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Trust In Science

Social responsibility is in our shared Swarthmore genome

MY FATHER operated a movie theater in a small Pennsylvania town.

One evening when I was a high school senior and had been accepted to attend Swarthmore, my father called home from the theater to say that he had met an alumnus who had come to see the current film. Dad had invited him to come to our home when the movie ended to meet me. The man turned out to be the writer James A. Michener ’29, H’54. I remember him telling me that my Swarthmore education would prepare me for anything. I doubt that he had considered something like COVID-19.

The world is turned upside down as a strange new virus that came from bats spreads around the globe; more than 170,000 Americans are dead. The preceding sentence could be a promo for a science-fiction film, but it is a frightening reality.

I’m a physician, a specialist in infectious diseases, with 45 years of experience caring for patients, studying infections, and teaching in a medical school. I know a good deal about viruses, and I am familiar with the details of previous devastating viral outbreaks like the 1918–19 influenza pandemic that killed 50 million people, the 1793 yellow fever outbreak that killed one out of every 10 Philadelphians, and, of course, AIDS. And I, like all infectious disease specialists, knew it was only a matter of time before a previously unknown virus wreaked havoc in a pandemic. 

But I don’t think any of us could have imagined the new coronavirus. We are dealing with a virus that is behaving differently from most respiratory viruses. Almost daily there are new revelations about what this virus can do. A third or more of infected persons never have a symptom yet can spread infection for more than a week. Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed vast racial inequities and xenophobia within society. 

The illness is biphasic. First, the virus makes us sick, and then an overreactive immune response makes us sicker. The viscosity of the blood increases dramatically, and patients can have blood clots leading to strokes or loss of limbs. Some children develop a rare inflammatory syndrome with aneurysms of the coronary arteries.

The public is confused and filled with questions. Do I need a test? Where can I get a test? Is the test reliable? Can I let my children visit their grandparents? How can I be safe at work or school? Some of the confusion is because we are confronted by a novel virus and are learning as we go. For example, learning that asymptomatic persons may transmit infection makes wearing a mask in public important, different from what was originally recommended. Another large part of the problem is that the president ignored warnings about COVID-19, doesn’t have a national response plan, refuses to model good behavior, contradicts recommendations from his own experts, and makes pronouncements filled with falsehoods. 

We hear a lot these days about the “new normal.” I think of it as the “new necessary,” but it certainly isn’t normal. We humans are social animals. We are programmed to read facial expressions — tough to do when a person is wearing a mask. We like to gather together, shake hands when we meet someone new, put our arms around friends who need support, hug and kiss dear ones. It is contrary to our nature to “social distance,” but for now we have to do it to protect ourselves and others.

A tiny virus that can be visualized only with special microscopes has created an immense problem. One wonders what we can do against the enormous threat we face. There are many unknowns, and that leads to discomfort. Among the many things I learned at Swarthmore was a tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Swarthmoreans know how to find reliable information, and we care about our fellow citizens. We should trust in science and listen to information and guidance from medical authorities, not politicians. Social responsibility is in our shared Swarthmore genome, and we will behave responsibly. 

I am optimistic that we will have a vaccine that will stop the progress of this coronavirus and medicines to ameliorate illness, but it may be a while. In the meantime, as our society reopens, each of us can make a difference by staying informed from reliable sources and employing physical distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing. We can educate others. And vote!

We can make it better.