The Atlantic’s Ed Yong delivered the keynote address Tuesday night for the Salt Lake Community College Tanner Forum on Social Ethics.
Yong, a science journalist who has written extensively about the COVID-19 pandemic, spoke about the United States’ failed response to the global emergency, calling this strain of coronavirus a “starter pandemic.”
“Other countries that have much fewer resources than we have brought this disease to heel, when the U.S. let it run out of control,” Yong said.
Yong noted that parts of Asia and Africa, who have had experience with viruses and those who have relied on aid, were “very quick to react.”
“It’s telling that a lot of much richer countries that have all types of advantages in terms of research have really struggled,” he said.
In the summer of 2018, Yong wrote a piece for The Atlantic entitled “The Next Plague is Coming. Is America Ready?” The piece declared “the U.S. is disturbingly vulnerable” and outlined a scenario in which President Donald Trump’s tendency to spread false or misleading news would be catastrophic.
“The White House is now home to an inattentive, conspiracy-minded president,” Yong wrote. “We should not underestimate what that could mean.”
In the article, Yong posted a video which used the 2014 Ebola outbreak as a test case of Trump’s reaction to a viral crisis, when the then-television star criticized then-President Barack Obama for not shutting down borders. Yong argues in the video that this type of isolationism can cause viral outbreaks to become dramatically worse.
“Counterintuitively, such bans will increase the odds that outbreaks will spread, in part because they will discourage health workers from helping with foreign outbreaks for fear that they will be denied re-entry,” Yong said.
The article praises Obama’s calm and measured reaction to the Ebola outbreak, and goes on to say, “The White House is now home to a president who is neither calm nor science-minded.”
“So here we are,” Yong said Tuesday night. “We are in month ten. There is still a lack of a coordinated plan to contain the virus.”
Our lack of “rigorous and robust” testing, contact tracing, simple ways for people to isolate themselves and widespread mask usage are continuous mistakes that the government and the American people continue to make.
Yong went on to describe the country’s effort to control the virus by using an analogy concerning army ants. In the analogy, army ants forage using pheromones to create a path that the rest of the colony follows with an extreme rigidity. However, this can become an issue if the ants accidentally loop back on themselves and begin to follow one another into a continuous circle. Eventually the ants will die from exhaustion; this is known as a death spiral.
“They become walled in by their own unhelpful instincts,” Yong said.
Yong said he fears that our efforts toward COVID-19 will join the ranks of drunk driving and police brutality as a “habituation of horror” — terrible issues to which we have become numb.
Declaring the COVID-19 pandemic “one of the most important events in our lifetimes,” Yong gave a stern warning.
“This is not the first time we will be tested by disease,” he said. “And it won’t be the last.”