The pandemic isn’t over, but the end may be close enough for us to consider what will happen when it is.
In Arkansas, the numbers have fallen sharply. On Monday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced there were only 52 new COVID-19 cases. On New Year’s Day, it was 4,304. The death count had risen by five, compared to 66 on December 29.
Recent new case counts are higher -- 239 on Tuesday, 231 on Wednesday – but that’s a lot better than January figures.
During his weekly press conference Tuesday, Hutchinson said the numbers still could plateau and then rise. The European Union is seeing an increase, though it’s vaccinated only half as many people as the United States despite having a larger population.
So far, the governor’s decision to transform restrictions into voluntary guidances seems to have been validated, just as was his decision to open Arkansas’ schools while many remain closed elsewhere. Case counts have not skyrocketed. March 31 likely will bring the end of his mask “mandate,” which was really more of a plea for compliance.
A day will come when he announces the death count hasn’t risen, like Minnesota officials were able to share Monday. Likewise, the case count increases eventually will be so small that the governor – hopefully, surely this one – will no longer give weekly updates.
What happens then? Maybe we’ll all be so glad things are back to “normal” that we’ll just pretend the past year didn’t happen. Hopefully, we’ll also realize it could happen again.
Death by infectious disease has been an ever-present threat until recently. That’s no longer the case in America because of medical science, clean water, sewage systems and streetside sanitation services. Here, we more often have the luxury of dying from longevity- and lifestyle-related diseases.
But we’re also an aging, unhealthy, highly mobile and, in places, crowded society that is completely dependent on international supply chains. All of this makes us more vulnerable to another pandemic. We have low social trust in our institutions, which inhibits our ability to respond.
Because a pandemic eventually will happen again, we should try to learn lessons from this one. We need science- and numbers-based approaches to reviewing the lockdowns to determine if they were worth it or if they should have been more targeted. (Then of course we’ll argue about the science and numbers.)
The war against this virus, like previous wars against people, has shown us what we’re capable of when we get serious about something. Vaccines were developed in months because money was no object. Government support through the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed (credit where credit’s due) let drug companies and university researchers pour their resources into developing new vaccines.
This begs the question: Why not try this with other diseases? What if we really got serious about combatting the flu, which caused a worse pandemic a century ago? What if we really went to war against cancer like we did against COVID-19?
As for our daily lives, some changes from the pandemic will live on – for example, telemedicine, remote education opportunities and online meetings.
We’ll have to wait and see what other social changes occur. Will fist bumps still be good enough, or will handshakes be required? Can we now stay home when we’re sick instead of spreading our germs to co-workers? Will grocery store trips seem as distant and businesslike as they do now?
Finally, after all the past year’s discord, will we be sensitive to those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, or will we keep arguing about this disease like it’s just another political issue? Will those suffering from the disease’s long-term physical effects be forgotten? Will we be OK with people who responded to the pandemic differently than we did, or will this remain as ammunition in the ongoing culture war?
Someday soon, we’ll look back on all this. When we do, we should grant people – and even our institutions – some leeway since it’s the first pandemic any of us have lived through. We also should try to learn from our experiences, in case it’s not the last.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist who focuses on Arkansas politics. He is a regular contributor to Talk Business and a frequent panelist on Arkansas PBS’s public affairs show, “Arkansas Week." He publishes a blog, independentarkansas.com . Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner .