What is the lesson of COVID-19?

The US has been reacting to this public health crisis of COVID-19. But one can’t remain in emergency mode permanently. So, we’ve suddenly switched to the opposite reaction of reopening everything as a free-for-all as if everything is fine and normal again. Then there will likely be a massive upswing again of infections, followed by another period of fearful reaction.

We are stuck in this cycle because we are unprepared, both in terms of public policy and public health. But a major factor is the population is so unhealthy with 88% of Americans being metabolically unfit, not to mention environmental risks to the health of poor communities. Even in the best of times, that would eventually be devastating simply in terms of financial costs. Some predict we might eventually go bankrupt from treating all those sick Americans, along with the increasing costs of sick days, disability pay, etc.

The main thing that COVID-19 is showing us is how weak of a position we are in. It’s multiple factors that are putting us in a difficult bind. And this is a rather minor pandemic. If a truly deadly pandemic hits, which is inevitable, our society is going to be totally crippled and devastated. We barely can manage public health issues and healthcare costs without a pandemic. This situation is only going to get worse, specifically as the rates of metabolic disease continue to rise.

If we don’t become pro-active about dietary policy and healthcare quickly, we could be facing an existential crisis as a society. So, why is no major official or expert talking about public health in terms of factors we can control, specifically comorbidities such as diet-related and pollution-related suppression of the immune system? We can try to control external risk factors through public policies on social gathering and such, but we’d be wiser in the long term to improve public health by improving the metabolic and immunological health of Americans so that we are less susceptible to infections in the first place.

Being unhealthy is not only a threat to the individual. When magnified across an entire society, most of the population being unhealthy is a much greater threat. Every single unhealthy individual is a risk factor, is a threat of infectious spread to their family, friends, neighbors, fellow church congregants, etc. Personal health is a public health issue. But Americans seem only to know how to react to such things, or else scapegoat individuals for failure of public policy. Even those who want to dismiss it all are likewise trapped in an opposite reaction. Both sides have their head in the sand about the most central factor.

Even if the COVID-19 pandemic fizzles out in the end with maybe only a million or so dead in the United States, it doesn’t change the basic public health crisis that will continue to get worse. Imagine when even more people in the United States and worldwide have metabolic diseases, and imagine when an even more virulent infectious disease hits. If we make no changes before then to improve individual and public health, we will be in a worse position than now and we will still be unprepared. Are we going to learn any lesson from this crisis?

None of this is to consider the potential combination of other factors. We are likely entering a period of one crisis after another with each crisis as bad or worse than the one before. Besides pandemics and other public health problems, there will be climate change events with worsening and increasing number of superstorms, along with floods, droughts, wildfires, famines, etc that will lead to refugee crises, social instability, civil wars, political coups, international conflict, fight over resources, and on and on.

That could be on top of the crises of destabilizing inequality, loss of public trust, and weakening political authority; not to mention various backlashes of reactionary politics, authoritarianism, riots, terrorism, and so much else. In the end, worsening health concerns, even pandemics, might be the least of our worries. But certainly a great enough public health crisis alone could unleash a cascade of stresses, conflicts, and failures within American society and across the geopolitical order.

This situation with COVID-19 is a warning we should heed. This could be, as some claim, the new normal. Or else a mere suggestion of the new normal yet to come.