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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Pandemic 101

medical professional with outstretched hands holding a globe

medical professional with outstretched hands holding a globe

Margaret R. McLean

Margaret McLean is the associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

We are failing and failing badly. More than 1,000 of us are projected to die from COVID-19 every day for the next 30 days—our parents, our children, our friends, and those who we will now never meet. It is the equivalent of six fatal airplane crashes every day for a month.

In six months, the rampaging virus has infected more than 4.6 million of us and more than 150,000 have lost their lives. Particularly worrying is the increasing number of infections among people in their 20s and 30s, who unwittingly spread the virus to older persons and other vulnerable populations.

COVID-19 stalks communities of color, taking especially deadly aim at Black and Latinx communities—those who are essential workers in agriculture, meatpacking, health care, retail, and other critical areas.

With infections rising at a terrifying rate from coast to coast, it is past time for a total reset. Much like I counsel my struggling students at midterm, “Now is the time to get serious—let’s learn from what has not gone well and re-adjust while we still can.” No one wants to flunk Pandemic 101.

To help us, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) recently published a road map of nine commonsense actions we can take to bolster our response to COVID-19 ( As a big fan of the small step approach to seemingly insurmountable problems, I suggest that we focus immediately on the first three:

  1. Remedy critical supply and drug shortages including everything from swabs to reagents to Personal Protective Equipment for hospital workers, grocery clerks, building custodians—all those who are essential to our success.
  2. Increase availability and accessibility of testing so that anyone can be tested at any time anywhere. Use mobile testing vans to access rural areas and hotspots. Decrease testing turn-around time by greasing the supply chain and preventing shortages. Make tests free for everyone. We cannot send our children back to school safely nor open the economy reliably until the United States can run 2.3 million tests per day, double our current rate, and get results back in hours, not weeks.
  3. Establish national standards on face coverings. Although cloth masks primarily protect others from being sprayed with virus-laden droplets, they also protect the wearer by filtering out viral particles. Breathing in a large volume of the virus can cause serious disease or death. By blocking even some of the virus-carrying droplets, face coverings can reduce the risk of falling seriously ill from COVID-19. In one study, researchers predicted that having 80 percent of people wear masks would have a greater impact on reducing disease spread than a strict lockdown.

There are six additional steps recommended by the AAMC that the country can take now including establishing national criteria for local stay-at-home orders and K-12 school reopenings, expanding health insurance access, and resolving health care inequities. Also included are two longer-term actions—broadening health insurance and strengthening our public health infrastructure.

We need to take the first three steps now—prevent shortages, expand testing, and wear face coverings. The first two require Washington to act. Face coverings are literally on us. Wear them! And, stand six feet apart. The life you save may be your own or your loved one.

No one wants to flunk Pandemic 101. Let us listen to our better angels and quickly take these three necessary first steps to pass this course.

Aug 5, 2020

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