A Call For HelpAugust 6, 2021
I was planning on writing about EdTech startups and Section4. However, I can’t focus on anything but my disappointment — disdain really — in the lack of leadership at a federal level (Biden) and the voluntary manslaughter at a state level (DeSantis).
Between 1964 and 1973, we ordered 2.2 million young men to travel to Southeast Asia, grab up a gun, venture into the jungle, and begin shooting. Those who questioned their country’s call to service faced imprisonment or fled to Canada (and faced imprisonment upon return).
Things have changed since Vietnam. Today, serving on the frontlines is not only statistically guaranteed to save lives, it’s also somewhat easier: You walk into your local CVS. And unlike staring down the barrel of an M14, it doesn’t kill you. But the U.S. call to service has changed a lot since then, too. We no longer demand you do what’s right for your country — instead, we cajole … beg, even.
Enough already. Federal law should require any citizen who wants to cash a government check, use public transport, or enter a place of business to show proof of vaccination. I published the following post when we’d lost 300,000 Americans. Nine months later, we have a vaccine … and 613,000 deaths. The world suffers from a dearth of vaccines. America suffers from dysfunction.
[The following was originally published on December 18, 2020.]
The 10th of May, 1940. The leaders of Britain and France watch an unfolding disaster in the east, as Hitler’s forces infect a host of weaker nations. Still, the Allies feel confident. They are wealthy, innovative … exceptional.
That morning, the Germans attack. They sweep through the Low Countries, bypassing France’s famed Maginot line, and plunge south into the Ardennes Forest. They rout the Allies in a lightning assault and drive the retreating army up the Somme Valley, toward the English Channel. Within two weeks, the French Army has fled to the west, the Germans own the skies, and 400,000 British Expeditionary Force troops are stranded on a sliver of the French coast at Dunkirk.
Pinned down and facing annihilation, the BEF commander sends a messenger to London. The junior officer pleads with the War Cabinet: “You must send pleasure steamers, coasters, fishing boats, lifeboats, yachts, motorboats, everything that can cross the Channel.”
A call goes out.
The response of the British people has become legend. Captains of every type of ship, from river barges to fishing trawlers, sailed into the teeth of German artillery and air power to rescue their countrymen. Over the next 10 days, the British mounted a chaotic, impossible rescue. They saved 340,000 soldiers, including every surviving soldier in Dunkirk. The Allies’ first battle with Germany was a colossal disaster for them: France fell in less than a month, and had the U.K. lost the men at Dunkirk, it likely would have sought a settlement. Instead, the sacrifice and selflessness of the British people changed the course of history.
Our Generation’s Call
January 2020. America, too, looked east with confidence. A virus had emerged in China and was invading weaker nations, but America was exceptional. We had the world’s finest health-care system and most brilliant scientists, and the Centers for Disease Control was the gold standard for public-health institutions.
Then the virus attacked. Like an invading army, it evaded nearly every defense erected to slow its relentless march. For almost a year now, we’ve been retreating. The enemy has exposed our institutions as weak and ineffective and preyed on a deadly comorbidity: the notion that individual liberty trumps collective sacrifice.
Covid-19 has driven us not to a beach, but into our own homes and, more dangerously, into separate spheres of differing truths. The daily death toll has crossed 3,000, hospitals are reaching capacity, and more than 1 million people contract the virus every week. By late January 2021, it will have killed more Americans than died fighting in World War II.
Covid is a web of death and disability sweeping across the country. Every day, it kills fathers and mothers, school teachers and accountants. Each newly infected person adds a fiber, making the web finer and deadlier.
What We Must Do
What we can do — what every one of us must do — is avoid becoming a fiber in that web. To date, we haven’t done a good job of this. Millions of us, from the president of the United States down, have refused to acknowledge the gravity of the threat and continue to cling to some perverted notion of “liberty.” And every day, we add 200,000 more fibers.
How many Americans will be snared? If the virus is left to run its course, it could infect over 200 million more people in the country before herd immunity suppresses the spread. If the mortality rate is 1%, that puts 2 million people on the beach, pinned down by the enemy, facing death.
But these people don’t have to die. There is a way out. We have vaccines: two in use, a third expected soon, and more on the way. However, vaccines don’t save lives — vaccinations do.
A call has gone out.
By now I’ve gotten used to reading polls saying that half of America has its head up its ass. What’s particularly distressing about the refusal to get the vaccine is that I don’t have to read polls to hear it. I hear it from friends, from business associates, from parents at my kids’ soccer league: “We’re going to wait, to ensure it’s safe.”
While it’s true that these vaccines have been developed in record time, they’re hardly untested. The Pfizer vaccine, the first to be approved by the FDA, was tested on 18,198 people; the Moderna vaccine was tested on 15,200 people. Around half of the recipients reported fatigue or chills, and 1 in 7 reported a 24-hour fever. No serious side effects were identified in any recipient, and people who felt ill nonetheless said they were glad to have gotten the shots. Vaccines are one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, and they are incredibly safe. Fun fact: You are far more likely to be killed by a dog than by a vaccine. Thanks to immunization, diseases like measles and smallpox, which once killed hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, are rare or unheard of today.
In hindsight, calling the effort to procure a vaccine “Operation Warp Speed” may not have been the best way to build confidence in the final product. But the swiftness with which the vaccines have been developed is less a reflection of haste than of commitment, resources, and new technology.
As of mid-December, scientists had published 74,000 papers related to a virus that nobody had heard of 12 months earlier. Nearly one-third of all scientific researchers around the world have dropped their prior projects to work on Covid-related matters. As Ed Yong recently described in the Atlantic, this pivot is far beyond any historical precedent and will have profound effects on the scientific community for years to come.
The speed of clinical trials can also be attributed to the virus’s very virulence, as it takes so little time for the control group to suffer a statistically significant number of infections. Johnson & Johnson recently cut the size of its Phase 3 trial because infection rates are so high in the U.S.
We moved fast because we had to, and because we could. These vaccines benefited enormously from advances in technology, data mining, and data modeling.
The technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which has been in development for decades, also enabled the shots to reach us quickly. Their novel deployment of messenger RNA should also quell a common concern about vaccines: that they inject a modified form of the virus itself into the recipient. Instead, mRNA vaccines provide the “instructions” our immune system needs to identify and defeat the pathogen. They do not alter the DNA in our cells. (If my scientific expertise is not reassuring on this point, vaccines based on traditional approaches are also in development.)
Still, though, I hear friends and colleagues say, “Even if the risk is tiny, why take it? I’m not at risk from Covid.” But the risk of suffering serious health effects from the disease, even for younger people in good health, is real. In July, the death rate among adults 25-44 was almost 50% higher than in July 2019 — that’s an additional 5,000 deaths attributed to Covid, among younger people, in just one month. Even among survivors, the virus has been shown to cause long-term neurological and cardiac harm in 10% of victims. Yes, the risk is small. But it’s far greater than the risk presented by the vaccine.
Whatever the risk to ourselves, however, we don’t take vaccines only to protect ourselves. We take them to protect everyone, to avoid becoming a fiber in the web.
In May of 1940, the British sailors and bargemen who set course for France did not know if U-boats, bombers, or bad weather awaited them. They didn’t need to know. They knew their countrymen were at risk, and that was enough.
Today, it feels as if we’ve lost sight of the connection between sacrifice on behalf of our country and the personal prosperity and liberties we are blessed with. But we’d do well to remember that they weren’t really blessed upon us — they were earned.
Our nation has been frayed, if not torn apart. A key component of our repair will be a renewed belief that there is a truth — one based not on ideology or opinion but on data and science.
This vaccine is our generation’s call. Let’s answer it. Let’s get 2 million fellow Americans off this beach.
Life is so rich,
P.S. Today I find myself reiterating the importance of positive action. That holds true for pursuing your education. In my Section4 Sprints, Business Strategy and Brand Strategy, business professionals gain the skills and frameworks they need to be more successful at work. Join me in leveling up.