The fight against the C-19 pandemic is a war, a war of global proportions. It is World War III, although it does not follow our stereotypes of combat in wartime; think World War II, or even, the many regional conflicts since.
World War III does not follow our familiar paradigms about war. We do not need/use firearms, high caliber weapons, or technologically advanced armaments, like smart bombs, missiles, etc. The enemy is not another human being. The enemy, a pathogen, is invisible, insidious, and deadly.
It is among us now, among families and communities worldwide. There are no geographic frontlines. Its spread has been facilitated by globalization, catching governments unprepared.
C-19 has underscored our nature as one species. It is indifferent to the social constructions and divisions that we have devised to characterize, separate and divide people. Race, ethnicity, communities, and countries. North/South, East/West, developed/developing, geographic borders, etc., are meaningless to C-19. It will cross these social-economic and geographic boundaries because our communities have become globalized. Our civilization is now one planet, and as quantum physicists like to say, we are all entangled.
Military generals like to speak of a front line, the second line of defense, etc. And then there is the civilian population. Where is the frontline in this war? The frontline is us, civilians. C-19 attacks us, individually, and then uses us to attack other individuals in our families and communities. In this war, first responders, in our health care system are often depicted as our frontline troops. This is somewhat misleading. Our hospitals, our medical professionals, the doctors and nurses and the various specialists, are really like field hospitals in a battle. They take care of the wounded (infected) and do what they can to save lives. Yes, they are heroic, and even at higher risk than us front line troops—another paradigm turned on its head. But it is what we do as individuals, as the frontline troops, that determines whether our families and communities, and ultimately, our health care system and its personnel will not be overrun.
As in war, knowledge about the enemy is important for it determines what frontline troops are instructed to do. What we know is that we do not yet have a vaccine against C-19. This would be our super-weapon if we had one, but that is several months away. We also know, that the pathogen manifests itself as a respiratory disease, like a cold, flu, or pneumonia, spreads primarily through human to human contact, via the fine droplets that we exude when we cough, sneeze, or speak. The virus can survive, for varying amounts of time on surfaces. And infection can spread by other humans touching those surfaces, and subsequently touching themselves, especially their faces: nose, mouth, eyes, where the virus can them make a short jump into our respiratory organs.
As frontline troops, our task is fairly straightforward. We have to break this transmission cycle, by practicing physical social distancing, avoid directly touching high touch surfaces like doorknobs, railings, etc., washing our hands often, and avoid touching our faces with our bare hands, until we have washed them thoroughly. These are the basic safety practices that we as frontline troops need to do. We enhance our safety by PPEs, personal protective equipment like face masks and gloves, and the like. But we have to understand that PPEs are not fail-safe, just as body armor for combat troops only affords a measure of protection from bullets and explosive devices. Breaking the transmission cycle through basic safety practices is still fundamental. This is simple enough for almost all of us. This is what we have to execute as frontline troops.
The second line of defense is our healthcare professionals who take care of the infected. Ironically, unlike field hospital personnel in war, these professionals have a dual role. They are also frontline troops; as individuals, they are targets of the pathogen and must act to break the cycle of transmission through basic safety practices. This complicates their tasks: think of trying to perform surgery while under fire. PPEs are thus even more vital for health care professionals since they are tasked with saving lives while remaining under fire.
Finally, we have also troops in what might be considered a third line of defense. These are the individuals who are tasked with maintaining our infrastructure that keeps our supply chain of essential products, foods and services going. Grocery stores, pharmacies, farms, the electrical and energy grid, manufacturing, farm and production workers who keep our communities supplied with basics. Like second line workers, they too have dual roles: as individuals, they are front line troops who are tasked with keeping our vital infrastructures open. As frontline troops, they need to practice basic safety measures; and as infrastructure personnel, they may require specialized PPE’s to carry out their vital tasks.
I will not go into much detail about the role of government and political leadership here. Suffice it to say that their jobs are akin to the military generals in time of war.
World War III is turning many of our concepts and stereotypes about war on its head. The civilian population is our frontline troops. Their key role is to break the cycle of transmission by taking basic safety measures. The second line, and third-line troops, are also frontline troops, but with second and third line tasks; more than just frontline troops, their needs for specialized equipment, etc., require special attention. If their positions get overrun, the front-line will inevitably collapse.
As in war, certain truths still hold. There will be deaths, mostly unnecessary and meaningless. There will be chaos and suffering; there will be some who will profiteer, and some who will deliberately seek to inflict harm on others, like terrorists. But there will be, as in every war-torn community, many more who will perform acts of kindness and caring. Many will volunteer to perform a “dual role” where they see a need. These volunteers might cook for others, sew face masks, even help at hospitals. Or just do things to ensure that the most vulnerable are not left alone. They are our community’s angels and heroes.
But, the bottom line is that front-liners, that is us: you, me, and everyone on frontline duty, needs to deliver on our appointed task: break C-19’s transmission cycle through the practice of basic safety behavior that we have been asked to perform.
• • •
Enrique de la Cruz is a professor emeritus of Asian American Studies.