We have not had to deal with adversity on our shores in any real population-wide way in decades or even longer. We’ve lost track of what it means to act collectively. World War II was a great example of when we said, “We have to work collectively. We have to optimize our response.” By the end of World War II, we were rolling out B24 bombers every 60 minutes. That is something that would have been unfathomable if we were trying to optimize every individual’s safety and well-being and not thinking about the population-level response.
If you go further back and a plague was on board a ship, you’d burn the ship and quarantine every passenger on it. You’d do whatever was needed because the last thing we wanted is for this thing to spread to the population. We’ve advanced from that, but our problem today is that the virus is the same. It doesn’t care. The virus doesn’t feel for our emotions. It’s not an enemy that we can talk down. We can’t bribe a virus with money. It is completely emotionless. There’s nothing we can do to control it, except to control it. I think we have lost all sense of that.
We’re really good in this country at doing biology, at doing medicine. We were able to go from zero to a vaccine finishing phase three trials in months. But we completely fail — always in this country and in many countries — to actually do the public health part. We did all the expensive biological stuff; we did all the fancy stuff that gives people credit, all the doctor-y things, all the technology things. But then when it came to scaling and distributing the vaccine, the not-sexy, public health intervention part, nobody thought about it.