The Relay Race Back to Normal

As we tackle one problem, the pandemic reveals ten more to handle. The baton has been moving from highly-skilled professionals to regular people alike.

Photo: Iván Ernesto Reyes

We all have seen the images of doctors and nurses fighting COVID-19 around the worldthey’re taking care of the ill in the frontlines, spending hours in overcrowded ICUs, doing their best to keep patients alive while preventing the spread of the disease. But they only were (and still are) the first link in a long chain of people needed to bring us back to normal. Whatever that might look like.

Because in order to face the disease, we’ll run a relay race. And the runners will be the people you least expect. 

As clinicians battled in hospitals, a wide range of professionals, from epidemiologists to software engineers, spent days trying to figure out the best way to minimize deaths and prevent health systems from collapsing. They concluded that locking down cities was the best strategy to slow down the spread of the disease. Then they had to make politicians see that the daunting economic collapse that the plan implied was still better than having hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Suddenly, the spotlight moved to delivery workers, bus drivers, Uber drivers, supermarket cashiers and thousands of other seemingly “low-skilled workers”. People who were thought to play a relatively dispensable role in our lives became the ultimate defenders of normality. They carry the huge weight of keeping society alive during these tough days.

But lockdowns simply buy us time. Without new treatment, we’ll never get over the disease. Therefore, scientists around the world have been producing a really massive amount of information: in the 110 days since this year started, 3,580 papers mentioning the word “coronavirus” have been published in PubMed (the most important repository of peer-reviewed papers in the world), versus 752 in 2019.

In order to face the disease, we’ll run a relay race. And the runners will be the people you least expect.

This represents almost 20% of all existing research regarding coronavirus, since they were first described in the 1960s. This means that every day that goes by, we’re closer to finding potentially game changing treatment. 

Sadly, it also means that some of the information coming up is plain malarkey. This brings us to the next group of unsung heroes: journalists not only need to effectively communicate very complex scientific terminology to people, they also have to differentiate useful and scientifically based data from senseless claims. And they have to do it fast, since the world is hungrier for information than ever before. This has proven to be a monumental task in the post-truth era, where propaganda and fake news are yet another weapon for governments and their detractors to use.

Economists, lawyers and policy makers will probably become the next key players, as lockdowns are relaxed and their fallout becomes even more of a pressing issue.

While this highlights the often underscored contribution that almost every worker does to society, it also represents a particularly complicated challenge for Venezuela, a place where high and low-skilled workers alike have fled economic collapse and political persecution. 

International aid will probably be required to mitigate the effects of the pandemic in Venezuela. It’s important that part of that aid is destined to essential workers still in the country, professionals or not, since their presence will play a key role in managing the aftermath of the disease. In this sense, although details to guarantee effective use of the resources are still to be disclosed, Juan Guaidó’s announcement of providing economic support to Venezuelan healthcare workers is one step in the right direction.