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Can Thoughtful People Disagree about the Coronavirus Response? 

These are serious times - with serious challenges. Does that make it less (or more) important that we stay open to diverse perspectives on what’s happening?  

Americans want to be good citizens—even global citizens. And Latter-day Saints believe in “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” wherever they live.  

Even if they have questions about it. 

So, we’ve all done our best to follow the guidelines in recent weeks—celebrating those working hard on the front lines and praying (and fasting) for victims of the disease and the economic fallout.  With now 26 million having filed for unemployment in America alone – and an estimated $20 trillion lost in the world economy in recent months – it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that lingering questions continue to exist concerning specific policies national and world governments have adopted over recent months (and will likely continue to adopt in other scenarios in the future).   

Who would dare raise questions about life-and-death matters?

Rather than such questions being taken seriously, however, they have more often than not been perceived as a threat—and either quickly dismissed or written off as fanaticism that “always comes up when you have a pandemic.” Social media posts have been deleted – and scientific findings that contradict prevailing assumptions blasted by those angry with their implications.   

As a result, legitimate policy concerns have sometimes festered into full-blown conspiracy theories and mounting protests—further deepening the fissures of distrust and resentment in our society (really the last thing we need more of today). My belief is that some of these widespread suspicions wouldn’t have enough soil to fester, were we to be more insistent in cultivating a public conversation where these diverse policy concerns could be heard and seriously explored.    

Of course, the rationale for not debating the policies is also compelling:  who has time to debate these matters when lives are on the line?  

As we march into battle to save lives, questions can thus get shuffled off to the side – or even condemned for being dangerous to public health.  Who would dare raise questions about life-and-death matters?    

That’s precisely the issue. We all want to save lives.  But thoughtful disagreements exist on how to do that.  Can we talk about those differences? Rather than being a threat, could doing so actually help save more lives – along with the economic conditions that sustain those lives?    

In hopes of lifting our discourse beyond some of the ongoing hostility and growing suspicion, the purpose of this article is to summarize six questions I would propose deserve more open and forthright public scrutiny—and in an atmosphere free of insinuations that those on the other side are all “trying to hurt America” or “destroy democracy” or “don’t care about sick people,” etc.    

Let’s get real. And let’s talk.  

1. Experts disagree on how immunity works. Can we discuss that?  

To the average American, immunity is a basic idea that sounds so obvious that we take for granted all doctors and researchers must agree on how it works.  

Not true.

As surprising as it might be to some, there are fascinating, ongoing differences among immunologists and researchers—consequential distinctions which are hardly a blip on the collective radar these days. The predominant view you probably know:  (a) in the absence of either a medical treatment or a preventive vaccine, human beings face a grave threat from any novel bacterial infection. (b) Until that medical development takes place, the smartest thing we can do is find any and all ways to distance ourselves from a pathogen. (c) While inherent human immunity may offer some protection in the face of a new disease like coronavirus, it’s hardly enough to feel much confidence (at least, not until herd immunity is achieved).   

From this vantage point, we’re frighteningly vulnerable to evolving infectious disease in the absence of new medical interventions that specifically target those diseases. That’s been the theory we’ve all lived out in recent months—with its philosophy of immunity largely taken for granted as unquestioned reality.  

Yet another perspective exists—one that doesn’t necessarily disagree on the potential value of either social distancing or medical treatments and vaccination under the right circumstances. The primary difference between the two is how human immunity itself is viewed. Rather than a fragile system hardly worthy of serious trust, the human immune system is appreciated as not only the best defense against disease, but one that can be significantly strengthened over time.    

This is hardly the message being underscored in national media.  As one doctor writes:

Remarkably, prominent physicians have been paraded in the media saying it’s impossible to strengthen your immune system to beat the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It’s hard to understand this kind of ignorance. . . . Your immune system is your first line of defense against all disease, especially infectious disease, and there are many different ways to boost your immune system and improve its function.

Clearly, that immune system can also be weakened in many ways—which is central to the plight we’re in today.  But in addition to whatever medical interventions are considered, it’s worth having smart medical minds also discuss the merits of interventions that can enhance and reinforce our most essential form of protection against pathogens. 

