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[Lee Kyong-hee] Risk literacy matters in coronavirus war

A virus doesn’t even have its own cells to replicate. It needs a host cell to multiply. A virus is a submicroscopic microbe. That means it is too small to be seen even with a microscope. However, this invisible pseudo life-form can wreak monstrous-sized havoc in populations. Some leaders even speak as if it can see and hear.

US Sen. Kamala Harris’ remarks at the virtual Democratic National Convention last month are telling. The first woman of color to vie for Washington’s second-highest public office, Harris defined the disproportionate suffering and dying of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans in the COVID-19 pandemic as “the effect of structural racism.”

She pointed at inequities in education and technology, health care and housing, job security and transportation. “This virus has no eyes, and yet it knows exactly how we see each other – how we treat each other,” she said. “There is no vaccine for racism.”

There is no doubt that inequality is found everywhere – between classes, societies and nations. The global outbreak has exposed disparities in income, living environment and working conditions more blatantly and mercilessly. But apart from the victims, most people are not confronted with the day-to-day reality or long-term consequences.

If the virus had ears, one of the most entertaining – or puzzling – leaders must be US President Donald Trump.

In taped interviews revealed last week, Trump in early February admitted that he was downplaying the danger of COVID-19. In public, he said the virus was under control and would “miraculously disappear by April.”

Trump even recommended incredulous therapies like heat and light treatment and the injection of disinfectant into lungs. “Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. I’m not a doctor. I’m like a person who has a good you-know-what,” Trump said at one of his White House press briefings. No doubt his reality TV politics left the country’s top medical experts in attendance speechless.

That was in April, and then one day in May, he mystified reporters again by disclosing that he was taking daily doses of hydroxychloroquine to prevent infection. By that time many people had become familiar with the anti-malarial drug with a lengthy name, for Trump had repeatedly touted it as a remedy for COVID-19. “If it doesn’t work, it’s nothing lost by doing it,” he said.

The US president might have been trying every trick to meet the daunting challenge of simultaneously saving citizens’ lives and the economy. But without control of the virus, the economy was doomed. America has lost hundreds of thousands of lives and millions of jobs, with its global leadership falling to shambles.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also met with public outcries for his ineffective response. Health experts’ outcry for “test, trace, isolate” was ignored as concerns for economic damage came ahead of virus control with ungrounded expectations of herd immunity. In the meantime, Johnson himself was diagnosed positive to become the first head of state to contract the disease.

The world’s most famous coronavirus patient stayed away from work and public view for much of a six-week lockdown that he ordered. While Johnson was in self-isolation, struggling to breathe in the hospital and then recovering in the countryside, Britain suffered more than 21,000 deaths and 4 million people were furloughed.

In early July, Johnson was again in the media spotlight. This time he was mocked for his blunder in pronouncing “contact tracing” during his daily coronavirus briefing. He said, “There will be scaled up testing at a local level combined with contract tasting … testing … tracing.” Not a few people doubted he was functioning normally.

If we set aside the questions of how much Johnson respected the science behind COVID-19, his pronunciation gaffe itself warrants some sympathy. Contact tracing is just one among many medical terms that suddenly entered everyday speech amid the current crisis.

How many of us had heard of personal protective equipment, or PPE, before the outbreak? And what about pathogen, antibody, convalescent plasma, ventilator, or even social distancing?

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo professed that he had never really heard of a ventilator before his state became the epicenter of infections and he found himself struggling to secure enough intensive care beds and ventilators to cope with projections by medical experts. “The longer you are on a ventilator, the less likely you will ever get off that ventilator,” he reiterated. It proved to be true.

Cuomo impressed many people with his extraordinarily detailed and informative daily briefings on COVID-19 and his state’s response, which continued for months. Today, New York is one of a few US states that have successfully contained the disease.

Korean President Moon Jae-in also listened to scientists faithfully. But he failed to read the hearts of doctors. So, his administration and ruling party announced a medical reform program in late July – right in the middle of a pandemic. Moon was probably too obsessed with making good on his election promise. Or, he forgot that reforms are bound to meet resistance from vested interests.

Thus, on the threshold of a second wave of infections, some 16,000 intern and resident doctors walked out. They ended their two-week strike on condition that the government would reconsider its reform proposals. Unfortunately, some Protestant pastors are also complicating efforts to curb the pandemic. They are daring insidious COVID-19 exposure by inciting people to criticize the Moon administration in massive outdoor rallies.

An informed public is critical in fighting a pandemic, as American virologist Nathan Wolfe wrote in 2011’s “The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age.” Wolfe advises that risk literacy, the ability to distinguish between different levels of risk severity, is not only for policymakers. Effective response depends on individual people and how well they stay calm and follow instructions.

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts, published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.