This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
I started writing this letter when you dubbed yourself a “wartime president,” to cope with my fear of the rising pandemic and frustration with your inept, bull-headed handling of it. I dreamed that I had finished the letter and mailed it to you, and that you actually read it and, in response, sent an army platoon to my home. It came to reconnoiter in the “battle” against COVID-19. The soldiers and my neighbors began sickening and dying, and it fell to me as a healthcare worker to dispose of the bodies. I woke up with the residual image of a large dolly cart I’d stacked with corpses and rolled into a freight elevator, going down.
The dream is nonsense, of course, but two elements of it stand out in connection to reality. Sickness and death are on the rise, and I do work in healthcare, as a medical provider in a community health center. Using rationed personal protective equipment, we are handling COVID-19 with limited access to testing, which has gradually improved thanks to the dogged advocacy of our local leaders. We are hailed as “frontline” workers. Frankly, I resent these rallying cheers because war metaphors are dangerously false in this context. They too easily serve political agendas and do not help our patients. Granted, civilian healthcare workforces and military medical units require overlapping skill sets. National Guard personnel are running a local community testing site that serves first responders. We are obviously on the same side, answering our respective calls to service. But in truth, there is no frontline in a pandemic, because the risk is ubiquitous. The “line” intersects the moveable boundaries of jobs deemed essential, beyond checkout queues and conveyor belts to sidewalks and property limits, confounding the very concepts of front and back.
War, a human invention, is armed conflict between groups of people. Viruses have flourished for billions of years, owing nothing to the diabolical ingenuity that drives war. This pandemic did not strike; it spread, faster than you were willing to imagine and with greater momentum than your shortsighted designs. In 2005, a few years into the wake of the SARS pandemic, George W. Bush more aptly described a pandemic as “like a forest fire,” in that such widespread natural disasters are more easily prevented than contained. He was not best known for his eloquence, nor for his embrace of a scientific worldview, but he spoke thoughtfully then and furthered our county’s pandemic preparedness with a decisiveness matched only by your administration’s subsequent move to undercut the biodefense team, rolling it up even more tightly into a preexisting military-industrial concern. If this pandemic is more like a fire than a war, your actions as chief have been to ignore it until the flames were licking at the walls of your own home.
Despite the age-old societal divisions you’ve sharpened and the new ones you’ve sown, we are working together with unprecedented camaraderie. With all due respect for those who take succor or solace in phrases like “on the ground” and “in the trenches,” or words like “hero” and “sacrifice,” I cannot forgive you for how you’ve wedged yourself into this narrative. If this pandemic is like a war, you are like a rearguard who has turned around, started marching backward, and proclaimed yourself the one-man front. Many of those behind and alongside you — excepting the most far gone wheedlers, weenies, and goons preening among them — are visibly wincing in pain, embarrassment, or despair.
Calling the virus our “invisible enemy” undermines efforts to anticipate and manipulate its behavior. It does not pause to taunt or gloat over its victims. It does not bristle or blush at your declarations of “total war.” To conflate combat and medical crisis risks trivializing or glamorizing one or the other or both. You dishonor your own military by playing commander-in-chief against this backdrop. Coming from a family of creative types for whom war machines have no real use, I cannot speak for the military. I do know, though, that I would heed a just call to arms.
My grandfathers exemplified courage and patriotism. Both served in World War II, one in the Air Force, the other in the Army. The latter, an infantry soldier, survived as a witness to the annihilation of a non-military target in Germany by Allied firebombs. “Monumental funeral pyres,” as he described the mass graves of incinerated flesh — for me, only the short-lived stuff of nightmares — were for him a real and inescapable phantasmagoria. I wonder how many active and veteran military service members appreciate your posturing as a pandemic warlord. To me, it looks like you’re abusing the very freedoms they have sworn to protect. I wonder how many of them would agree that IV lines and intubations are akin to live rounds and heavy ballistics.
Maxwell S Prior, PA-C
Maxwell Prior is a physician assistant (PA-C) practicing primary care in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is intermittently bitten by writer’s bug, which is like a well-intentioned fire ant.