sent doctors to more advanced nations, such as Italy.
I’ve said it before: this crisis, with all of its horrors, also presents us with opportunities to learn, to see how we could build a better world, and to come together to build that world. I think a foreign policy that puts so much emphasis on healing the sick and helping to uplift other countries is something we should aspire to for as long as our species is divided into different nations. The more we are able to work together towards common goals, rather than against each other in competition or outright hostility, the better we will be able to tackle massive challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change.
The World Health Organization (WHO) advised countries should check all potential cases. “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia. “This amazing spirit of human solidarity must become even more infectious than the coronavirus itself. Although we may have to be physically apart from each other for a while, we can come together in ways we never have before…We’re all in this together. And we can only succeed together,” he added. It is that ethos that has driven Cuba’s revolutionary healthcare system for 60 years.
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