2. Since not everyone is equally vulnerable to coronavirus, the conditions in our own body seem to play a significant role in its lethality. Could that change some of how we respond to this?

As we’ve all been sensitized to the potential threat of this infection generally in recent months, it’s also become clear the degree to which vulnerability to this coronavirus varies significantly from person to person. In addition to those with compromised immune systems at increased risk, statistics are showing large majorities of those who die from this virus have pre-existing health conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, obesity, etc.—with one estimate finding about 1% of the deceased in Italy having no serious previous illnesses.

In combination with the fact that the median age of the deceased in most countries is over 80 years and up to 60% of all Covid19-related deaths occur in particularly vulnerable nursing homes, the age and risk profile of deaths arguably corresponds to normal mortality, as first highlighted in an Austrian analysis

Contrary to much of the reporting over recent weeks, data from the best-studied countries such as South Korea, Iceland, Germany, and Denmark reveals an overall lethality between 0.1% and 0.4%—approximately twenty times lower than initially assumed by the WHO. A study in Nature Medicine comes to a similar conclusion even for the Chinese city of Wuhan (with initially higher values for Wuhan originally recorded because many people with only mild or no symptoms were overlooked).  

Research out of USC and Stanford have released similar prevalence findings—with coronavirus infections up to 80 times more common than initially expected.  Whether that is good news, bad news – or cause to be angry – depends somewhat on your perspectives on everything that’s happening.  

Regardless, it’s still the case that temporarily sacrificing physical proximity in order to protect those at higher risk is a worthy aim—and explains many of the precautions. At the same time, I’ve wondered whether it might be valuable to draw further attention to important interactions between coronavirus and health conditions, smoking, vaping, obesity, and certain kinds of medications—all of which could help us discuss  additional  measures to support these vulnerable populations.  However, I’ve been struck by how often articles warn against too much attention on individual-level variables (portraying doing so as “blaming” people for contracting the illness).    

Not considering the degree to which these patterns of health and lifestyle influence the results doesn’t seem either accurate or all that helpful, though. Nor does it invite the kind of public discussion which could further protect those most at risk for contracting the infection.   

3. If both immunocompromised and healthy humans might be strengthened by lifestyle adjustments, why have these not been emphasized more by public health officials?

Whatever has happened in the past, some believe this moment offers new opportunities to strengthen immunity for all of us.  Yet in all the news conference counsel given by medical officials, I’ve rarely heard reminders or encouragements towards any of the basic things we’ve known for years help boost immunity (as Drs. Angel Kirkland or Dr. Ben Satterfield from Mayo Clinic wrote early on in the pandemic in Public Square Magazine).  

Although some of these changes clearly take years, others do not.  For instance, research at the University of California, San Francisco found a “clear, linear relationship” between infection rates of the common cold and amount of sleep in the week prior. 

If even small adjustments could make a difference in boosting immunity, why not talk about them more? Aren’t these things that could boost our confidence—and prepare our bodies for whatever disease risk we face?

4. Should social distancing take all the credit for fewer deaths than anticipated?    

As the rates of death turn out to fall short of early expectations, the dominant conclusion we’re hearing has been—it worked!  All our sacrifices have helped flatten the curve.  

Can we talk about that?  Did social distancing work—or has something else happened? 

Clearly, the extreme measures we’ve taken to avoid human contact have played a role in mitigating the spread of infection—especially among those most vulnerable. Having said that, countries without lockdowns and contact bans, such as Japan, South Korea, and Sweden, have not experienced a more negative course of events than other countries. 

It also seems clear that the early statistical models from the Imperial College in London and the University of Washington were far off—independent of the social distancing issue (indeed, many of these models took into account social distancing).  Yet even when critiques were raised of the modeling assumptions, the models continued to be widely emphasized publicly, obviously as part of efforts to encourage compliance with public health measures.   

Sheer number of deaths coronavirus is responsible for have still remained surprisingly difficult to pin down – with competing speculations of an undercounting and an overcounting of coronavirus deaths.  

