Back before the pandemic, I was a fairly frequent airline passenger. Before a flight took off, I and the other passengers would be exposed to safety announcements by staff (or, more recently, on video). Toward the end of their presentation, they’d give an explanation of what to do if our cabin became depressurized during high-altitude flight:
“In the event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically drop from a compartment above your seat. Place your mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally, securing the strap behind your head. (A flight attendant would demonstrate.) If you are traveling with small children or with others needing assistance, please secure your own mask first, then help those around you.”
The pandemic nixed my airline travel for a while, but got me wondering. Were there analogies, albeit imperfect, to the current situation of global health? Of course, any pandemic is much more complex than an airline flight. Few, if any of us, have an adequate picture of its scope or trajectory. Even the best informed get fragmented and incomplete data, filtered through a particular set of biases and assumptions. Still, most public health sources are persuaded that none of us will be safe from the SARS-CoV-2 virus until infection rates are reduced to manageable levels everywhere.
Questions about the pandemic are seemingly never-ending. Can non-pharmaceutical public health measures help tame the pandemic? For example, how effective are travel restrictions, mask use, social distancing? How accurate are reports of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths? How reliable are vaccine clinical trial results? How frequent and how serious are side effects from vaccines? Who gets to decide how to allocate available vaccine doses? What gaps in public health infrastructure are most crucial to the pandemic’s spread? How long-lasting is vaccine-induced immunity? What about virus variants?
Once the pandemic reached the area where I lived, I was at intermediate risk due to my age, over 70. As a retiree who rarely worked outside the home, I was able to reduce my potential exposure to the virus, unlike my health care worker son and daughter-in-law or my warehouse worker nephew. As a further tool to reduce my exposure, I had access to an N-95 mask purchased pre-pandemic for some home improvement projects. By late winter 2021, I had access to a vaccination. After seeing the minimal vaccine side effects for our son and daughter-in-law and noting the increasing case rates near me, I decided to get vaccinated. Two successive doses of a two-dose vaccine did not eliminate my exposure or disease risk, but in my view reduced it substantially. Though I’m not yet ready for extended airline flights, I feel comfortable traveling again, taking suitable precautions as I go. Finally, I can breathe nearly normally!
Now that I’m better protected against the virus, is there anything I can do to assist those around me? Without hard-core proselytizing, I can encourage friends and family to get vaccinated. I can donate time and/or money to efforts to increase vaccination rates globally. I can describe my experiences and my observations of those around me as I’ve traveled by car cross-country. I can listen respectfully to those whose views may be based on different subsets of pandemic information (and/or misinformation), on different life experiences, on different biases.
Historically, past pandemics have eventually played themselves out. Humanity is still learning how to mitigate the impacts of the pathogens among us. May we get this SARS-CoV-2 “flight” to a less damaging conclusion than prior scourges. May we use what we’ve learned to help make future generations safer.