Coronavirus is a public health crisis. Let's not let it turn into a political one
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Missoulian editorial

Coronavirus is a public health crisis. Let's not let it turn into a political one

It is never surprising, but nevertheless always disappointing, to see things that ought to exist outside the swamp of politics sucked into its murky depths. Such was bound to be the case with the coronavirus, too, despite the fact that it is, at its core, a public health crisis.

The global pandemic affects us all, and in a better world, would unite us all as well. Indeed, communities from across the globe and right here in Missoula have been blessed with abundant stories of generosity and kindness, of people reaching out to fill the needs of their neighbors in ways large and small. At the same time, health experts, first responders, hospitals, local and state agencies have been working overtime to keep a firm handle on a rapidly evolving situation while providing solid, useful information to the public.

And most people are listening. They are treating this with the seriousness it demands, and making changes in their lives ranging from the merely inconvenient to the truly heroic. Just in Missoula, where COVID-19 cases are still relatively few compared to the numbers hitting larger cities, we have witnessed countless acts of self-sacrifice, ingenuity and courage that help put to rest our worst fears that humanity’s baser, toilet paper-hoarding, hand sanitizer price-gouging side might prevail.

Alas, politics thrives on that slimy side, and it has been painful to see certain politicians trying to capitalize on public fears, downplay very real health risks and spread bad information. They seem to see this health crisis as more of a political crisis.

It’s one thing to argue that the measures taken to prevent coronavirus have been too little, too late, or, on the other side, that they go too far. It’s perfectly acceptable to question whether specific measures might do more harm than good. Lawmakers in particular have a duty as elected officials to closely examine any proposed restrictions on their constituents’ freedoms.

But it is another thing entirely to disregard the expertise and advice of those in the medical community who have long studied various diseases and best understand them. It is flat wrong to dismiss the very real health risks, the lives already lost and the many more who will likely die of coronavirus. There’s no cause for politicians to refer to “coronavirus” and “pandemic” in quotes, as though there was any legitimate reason to question their reality.

Yet some insist on linking coronavirus to China or to influenza, calling it a “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan flu.” This is misleading because, while the coronavirus may have originated in Wuhan, China, it is now present in nearly every nation, and nationality, on earth — and it not the same as the flu.

Coronavirus is no more similar to the flu than it is to beer.

According to Johns Hopkins medicine, both can be spread in the same ways — primarily through coughing or sneezing — and share many of the same symptoms: fever, cough, fatigue. But influenza can be any one of several strains of virus. Coronavirus is a different virus entirely, and may be transmitted more easily from person to person. Because humans have built up no immunity to the coronavirus, it is more likely to result in the serious illness known as COVID-19.

But the worst difference is that there is no vaccine for COVID-19, and the mortality rate is much higher.

In China, where the virus is believed to have originated, the death rate was reported to be about 4%. In Germany, it’s been only about 1%. But in Italy, it has reached a staggering 11%.

The reality is that the unprecedented steps being taken — closing schools, shuttering businesses, limiting services — will go a long way toward saving lives. If these measures save only 1% of Montana’s population, well, that’s more than 10,000 people. That’s more than all the people who live in Havre. That’s everyone in Polson — and Hamilton, too.

With luck, and the dedicated efforts of our best medical researchers, we will have a vaccine in short order. Until that day, and probably beyond, the best way to prevent the spread of any type of disease and protect our loved ones remains the same: Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face, especially your eyes, nose or mouth. And keep your distance from others as much as possible.

The ways we choose to respond to this sweeping public health crisis can be treated as mere political fodder, but they don’t have to be — and in fact, shouldn’t be. Incumbents and candidates alike who are serving their own political interests over the interests of those they seek to represent, during a deadly pandemic no less, ought to be reminded of this.

This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Editor Gwen Florio and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen. 

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