I think most people would agree that this coronavirus pandemic is comparable to war. We have mass casualties, a tremendous expenditure of resources and now a massive logistics effort to deliver vaccines to millions of people.
But if we’re all on a figurative battlefield, is everyone doing their part? Wouldn’t going around unmasked be comparable to falling asleep on guard duty and risking the lives of your fellow soldiers?
In combat, the behavior of an individual can have profound effects on the whole. Wouldn’t a person lighting a match on night patrol or making sounds to give away their unit’s position represent a breach of protocol analogous to unsafe behaviors during the rapid spread of a debilitating and often deadly virus? And wouldn’t risking spread of the virus by congregating in large groups compromise the efficacy and mission of the overall war effort?
For historical perspective, more American lives were lost to the Spanish influenza pandemic in World War I than in combat. About 63,000 died from the disease compared to roughly 53,000 combat-related deaths. But a century ago, the world lacked the medical science of today – technological advancements that could have saved tens of thousands.
Modern medicine would have seemed almost “miraculous” to combatants in that war. And today, our expanding knowledge in medical science includes pioneer breakthroughs in epidemiology. Highly effective vaccines have been developed and tested in months instead of years, and treatments have significantly improved.
State-of-the-art hospitals and other facilities across our country are strained to the limit by this pandemic. Doctors. nurses and other health care workers are beyond exhausted. Supply lines are overwhelmed. But on the front lines, are millions of Americans fully engaged in combat? Are they holding the line to prevent spread of the enemy, the virulent and mutating COVID-19?
Some are, when one witnesses the massive food distribution centers across the country run by volunteers. These are civilians who don’t wear uniforms, but in every sense are playing a major role in a strategy to defeat a common enemy. They embody the spirit of the soldier who looks out for the welfare of buddies in their respective units.
But unlike the unified effort of the Allies during the invasion of Normandy in World War II — the most massive and coordinated logistics effort in history — our war with COVID-19 has been a disorganized, hodgepodge, state-by-state calamity that allowed the virus to spread and now account for more than 330,000 deaths. That is more than were lost in World War II and about five times the number killed in Vietnam.
Skeptics say not all of the deaths are attributable to COVID-19, but many authorities agree that current fatalities as reported by the Center for Disease Control are probably undercounted. What health care professionals do agree on is that COVID-19 is more likely to seriously affect individuals with chronic pre-existing conditions or comorbidities, as well as those who are older.
Federal coordination could have been much stronger and more organized from the get-go early in 2020. But what about the individual responsibility of average Americans – front-line troops in this war? They’ve been told ad nauseam to wear masks and social distance, but over the months we’ve seen TV news reports of numerous unmasked gatherings, some even organized by our president.
Despite warnings from health authorities, millions traveled at Thanksgiving, resulting in a COVID-19 case surge. And it’s estimated millions will travel at Christmas.
I keep thinking about the words sacrifice, duty, honor, social responsibility, and wonder if many Americans have forgotten what they mean — or even worse, never understood at all. Some of my high school classmates did not return from Vietnam. I’m sure there are others who have lost friends and family members to Vietnam and succeeding wars and know the true meaning of sacrifice. I am acquainted with Alaska Gold Star families who have suffered devastating losses.
But in this current war, this war against a ravaging virus, I don’t think we’re all participating; at least, not all who are able. When I see a person walking around in public without a mask, or sans a note indicating why, for health reasons, they cannot wear a mask, it is not a stretch for me to think of someone abandoning their post during a battle. In my mind, they are deserters.
For most of our lives, wars have been fought on distant foreign soil and joined by other people. This pandemic is our war. Future generations will judge how we sacrificed and took up arms to fight and defeat it.
A lifetime Alaskan, Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.
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