Former Utah governor and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt has examined pandemic implications in much greater detail than most.
During his presentation that was streamed online Friday morning as part of the 2020 BYU Religious Freedom Annual Review, Leavitt told of being called to a special meeting at the Centers for Disease Control a few years ago as concerns about the virus H5N1 (more commonly known as the bird flu) becoming a pandemic increased.
“Before that meeting, I have to say that I’m not sure I had given the idea of pandemic disease much thought,” Leavitt said. “The next morning, a young colleague of mine came into my office with a book called, ‘The Great Influenza.’ It was a history of pandemic disease and particularly the history of the pandemic of 1918. It detailed the history of the last pandemic that was anywhere near the scale of what we are dealing with with COVID-19.”
He said that as he studied the text, he became more aware of disease and how it has shaped history. He also realized that the United States and other countries were unprepared to deal with a pandemic.
“I became intimately acquainted with the way pandemics unfold and the way they reshape the economies and the sociology and the even the politics of the world, something we are now all experiencing firsthand,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt believes that our ability to have international instantaneous communication has made the world more capable to take action to fight a pandemic than any in history.
“Modern communication as allowed countries all over the world to deploy social distancing at a scale that has never been undertaken before,” Leavitt said. “What has occurred is unprecedented in human history. Nations did this because history had taught them that if they allowed the spread of this virus to happen in an uninterrupted way, the virus would take hundreds of millions of lives across the globe.”
He acknowledged the hope that medical research will develop a vaccine or other solutions but emphasized that right now social distancing is the only medical intervention that we have to fight COVID-19.
But, Leavitt said, like other medical interventions such as medication for pain, social distancing comes with dangerous side effects.
“The good news is that it appears our social distancing tactics are effective,” Leavitt said. “While it has still been devastating, millions of lives have likely been saved by this unprecedented action. Like other medications, however, you can only do this so long because the side effects can be harmful just like the virus but in a different way.”
He pointed to the loss of jobs, the economic losses, the psychological tolls, food supply issues and even “Zoom fatigue” as some examples of the side effects of social distancing practices.
That presents a dilemma because the disease hasn’t become less dangerous but people are getting tired of the side effects.
“This coronavirus is still with us and COVID-19 is still a grave threat,” Leavitt said. “As countries all over the world open up, it’s clear that biology is still going to play out and we are only at the beginning of this. It’s very likely that we will continue to see flare-ups that will become hotspots. Most pandemics have a second or third wave that is even more virulent than the first.”
But he added that most people don’t see how we can go back into lockdown because the side effects have been so devastating.
“We are in this period where we are trying to rebalance how much of the group behavior that we practiced can continue,” Leavitt said. “We are trying to learn what we can do safely and what we can’t. A political debate is happening in one form or another in every jurisdiction in every country throughout the world between those who want to open up and those who want to be more restrained.”
Leavitt called this an “inflection point” in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Up to this point, our medical countermeasures have been group behaviors to a large degree governed by government action,” Leavitt said. “We are moving rapidly into a period where these group behaviors are going to be less possible to sustain. A combination of economic limits and human impatience will begin to limit them. We are now beginning to rely less on group behaviors and more on individual behaviors.”
He said the overall impact of the virus will depend on whether people will choose to do simple things like consistent hand-washing, wearing facial coverings, standing at a distance and limiting close interactions as much as possible.
“These are simple things that will enable us to be safe,” Leavitt said. “We now know much more about how the virus is spread. We will begin to individually and collectively begin to govern our activities in ways that will produce good outcomes. But the question is will we?”
He said it’s clear that individuals, families, communities and nations that succeed at those practices will have better outcomes than those that don’t.
“These outcomes will be reflected in their health, their happiness and the economic well-being,” Leavitt said.
He believes that religious organizations can be much more effective in urging their members to take steps to be safe than governments can.
“Whether in a pandemic or in any other situation, the use of secular laws to change human behavior will always have side effects,” Leavitt said. “Governments change behavior by edict. Communities of faith, however, attempt to change behavior by changing hearts.”
The entire session and more details on the review can be found at http://religiousfreedom.byu.edu.