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The outbreak of an epidemic is something like a natural disaster — a spontaneous, accidental eruption that is no one’s fault. But that does not mean we can do little about it and just wait for it to run its deadly course. The evidence is now clear: The spread of the virus can be greatly reduced if governments act early, aggressively and intelligently. Unfortunately, that does not describe the response of the U.S. government to the coronavirus pandemic.

We can track the speed of the outbreak since January, by which time the virus had spread from China to other countries. In South Korea, after an initial spike, the number of new cases has slowed. Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan — despite lots of travelers from China — have kept numbers low from the beginning. In the United States, however, we are seeing accelerating increases.

What did the successful countries do that seems to have worked? They began testing early and often. They coupled these tests with careful quarantines of those infected and tracking of where they had been, to better predict where the next outbreaks might occur. The public health systems had surge capacity because funding had been adequate. And authorities largely communicated simple, clear and consistent messages to the public.

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