Panel discusses long-awaited end to the COVID-19 pandemic
Science journalist Anja Martini and Prof. Elanah Uretsky (IGS) reflected on the ongoing pandemic and discussed how it may end.
The Center for German and European Studies hosted a panel discussion about predictions for how the COVID-19 pandemic will end. Anja Martini, a science journalist for the German radio and TV news program Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), and Prof. Elanah Uretsky (IGS) spoke at the event, with CGES Director Prof. Sabine von Mering (GER) moderating.
When the pandemic began, Uretsky and many of her colleagues believed that “it [was] going to be SARS all over again,” she recounted, meaning it would take a while to recognize the crisis but once recognized, it would be quickly contained. Uretsky explained that due to COVID-19 being genetically similar to SARS, this prediction made sense. When the pandemic spun out of control, “We all ended up with eggs on our face,” she said.
Uretsky recalled her initial doubts about claims that the novel coronavirus would reach the United States. In February 2020, she attended a panel at Harvard about the novel coronavirus where Harvard Dean of Virology Barry Bloom shared his certainty of the virus becoming a problem for America, but Uretsky and others still didn’t believe him.
American reluctance to acknowledge the virus as a significant problem stemmed from previous experiences with pandemics. The only recent points of reference for the United States were SARS — the first pandemic declared in the 21st century — Ebola and H1N1. Compared to COVID-19, American casualties from these pandemics “were a drop in the bucket,” Uretsky said.
Uretsky then presented research conducted by medicine historian Charles Rosenberg that argues that epidemics unfold as social dramas in three acts. First is the initial classification of the severity of the epidemic. She explained that with COVID-19, this can be seen by the World Health Organization declaration of the virus as a pandemic “that was going to have considerable impact in China and maybe the world” on March 11, 2020. Second is a collective agreement about the pandemic’s origins. “Once we come to terms with the fact that [a pandemic] is happening, it's important to know where it came from,” Uretsky said, noting that the origins of COVID-19 are still disputed. Finally, the third act presents a shared realization that community action is necessary to deal with the crisis.
According to Uretsky, effective community action is hindered by the prevalence of social media, which fuels the transmission of information and slows down a successful government response. During the pandemic, people expressed frustration with government response measures on social media, contrasting with the SARS pandemic, in which opposition was limited to text messages. Unlike text messaging, “you can insert so much emotion into a social media post,” Uretsky said. At the start of the pandemic, news about Chinese ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang’s efforts to raise awareness about early COVID-19 infections went viral on social media in China and around the world. Li was reprimanded and censored by the Chinese government for his actions and he eventually succumbed to the virus himself. After the rapid swell of public outrage on Chinese social media, the Chinese government honored Li as a martyr.
As shown by the case of Li, social media is capable of generating an overwhelming emotional response, Uretsky said. She argued that this response can serve as a hindrance to the formation of objective policy decisions, and that “messages shrouded in anonymity can turn into daggers.” While social media commemorating Li is innocuous and justifiable, the preference on social media for emotional content means that false, manipulative information often prevails over correct information, Uretsky said.
Epidemics and pandemics rarely come to a complete end, Uretsky noted, because the viruses are never eradicated. Smallpox is the only disease so far that has been completely eliminated, while most pandemics simply turn into smaller scale crises that societies eventually have to learn to live with, Uretsky explained.
After Uretsky’s presentation, Martini showed a video about her podcast with Christian Drosten, the head of the Institute of Virology at University Hospital Bonn. "[Because] we have a government that is unsure about its decisions, we need to explain everything,” from information about the vaccines to information about how valuable masks are for protecting against the pandemic, Martini said. Part of Martini’s research for the podcast is to look at pandemic-related social media posts to develop a general idea of what people are discussing and then search for the factual information underpinning the social media discussions.
Between COVID-19 and social media, “it's like we have two viral diseases,” von Mering said. On the topic of false versus factual news, Uretsky said that in the United States, news regarding the virus comes primarily from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, information from the CDC is not as enticing as emotionally compelling, yet false, information on social media. Uretsky praised Martini’s efforts at making accurate information about the virus more accessible. It is particularly difficult during the pandemic to spread correct information because proper pandemic response guidelines are changing all the time, von Mering said.
Changing gears to discuss government policy in the pandemic, von Mering explained that it makes sense that people feel responsible for taking the pandemic response into their own hands. She compared the virus response to that of climate change. In both cases, responses range from people wanting to learn more to others promoting false information that downplays the severity of the respective crises. Von Mering voiced her belief that arguing with climate change and virus deniers is a mistake because it only amplifies their message. It is more effective to focus on the large majority of people who are more open-minded and willing to learn.
Both panelists agreed that vaccines are the key to ending the pandemic. However, Martini noted that Europe as a whole is having great difficulty in distributing the vaccine. At the time of the panel discussion, only around eight million people in Germany were vaccinated out of a population of 83 million. At the same time, around 90 million people were vaccinated in the United States. “We’ve been very good in the first wave, the whole world was looking to us. Then we were not so good in the second wave, and now, we are very bad,” Martini said. She suggested that one primary reason is excessive bureaucracy due to Germany’s federal system giving vaccine management to the states. In general, she said that both Germany and the European Union were too slow to approve the vaccines, leading to a major delay in their production and rollout.
At this point, “the whole of Germany is afraid of making a mistake,” Martini said. Due to this fear, the country is not being very flexible regarding its entrenched bureaucratic inefficiencies. This hesitation is partly political, considering the upcoming election in September. With current chancellor Angela Merkel set to resign this year, the future of German politics is uncertain.
Martini remarked that scientists should tell politicians to stay out of their way and let them do their jobs, but unfortunately, they do not have that authority. Uretsky agreed with this sentiment regarding the politicization of health.
Another section of the discussion focused on China’s ability to move beyond the worst of the virus. Uretsky said that for the most part, people live normal lives. If even a handful of infections pop up, everyone in the area is tested, and the virus is soon brought under control. Monitoring the country for potential infections is made easier because people walk around with an app called Alipay Health Code on their phone that measures their COVID-19 threat level. They scan the app when they enter buildings and other public areas. The app turns green if the person is not a transmission threat, and it turns yellow or red for various reasons, including if there is an outbreak in their city or if they travel to another country. A downside to this general feeling of safety is that the Chinese public doesn't feel threatened enough to take the vaccine, according to Uretsky.
Uretsky and Martini agreed that China’s app-based surveillance would never be possible in the United States or Germany because it would be too controversial. A similar app was created in Germany, but its poor design and inefficient nature made it unsuccessful.
Regarding the widely asked question of when the COVID-19 pandemic will end, von Mering said, “We didn’t tell you … the pandemic will end in September 2021, because the fact is, we don’t know.” Uretsky added that any semblance of closure from the pandemic will have to wait until enough people are vaccinated, especially considering the appearance of new COVID-19 variants with greater virulence and potentially higher death tolls.
“It’s hard to ask someone who has run a marathon to run another mile or two,” von Mering concluded. “Hopefully in a year from now, we can come together and talk about how we got it better.”