Hong Kong harbor

At Some Point Will We Accept the Hard Truth That We Are Interconnected?

April 15, 2020

In my time in international education I have had to grapple with SARS, Ebola, H1N1, Zika, CoVid-19, Chikungunya, Dengue and probably other long forgotten disease outbreaks. Each time, there is this sense that the disease has snuck up on us and caught us by surprise.

Yet, we have had medical professionals around the world through the CDC, the U.S. Military and other government branches, in addition to academics, pharmaceutical companies and local medical personnel who are also conducting research and monitoring. The global health infrastructure that enabled the eradication of Smallpox and is on the verge of eliminating Polio also enables early warnings of communicable disease outbreaks.

So why are we so surprised? Each. And. Every. Time. As soon as an exotic new disease pops up, there is breathless coverage in the media, and health systems go into overdrive to respond, protect and try to prevent future transmission and spread.

What I find lacking is a sense of “haven’t we been here before?” The United States seems especially susceptible to having to relearn the same lessons over and over, but this amnesia is not unique to this continent. Why is it so hard to embrace the simple truth that the infrastructure that brings us consumer goods from China in 2 days, and takes us on holiday to tropical islands in hours, also means that disease outbreaks anywhere can and will spread everywhere?

My great-grandparents were wheat farmers in Montana and used to say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While the expression wasn’t original to them, they knew the basic truth that you can pay a little now or a lot later. Maintaining your core infrastructure is a lot cheaper than buying a new combine every few seasons.

The back and forth in this country about making ventilators and masks under an emergency regime misses this point again and again. You can pay now and be prepared, or you can pay later and suffer the consequences. My sense is that the efforts in this country and others over the past thirty to forty years to undermine government and to delegitimize expertise and to substitute feelings for facts is a heavy contributor to this constant flailing.

If we deny truth and erase history then of course each time is new and surprising. As educators we have to muster the courage to prepare our students and our communities to embrace facts and to accept hard truths. We will make mistakes to be sure. The undeserving may take advantage, and the deserving may go without. Until we recognize that society cannot run effectively until we buy prevention, we will continue to spend foolishly on wasteful cures.

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