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Our pandemic


Last updated 12/31/2020 at 8:13am

Now, after a year, the numbers have become numbing. We can’t blame the media, who were simply doing their job by reporting facts, but as thousands became hundreds of thousands it became impossible to maintain a sense of scale. What exactly do 300,000 dead Americans look like?

For a few naïve months, rural Montana managed to convince itself that nothing about those horrific numbers applied to us. We were one of those enviable white spots on the map of the country that showed few if any COVID cases. Engaging in the same kind of magical thinking that convinced some to put their faith in remedies shown to be of no value in the treatment of the disease, we convinced ourselves that we were stronger, more resilient, somehow naturally immune. The actual explanation was that we lived far from the population centers the disease was ravaging, and our low population density provided us with “social distancing” before we’d ever heard of the term.

Science-based recommendations remained both simple and consistent: wear masks, keep your distance, avoid crowds. With some exceptions, we couldn’t be bothered. When the disease finally arrived — as anyone who understood the science knew it inevitably would — we still didn’t change our behavior even when our own friends and neighbors began to sicken and die. We were witnessing what the term “going viral” used to mean before the arrival of social media but failed to grasp its significance.

When historians look back upon the events of 2020, the most difficult problem they will have to explain is the politicization of the virus and the loss of faith in science that we demonstrated. I heard many explanations for refusal to wear a mask: It’s not convenient. I just don’t feel like it. Really?

Americans of my parents’ generation stormed the beaches of Normandy to liberate Europe. I doubt that many of the GIs wading through machine gun fire found it convenient or felt like being there. They did what they did because it was the right thing to do. And we can’t wear a face mask?

I also heard a lot about individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution. However, I can’t imagine any reading of that document that enshrines a right to infect fellow citizens with a lethal disease.

I’m retired from medicine now, but many of my friends and several family members are still active as doctors, nurses, and other front-line workers in health care fields. I have to wonder how anyone can justify putting their lives at risk every day by refusing to do something as simple as wearing a mask.

Thanks to remarkable work by medical scientists — if not by politicians — vaccines have now provided us with a glimpse of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. This epidemic isn’t over yet, however, and the appearance of the next one is a matter of when, not if. Remember how closely COVID followed on the heels of MERS, SARS, Ebola, and Zika. At the very least, we should marshal the ability to learn from our mistakes.

We have certainly made plenty of them.


Columnist E. Donnall Thomas Jr., MD, of Lewistown is a retired board certified internist and former commissioned officer in the United States Public Health Service.


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