Sit Back – The Pandemic is a Feature Film, Not a Quibi Episode

Technology has made patience a virtue of the past, and filled us with a sense of entitlement. We feel like we deserve answers and solutions at the speed of light.

By Alex Dew

Artwork by Nagy Abdul Aziz

When Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, announced recently that a coronavirus vaccine could take at least eighteen months to become readily available, most of us felt deeply frustrated. The key that will unlock the prisons we have been relegated to since the pandemic began seemed so far away — eighteen months feels like a lifetime when you’re stuck at home running out of Netflix shows to watch.  In our current world of two-day Amazon Prime shipping where all the information we could ever need only a Google search away, we are used to getting exactly what we want when we want it, and that eighteen-month timeline is a bitter pill to swallow. 

Technology has made patience a virtue of the past, and filled us with a sense of entitlement. We feel like we deserve answers and solutions at the speed of light. If you’ve ever tried to Google something on your phone in an area with slow wifi or where your 4g isn’t working, and found yourself shaking your fist at the sky, screaming “why is this happening to me?” in your head, you know what I’m talking about. As a millennial and a total whore for Amazon Prime, Instacart, Venmo, and all manners of technology-enhanced convenience, I too have been deeply frustrated by what feels like the snail’s pace at which solutions for the global pandemic are coming. But of the many painful lessons I’ve been taught by the pandemic and the lifestyle changes it has brought, the value of waiting has been the most meaningful. 

The truth is, we can’t just order up a coronavirus vaccine on Postmates, and that in “vaccine years” eighteen months is more like the blink of an eye. Dr. Emily Erbelding, also of the NIAID, said that most vaccines take eight to ten years to get to market. Vaccine trials are lengthy in duration by design: they often start with animal trials, and then proceed to a three-phase process in which first a small number of human subjects is injected and monitored for at a least a year, with larger and larger numbers of subjects injected in the subsequent phases. Then the vaccine must be approved by the FDA, and manufactured in large quantities, after inspections of the manufacturing facility are passed. 

In order to meet the eighteen-month goal, the process for developing a coronavirus vaccine has been sped up. Vaccine trials are testing on animals and humans simultaneously, and the FDA is accelerating the rate at which it provides feedback to vaccine developers on their study protocols, triaging requests so it can get back to them often within twenty-four hours. Simply put, vaccine developers and the FDA are moving as fast they possibly can without risking the potentially deadly fallout from a faulty vaccine trial. 

I’ll be the first to shout from the rooftops the many missteps of the Trump administration in dealing with the global pandemic, including the cuts to the CDC that kneecapped its ability to handle the pandemic, reportedly ignoring intelligence warnings of a contagion in Wuhan, China, Trump’s early pronouncements of the virus as a “hoax,” his part in the slow rollout of tests, his unproductive, racist remarks about the “Chinese virus,” his failures to provide medical workers with personal protective equipment, support certain states monetarily, and look out for the interests of impoverished families and small businesses. But while Trump’s mistakes may have set us back, the  nature of battling a pandemic is that it simply takes a long time. We can blame Trump for his many mistakes, but the fact that a vaccine will take as long as it takes is not on him. 

Look on the bright side. Things could be way worse.

When we take a bird’s eye view of the COVID-19 timeline, rather than impatiently focusing on the quest for a vaccine, a surprising truth emerges. On December 31st, Wuhan, China reported dozens of cases of pneumonia due to an unknown cause. The coronavirus was identified only a week later, and the following week, China released the genetic sequence of the disease for testing. As of April, a mere four months after the first few cases were reported, and less than a month after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, at least fifty vaccines are undergoing trials, and four organizations are already conducting Phase 1 human trials. 

The lightspeed at which coronavirus trials are taking place becomes clear when we contrast it to the development of an Ebola vaccine. Ebola emerged in West Africa in 2014, but it wasn’t until December of 2019 that the first vaccine was approved for use in the United States. With much of Ebola concentrated in impoverished African countries, few pharmaceutical companies expressed any interest in developing and manufacturing vaccines. With coronavirus at our doorsteps, pharmaceutical company interest in developing a vaccine is high, likely accelerating the process. 

We will be fortunate indeed if we receive the coronavirus vaccine in eighteen months, as it requires all hands on deck to move at breakneck speed and protocols that have long been in place to be revised. If the pandemic were a film, we’d only be five minutes into the movie, and we have made remarkable progress in those few minutes. 

Forced indoors, it is easy to get steeped in a sense that everything sucks, and to let fear dominate our consciousness, rather than attempting to celebrate the progress that we have made, and the numerous acts of awe-inspiring humanity that are taking place every day around us. Yes, the economy has plunged into despair as millions of Americans have been laid off. Yes, there have been thousands of deaths and there will be thousands more. But many of the nightmare scenarios that were imagined in the earlier days of the pandemic simply haven’t come true. 

In the first few weeks, gun sales spiked in America as numerous people worried that without a paycheck, some would turn to looting. Overall, the opposite has been true: 19 out of 20 cities monitored by USA Today reported crime rates plummeting. In many cities, like crime-ridden Baltimore and D.C., residential burglaries have fallen sharply. This is happening in spite of the fact that many states are releasing low-level offenders in order to address the COVID-19 infiltration into the nation’s prisons. 

While there have been some isolated incidents of people resisting shelter-at-home orders, such as a the Spring Breakers in Florida, the vast majority are obeying shelter-in-place orders and abiding by social distancing measures, wearing personal protective equipment when they do have to go into public. Many are sewing masks to donate and supporting local businesses by ordering takeout and raising money. Our health care workers are performing life-saving work at great personal risk. And all these acts of humbling humanity, of awe-inspiring unity, are taking place in a country that has been defined in recent years by political polarization and leadership by a bigoted, incompetent president. 

Sometimes it can feel like we are living in a dystopian reality, but there aren’t tanks in the streets, or riots, or looters. As bad as the current reality seems, things could be so much worse. It can also often feel like this pandemic will never end, but that’s not true either. As with all catastrophes, history has taught us that this too shall pass, and each day that we stay home and do the right thing while doctors fight for a cure brings us closer to the end.  The coronavirus film is not a story of a never-ending despair, but one of hope, unity, and progress, as slow as it may seem. 

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