5. Was it fair to suggest those concerned with the economy were being uncompassionate and not caring about human lives?

At multiple points in the national conversation, different people have raised concerns about economic consequences—essentially calling for a more balanced risk assessment that takes health and economy both into account. Too often, unfortunately, as epitomized by Jennifer Rubin’s coverage at the Washington Post, these voices have been portrayed as if economic concerns as somehow not caring about human beings as much as economic prosperity.  

Really?  

Of course we’re all concerned with loss of life.  And of course, the coronavirus is not the only threat to life facing us. For example, for every one percent increase in unemployment, the suicide rate increases by 1%.  And as we all know, amidst the heightened stress of lock-down, domestic violence also appears to have tragically increased in recent weeks.

Rather than an independent issue, then, the economy is directly related to the physical and emotional well-being of the entire nation. And it’s been frightening for many of us to see those pointing this out called a “fool” and “obtuse” for raising the issue.   

6. Who is going to save us from thisnow and in the future?

These are important conversations to have—especially in anticipation of similar situations we may face in the future. At this point, of course, we are where we are.  

No doubt, some lives have been saved—even while others have been tragically lost. I join those praying as well for wage-earners all around the world—and the many dependent on their work to be able to eat, especially the children. What do we need to be able to rise out of this?  

The divergent answers are striking. As New York Times columnist Gail Collins put it

The obvious answer is government subsidies. Working people who’ve lost their jobs should be made whole—or at least close to it. And we should funnel a ton of money into charities that take care of folks who’d be left out. . . . There [also] needs to be a much larger structure in place for quality child care.

Few would deny the value of outside help. Indeed, believers the world over have been fasting for divine help to overcome this. But the God we pray to expects more of us than waiting for the next check (which won’t ever arrive for many of the most desperate people in the U.S.undocumented workersnor for millions of hungry in the world).

  The full truth is not so obvious and apparent as it seems on the surface—and only rarely do the loudest voices reliably serve it up.


Yes, let’s welcome whatever outside assistance comes our way gratefully. But if we are to not just survive this pandemic, but be prepared for whatever lies ahead, we cannot stop there.  

Not only are these kinds of difficulties expected to continue, but many anticipate these kinds of cycles to get worse come next winter. Furthermore, it’s likelyas many are pointing outthat most of us will be exposed to this virus in the future, despite whatever lockdowns we pursue. Against the backdrop of anticipated cyclic pandemics in our future, surely we need to do more than wait for new vaccines and treatments, although both may turn out to have real value.  We also need to act proactively in ways that boost our immunity and sustain our families. 

And while we may need to accept times of social distancing, let’s also think carefully about the value of selective distancingfocused on those most vulnerable, with the rest of us doing our best to respect those boundaries and not transmit infection.

Lastly, let’s not stop talking, trusting and showing patience together.  Especially during a time of national solidarity, I’ve discovered how unsettling raising any of these ideas can be for most peoplegoing over about as well as a lead balloon at my last “Zoom” gathering. 

But I get it.  Especially in times of great fear, we all appreciate a narrative that helps us make sense of what’s happening.  And these issues above raise significant questions about that cleaner, prevailing narrative. 

That’s uncomfortable.  Even so, let’s not stop thinking for ourselvesand keep asking what is true. As in other matters (religiously, sexually, culturally), the full truth is not so obvious and apparent as it seems on the surface—and only rarely do the loudest voices reliably serve it up.  Yet, I’m confident that if we come together with open hearts to hear out questions and concerns—we can, collectively, find more of the whole truth together. Above all, that depends on maintaining enough trust between us to still function as a community.

Any steps in the other directionshutting down sincere questions, condemning those who raise them, and insisting upon only one right way of approaching this all (even in a time of pandemic)will move us further away from what we need more than anything else:  the precious truth.  In the end, that is what I believe will help us best navigate this mess, and lead us to the health and happiness we all want to preserve.  

Credit to a Swiss research aggregator for many of the stats cited above

About the author

Jacob Z. Hess

Jacob Hess is a contributing editor at Deseret News and publishes longer-form pieces at PublishPeace.net. He co-authored "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You're Still Wrong" and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.” He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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