The rapid spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID- 19) caught the world by surprise. Whatever becomes the new normal, the United States will be a different country from what it was on March 13, when President Donald J. Trump declared a national emergency. At this writing on May 28, more than 100,000 people in the United States have died from the disease. Much of the nation’s population has had to hunker down at home and nonessential businesses have had to close on orders from state governors, and the economy has shriveled. Americans now need no convincing that pandemics are a real and grave threat. The nation must treat them as such and make rigorous preparations for the next one.
Physicians and other caregivers were severely hampered by shortages of personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other lifesaving devices. Stockpiling of these items for future use as well as development of protocols for handling massive influxes of critically ill patients into hospitals should be a priority for medical centers and government agencies so they are prepared for whatever infectious disease crisis comes next.
And the world is ripe for pandemics. Cities around the globe continue to grow and increase in population density. Passenger jets crisscross oceans and continents, flying millions of people internationally each year. When it comes to opportunities to spread, contagions have never had it so good.
Eliminating these opportunities, therefore, is key to stopping outbreaks, with social distancing, sanitizing surfaces, washing hands, and wearing face masks fundamental to the effort. COVID-19 has forced an unprecedented proportion of the American workforce to work from home, enabling people to avoid contracting the disease from coworkers and fellow commuters on buses and trains. Thanks to telemedicine, physicians replaced thousands of in-person medical visits nationwide with virtual encounters, thereby eliminating the risk of viral transmission between patients and caregivers.
It took a novel coronavirus that surfaced half way around the world to demonstrate the interconnectedness of the nations of the world and show Americans the danger of complacency about infectious disease outbreaks in faraway lands. With contagions, international travel and trade have made the distance between places largely irrelevant.
But so has the internet. Although China has been accused of withholding information early on about the true transmissibility of the coronavirus, physicians in Italy and elsewhere who eventually had to grapple with COVID-19 outbreaks were able to share their experiences quickly and widely via social media and online journals, giving doctors worldwide a speedy heads-up about what to expect. The world is small indeed.