COVID-19: Life in a Parallel Universe

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Original story posted on: May 29, 2020

Sixty years ago, when I was 12, I read War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells’ fictitious tale about a calamitous extraterrestrial attack on our earth. Now, six decades later, I am witnessing the actual cataclysmic onslaught of one earthly quasi-organism on another.

It was 1898 when Wells’ classic science fiction work was first published. The novel unravels a catastrophic tale of an interplanetary invasion of earth that wreaks havoc on mankind and its cities, until it is defeated by the tiniest of earth’s allies: microorganisms.  Forty years after the publication in print, the nation was terrified by a radio broadcast reflecting a realistic adaption of the war.

And now, 122 years after the novel was  first read and 82 years after it was first heard, a new devastating assault on mankind has occurred. Its full horror has been on display by the total panoply of 21st-century communications – print, radio, television, video, and social media, all as infectious and inescapable as this viral invader.

This new offensive against our world didn’t come as Wells’ attacker came, from outer space. This new onslaught is home-grown, right here on mother earth. And this time, the virus is not the savior; it is not the ally of the human race, but its enemy. This new enemy doesn’t topple buildings, as Wells’ nemesis did; it topples people, and has toppled many, many of us. We faced this enemy with no sure cure, but with many euphemisms to mask our helplessness – hiding at home became “self-quarantine.”

We fought back with masks, visors, steroids, and ventilators. We used medications that are, in hindsight, more medical superstition than science. When we realized we could only manage but not cure this invader, we did the only thing we could do – we disrespected it, trivialized it, by making it an acronym. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 became SARS-CoV-2, then COVID-19, and then just COVID. We tried to take away its power by taking away its name. Whatever we called it, it still killed us, maimed us, sickened us, and even those not infected were weakened. Our confidence in our ability to control our destiny appeared to be weakened, our ability to comfort our loved ones in hospitals was taken away, and all forms of social graces appeared to be degraded. Only the lust of some for toilet paper grew stronger.

But these are just appearances, and like the appearance of COVID, one day it will ultimately disappear. What will not go away with the evaporation of COVID is the commitment of healthcare workers to care for their patients, the dedication of families to care for each other, the compassion of those who fed those with no food, the empathy of those who prayed with all their might, the devotion of those researching a cure, and the bravery of those who went into homes to bring out the sick. These were not just appearances, but the ineradicable virtues of the better angels of our nature. The virus hurt our bodies, but not our ideals of kindness, courage, and charity. COVID has wounded us badly, but out of this wound rallied our better angels. 

Songs have played a big role in the COVID conflict. We played them when we discharged COVID patients, and our PA systems blared them when we extubated COVID patients, and, of course, we argued about what songs we should sing in our small triumphs. In one recent ICU conversation, someone spoke in mask-muffled tones that we should play Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon.” When asked why, the masked mouth muffled because “we all go down together,” to which another masked mouth muffled “no, we are going up together.”

At the end of War of the Worlds, the alien marauders who terrorized the earth were defeated by invisible organisms. At the end of this current war, this alien virus that has so terrorized us will be defeated by something invisible, but not intangible – the better angels of our natures. We lost a lot in this pandemic, but we didn’t lose them, and they will lead us up together.

Michael A. Salvatore, MD, FACP

Dr. Michael Salvatore was a pulmonary medicine/critical care physician for 35 years. Since 2012 he has been the physician advisor and medical director of the palliative care team at Beebe Healthcare in Delaware. After earning his MD at the University of Arizona, he trained in internal medicine and PULM/CCM at Duke University. Dr. Salvatore is a member of the RACmonitor editorial board.

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