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From Hubris To Humility, How To Avoid Future Covid-19 Mistakes And Get To The “Next Normal”

Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH

Sophocles and his Greek tragedian brethren knew how to exploit the most compelling of human behaviors to tell a story. The sin of hubris, excessive pride, or self-confidence as demonstrated by their royal or god-like protagonists–often expressed in defiance of the gods–inevitably led to their downfall.

With the U.S. death count from Covid-19 on a path reach 1 million by the end of April, 2022, this pandemic could surely be viewed as a modern Greek tragedy. Our deeply flawed approach to health care is largely responsible for this outcome. However, even as the Greek gods occasionally provided guidance to their impolitic subjects, last Monday, a celebrated group of policy, public health, and science experts provided us with a clear and achievable roadmap leading us to, what they christened, our Next Normal. Getting to and Sustaining the Next Normal: A Roadmap for Living with COVID is the result of this all too rare type of collaboration. The work presents a consensus of thought, not a fiat or mandate. Hubris takes a back seat.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an author of the report and a thought leader in the field of epidemiology and infectious diseases based at the University of Minnesota, told me today: “I don’t know what is ahead, but the Covid-19 variants are not done with us. We need to be honest as to what our real surge capacity is today, and what level of staffing and supplies we might need in a possible next round.”

Osterholm’s common sense epidemiological world view, that is, that simple solutions and planning can yield large benefits, is clear in the report. Much as clean water supplies solve cholera outbreaks, Osterholm’s advocacy of approaches like better air ventilation in schools, childcare facilities and public buildings carry fundamental benefits for all society in any setting.

Osterholm emphasizes the importance of humility in anticipating likely disease scenarios and finding the sweet spot between pessimism that can paralyze and optimism that can leave society wholly unprepared. The report lays out possible scenarios for rates of infection and severity of disease as a way of positively and rapidly moving to the Next Normal. But, as Osterholm notes, the necessary quotient for successfully battling Covid-19 has more to do with national will than insights gleaned from research. “The roadblock to tomorrow is not the science, it’s our unwillingness to support the research and advancement of the science,” he said.

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