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E Pluribus Unum: Why We Must Go and Trust as One During the Pandemic

During COVID-19 and always, trust is a foundational element of our collective human existence.

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During COVID-19 and always, trust is a foundational element of our collective human existence.

My profession as a surgeon is not widely comparable to the enormous responsibilities of the President of the United States, or even a state governor for that matter. Still, I know a thing or two about having someone’s life in my hands. When I consider the parallels between when I must risk a patient’s life to potentially provide them a better one through surgery and that of a national or local leader during a global health pandemic – I see some standard essentials. Perhaps the biggest of these necessities is trust. Patients only allow me to operate on them because they trust that I want what is best for them.

As I write today, I considered where we are four months into the COVID-19 global health crisis that has ravaged our world. At first, as a nation, we were committed to “flattening the curve” – mission accomplished. But after just a few weeks, cracks in our collective “we’re all in this together” sentiment began to form. There are likely numerous reasons for this – and not all of them are political.

For one thing, the science on the novel (new) coronavirus known as COVID-19 is still emerging, and we will be studying it for decades to come. This is not an illness we’ve had a whole lot of time to research. We haven’t even had ten months. What our health experts believe to be true today may not have yet known back in March. Take the famous and polarizing case for mask-wearing as an example. When personal protective equipment (PPE) was in scant supply for our essential healthcare workers early on, the public was implored not to hoard such items. We needed them for the very frontline workers taking care of our sickest citizens. Fast forward to more recent proclamations made by our senior health officials, that emerging research began to indicate a personal mask or face covering usage as a mitigating factor in the spread of COVID-19. This reversal felt like whiplash to some. So, what changed in the guidance? 

I am here to tell you – it wasn’t politics that changed. Politics are timeless and can usually be counted upon to divide people. No, what changed is scientific evidence. Where we find ourselves in today, is right the middle of a pivotal research study. Science depends upon testing hypotheses and shifting approaches based on the desired outcome – in this case, slowing disease transmission and mitigating severe illness and casualties.

Contrary to what some might believe, the recommendation to wear a mask, indeed, isn’t about an evil desire to suppress civil liberties. What is being recommended to us right now – based on emerging scientific evidence and not political agendas – is what the health experts, infectious disease scientists, and physicians are telling us can help us achieve our goals of saving lives and continue creating our new and better normal. Since COVID-19 is new to the general public, what we do have is past pandemics to remind us of what was done to mitigate disease transmission and loss of life. One place we can look at is the influenza outbreak that began in 1918. 

There are interesting parallels between what happened in 1918 and what is happening now, more than 100 years later, with COVID-19. Back then, masks were strongly advised to help prevent disease transmission. However, what might be surprising to learn is that even back in 1918, when the news cycle wasn’t yet 24/7, there were media articles published that minimized the efficacy of mask-wearing or the severity of the pandemic altogether. And so, what it all comes back to – even 100 years later – is trust. Trust in science and not political narratives. Trust in health officials. Trust in leaders. Trust in each other.

As a doctor who has battled plenty of misinformation on the healthcare front throughout my career, I continue to see the torrents of mistrust create crater-wide chasms between people today. The division hasn’t and will not help us. We’ve got to be rowing this boat in the same direction if we want to find ourselves in the calmer waters on the other side of this powerful pandemic wave. So let’s all pick up our oars and make sure our masks are also covering our noses as we row together in unison – one nation, under God, and indivisible.

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