December 11, 2023


Science It Works

Lee Cataluna: 10 Lessons We Should Have Learned From The Pandemic

When the pandemic is over (because at some point, one way or another, it will be over, even though it may not feel that way, reeling as we are from the false ending we experienced this summer) we will have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight with which to analyze each decision and action taken during this terrible time.

However, we’ve been in this so long already, the equivalent of two-thirds of a three-act movie, and are at a point where there are lessons to glean from what we’ve been through, and mostly, from what didn’t work or didn’t matter. For example:

1. Washing your hands and singing Happy Birthday was pathetic. Remember when it seemed like hand sanitizer and vigorous hand scrubbing was going to save us? We were so naïve then. We had no inkling that the airborne virus didn’t rely on dirty hands. Hand washing without masks, social distancing and the vaccine was like bringing a knife to a gunfight. (Still wash your hands, though.)

2. Politicians gravitate toward self-serving decisions, even in the most dire circumstances. Every decision, from whether to wear a mask in public to what design should be printed on a mask worn in public, is calculated in terms of public image, fundraising impact and appeal to voters, which has made all of Covid-19 public information from politicians so fraught.

3. Science is not fixed. It evolves. Despite your high school science teacher who taught like everything on the test is set in stone, actual scientists strive to learn new things. Sometimes, the new information leads to new guidance that is different from previous information. This is a good, smart thing.

4. We expect government officials to tell us what we want to hear, and when they instead tell us the truth, the rumbling starts for them to be replaced. This is another reason truth can be so elusive. It is sometimes unwanted or not tolerated.

5. The tourism industry is the most powerful force in Hawaii. There is nothing that can stop it. Not educational campaigns, not bad publicity, not irate local residents, not even exorbitant prices, complicated travel rules or the threat of a deadly virus. The tourism industry is more than the hotel developers and international corporate owners, more than the untold number of illegal vacation rental owners, more than the airlines or the rental cars or the thousands of businesses that make their money on people who don’t live here. It is an entity unto itself, a great viral push to seize paradise and to wring every bit of fun out of every corner of the state.

6. There is no cure for stupid. People who cling to bad information, nonsensical explanations, conspiracy theories and a gleeful disdain for science cannot be taught, convinced, cajoled or enlightened. Step aside and keep moving forward. They’re on their own.

Tent located outside the Straub Medical Center during surge in Covid-19 patients.
The pandemic has held many lessons for Hawaii including that people are going to do what they want, even if it means the virus surges and hospitals overflow, as Straub Hospital is preparing for with this tent. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

7. A plate lunch is not a negotiating tool. Neither is a free trip to Las Vegas nor any of the other gimmicks meant to entice the vaccine-hesitant to get with the program. Incentives were worth a try, but seemed to treat a serious situation like a car dealership’s lucky drawing.

8. The divide between public and private schools is shameful, especially with David Ige in the governor’s office and his DOE veteran wife Dawn Ige telling him what to do. While private schools were busy making and donating face shields to medical workers, public schools were still farting around with a specious online learning program (Acellus) that featured odd teachers and racist content. That was two school years ago. Since then, the contrast has become even more glaring.

9. Homeless people are surprisingly resilient. Despite the uncertainty of life on the streets or in the bushes, despite lack of access to hygiene or a supply of healthy food or easily accessible medical attention, the homeless population seems almost unchanged by the huge changes that have swept across the islands. Homeless people have been less vulnerable to Covid than, say, the veterans in Hilo who lived and died in the Yukio Okutsu nursing home last fall.

10. The introverts will inherit the earth. The virus that has killed 626,000 people in the U.S. and 563 people in Hawaii (as of Saturday) relies on person-to-person transmission. Some people simply cannot stand to be alone. They must venture out to gatherings no matter the cost. They are drawn to coughing, Covid-covered crowds like a moth to the flame, can’t be trusted to work from home, must be part of a herd to feel safe. Those who are happy with solitude greatly reduce their potential for exposure.

Ultimately, the lessons learned will be innumerable. The thing is, though, even the biggest lessons learned the hardest ways don’t always stick.

People swore up and down after Hurricane Iniki that they would never be so vulnerable again, yet how many houses have come up on ridge lines and shorelines?

There will be more plate lunch incentives applied to serious topics. Tourism will shape Hawaii into the foreseeable future. Some people will reject truth, science, logic and lifesaving medicine and will die happy knowing they weren’t “fooled.”