Our View: Society's response to virus will be studied for years




If it can be assumed that someday there will be a cure or an effective treatment for the COVID-19 virus, the discussion of the pandemic will fade from public discourse and be left largely to historians and scientists to analyze and assess.


The judgment of history awaits, as do the lessons. Both may prove invaluable in addressing future public health crises.


On Thursday, Davide Orsini, an assistant professor of history at Mississippi State currently quarantined in Germany, shared his thoughts on the present conditions and its effect not only on our bodies, but on our psyches as well. Even as we struggle to understand the pandemic, we are learning about ourselves. Orsini shared his thoughts during a live-streamed Facebook interview with Julia Osman, director of MSU's Institute for the Humanities.



What Orsini has observed -- even from a continent away -- is something all of us are able to confirm.


When the virus first began to appear in large numbers in the U.S. almost three months ago, residents responded collectively - willingly adhering to cautions from medical experts and mostly complying with little dissent to even the most restrictive orders by elected officials.


When faced with a threat that can't be seen, people tend to place great pressure on experts to find a solution and when that solution is slow to materialize, those experts are subject to criticism, then doubt.


For the most part, Orsini said, that hasn't happened with COVID-19. Confidence in our medical experts remains high. Although our collective resolve may be fraying around the edges - there's a palpable sense that "we should get back to our normal lives" -- most Americans still understand that the level of personal risk is intrinsically linked to those with whom we come in contact.


Every day, we make risk assessments where the virus is concerned. That assessment governs our actions and will play an even larger role as the economy begins to resume activity. Restaurant dining rooms, hair salons, gyms and -- as of May 21 -- even casinos are opening their doors.


Ultimately, however, it will be individuals who determine to what extent our economy "opens." Restaurants may open their doors, but customers will cross those thresholds only when they've done their own calculations of the risk involved.


As Orsini noted, every public health crisis adds to the scientific and medical knowledge useful in fighting future threats. In this case, how we have responded -- what appeals did and did not work, how we responded to warnings, how long we maintained our collective resolve and how that resolve was undermined or reinforced -- will be a subject social scientists will study for years to come.




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