Will 2020 be the ‘Darkest Winter in Modern History’?

The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a tsunami of dire predictions, conspiracy theories, and fake news, but the worst example of hyperbole and fearmongering I’ve seen so far comes from someone we’re supposed to take seriously as a health expert. 

Multiple news outlets have reported that Richard Bright, a senior adviser at the National Institutes of Health and former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, planned to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health today that “Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be darkest winter in modern history.”

Um… has he ever read a history book? I’ve written before about the pitfalls of using historical analogies. It makes you look foolish when you try to claim something in the present is “worse than” or analogous to something in the past when you have no idea what you’re talking about.

I guess it depends on what you define as “modern history.” Most historians define the modern period as 1500 to the present, with ‘late modern’ beginning in 1815. Most people probably define ‘modern’ as much more recent, so I’ll be generous and say 1918 to the present. A lot of horrible events have happened over the past century. The 1918 Influenza Pandemic, the Holocaust, the Ukrainian Famine, the Cambodian genocide, the Hutu massacre to just name a few. I’m sure there were a few horrible winters in there.

Bright elaborated, saying “Our window of opportunity is closing. If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities.” Unprecedented. There’s another scary word. But unprecedented compared to what? The 1968 flu pandemic killed an estimated 100,000 people in the U.S. The 1957–1958 influenza pandemic killed 70,000 to 116,000. We’re heading towards that number of fatalities right now. But the 1918 flu pandemic killed 675,000 in the United States, so it has been a lot worse.  

Bright claims he was demoted “in response to my insistence that the government invest funding allocated to BARDA by Congress to address the COVID-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit.” That’s a strange statement for the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to make. Wouldn’t a potential drug or vaccine for coronavirus have to be scientifically vetted before being approved for public use?

If we had a choice between a well-established treatment or cure and snake oil, obviously the government shouldn’t waste money on the snake oil. But as far as I’m aware, there are no “safe and scientifically vetted solutions” for Covid-19. As of right now, there are 120 proposed coronavirus vaccines, six in clinical evaluation, and about 70 in pre-clinical evaluation according to the World Health Organization. Some of them will work, and many will not. But there’s no way to know which ones are effective and which ones aren’t unless you conduct research into all of them.

What does Bright expect us to do, exactly? He suggests increasing public education of preventative measures, ramping up production of essential medical supplies, and developing a “national testing strategy.” Are we not already doing those things? Face masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant are widely available. There is no ventilator shortage, as many feared early on. Testing is done at the state and local level, but according to the CDC, only people with symptoms need to get tested.

Most people are already practicing social distancing, disinfecting surfaces and washing their hands frequently, wearing face masks in crowded areas, staying home from work, and mass gatherings like sporting events and concerts have been canceled. Does he want everyone to just stay in their homes indefinitely? People need to eat. We need to work to earn money and pay our bills. We need some level of social interaction and to not feel like prisoners in our own homes. Everyone staying home until there are zero infections or deaths from Coronavirus is not a serious proposal.

The federal government has already spent trillions to help states, hospitals, and individuals cope with this crisis, issued guidelines, restricted travel into the US, funded research, and made efforts to prevent fraud. Perhaps it should have acted sooner and perhaps it could have done more, but the federal government can’t force states to remain shut down, especially states where risk of transmission is small.

So I don’t know what Bright is trying to do here other than pump fear into an already frightened public.

It’s tragic when anyone dies of a preventable disease, or hell, even unpreventable diseases, but let’s get real. Approximately 647,000 Americans die from cardiovascular disease every year. Over 606,520 will die of cancer this year. Covid-19 is not the worst health crisis we’ve ever faced, and it certainly won’t be the last. Bright is right about one thing: What we need right now is a rational, scientific approach. But we don’t need more fearmongering.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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