As a trained epidemiologist with postgraduate qualifications in anthropology, I never thought I’d be a “participant observer” of a pandemic on two continents. But there I was, boomeranging in just five weeks from Australia to New York and back again. From a commitment to science, communitas and mateship here, to defiant disregard for public health, contempt for science, and mystical faith in a super spreader leader in the USA.
I was travelling to visit my mother. She has lived in New York all her life and had been locked down for nearly eight months. Nothing very unusual there. But my mother is 106 ½ years old. She lived through the Great Influenza of 1918 that took the life of her baby sister. She was married and widowed three times. As she often says, “I’m a survivor.” But for how long?
My age put me at higher risk if I contracted the virus, and no travel insurance would cover my astronomical medical expenses if I were infected in the US. Nevertheless, I made plans to travel and self-quarantine for two weeks in New York before seeing my mother, and received a negative Covid-19 test just to be sure.
The Australian government issued my travel exemption in record time and I managed to score a return ticket, paying only double the usual economy fare. If there was an upside, it is probably the only time in my life that economy class passengers each had a row to themselves – and on my return flight 10 or 12 rows.
I should have realised when I transferred to a domestic flight in Los Angeles that I had just walked through the looking glass. Congestion at security screening explained the Covid clusters among airport security staff. On arrival in New York no one stopped me to take my temperature, or to register me, and there was no information about coronavirus exposure, let alone quarantine. The usual madness at ground transport prevailed as passengers arriving from all across the globe hailed taxis or Ubers, or shouted to waiting family – perfect conditions for spreading coronavirus.
Meanwhile, in Melbourne, millions of people were struggling under 11 weeks of lockdown, the price that society as a whole paid to suppress the virus, and suppress it they did: as I write no new locally transmitted cases in more than a month. But over in America, it seemed to be a riff on “Live Free or Die”, the actual state motto of New Hampshire. To me it looked more like Live Free And Die. Continue congregating secretly or publicly in groups exceeding 10,000 for prayer, weddings and other celebrations? Check. Cover only your mouth, free your nose? Check. Social distancing? You gotta be kidding.
Once my week of hanging out with my mom was over, I prepared to leave the US just as the rate of positive coronavirus tests was skyrocketing there.
As I write the hospital systems of dozens of US states are staggering under the surge of new patients. Deaths have surpassed the numbers seen at the peak earlier this year, with worse to come after Thanksgiving family get-togethers. One pathetic legacy of President Donald Trump’s dismantling of the public health reporting system is that the best publicly available, accurate and current coronavirus tracking system in the US can be found by anyone for free in The New York Times. I feel immensely sad that it’s been left to the Fourth Estate to do this job. Without it Americans might not have known how rapidly this crisis is intensifying.
Flying back to Sydney on US election day was momentous. It also felt like whiplash. The Australian governments swung into action even before we stepped off the plane in Sydney. Once in the terminal it was full on with precise coordination across jurisdictions and levels of government – immigration, biosecurity, state health authorities, police, army, air force. It embarrassed me that an air force officer was pushing my baggage trolley as he escorted me to my room. Of course this wasn’t a courtesy: he was there to make sure that I was securely locked in my room without a key, opening window or balcony for escape.
Both the US and Australia are responding to the same pandemic but you would hardly know it. In the US magical thinking and the elevation of individual freedom above the public good has squandered precious time. The number of deaths each day in the US quadrupled in just the four weeks after I landed in New York. Today it is up 30% in the past 14 days. Hospitals are reaching capacity and beyond. In a little more than 2 months my mother will have completed an entire year in self-quarantine, isolated from loved ones except for outdoor visits while the weather permitted. She’ll probably turn 107 before both of us are vaccinated and can once again embrace. She has never met her first and only great-grandchild, born during the pandemic, and probably never will.
I studied with scholars and scientists of Lassa fever and other deadly diseases, I taught Yale’s first course on global health, and I have worked on malaria policy myself. I have never doubted the justification for strict public health measures. But in my calls with my US friends and family they are still incredulous needless death and impoverishment could have been controlled with a strict and coordinated campaign of evidence-based public health measures, including quarantine. Australia has shown that the response to a pandemic needs to be strict. Lives and a nation’s economy hang in the balance. The response needs to be evidence-based. Precise. Coordinated. Thorough. Caring. Impartial. Transparent. Legally enacted and enforced. Strongly led and clearly communicated. Tough. Really tough. Because that’s what it takes to control a pandemic.