Playlist for the Apocalypse and Other Rays of Hope…

While washing my hands in an airport restroom, “Until the End of the World” by U2 (Achtung Baby, 1991, Island Records) was playing over the toilet speakers. As I watched several people incorrectly wash their hands during this current pandemic, the songs lyrics (which I have known by heart since 1991) rang through my brain and struck a new chord with me. There are plenty of doomsday songs that actually make us happy (Prince’s 1999, from 1999, 1982, Warner Bros.; R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” from Document, 1987, I.R.S. Records) despite the dark images in the lyrics. And then here are a whole host of doomsday songs that are dark and brooding (“Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash, “Waiting for the End of the World” by Elvis Costello, “It’s Not the End of the World but I Can See it from Here” by Lostprophets, and “Preaching the End of the World” by Chris Cornell, etc.). It turns out you can write a doomsday song after a breakup with your partner (“The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis) or in response to nuclear war fears (“Everyday is Like Sunday”by Morrissey).

What struck me in my new feeling of U2’s track was the dichotomy of viewpoint by the two principal voices in the song. The speaking voice is in it for the short game, in it for “me.” The listener in the song is in it for the long game, in it for “we.” Considering both the inspiration for the song personally for Bono as well as the historical character about which the song is based, this might be kind of obvious to most of us. However, in 2020, as we face what can only be described as a venomous divergence of voices, the lyrics force me to think about individuals’ motivations, agendas, messages, points of view, and goals when they speak, text, post, or otherwise communicate their opinions and that such opinions come in two flavors. There are those that are in this for themselves. There is no other valid observation than selfishness, conceit, arrogance, and disrespect for others. There are those that are in this for everyone. There is no other valid observation than collaboration, caring, selflessness, humility, and respect.

Considering that, regardless of your moral compass or who your parents were, most children are theoretically raised to be like the latter but the innate, instinctive traits of our evolution are really the former. Thus, as many great philosophers and thinkers have concluded, the intellectual evolution of the human mind and personality is such that seeing and caring for “the other”, even more than for ourselves, is a mark of high achievement while base, crude attacks on “the other” are marks of devolved, unintelligent individuals. Notice that there is no good and evil in this argument. There is only awareness of self and awareness of others and choosing one over the other. Naturally, the best life is to balance our care for ourselves and our care for others, which, some would argue, is one of the most valuable aspects of organized religion. As I am a non-religious person—despite the fact that the U2 track is one of my favorites—I strive to achieve that balance through a universal moral compass perspective which includes a great deal of importance on the safety, security, health, well-being, and happiness of others.

COVID-19 and its viral cause, SARS-CoV-2, have sent incredible ripples, waves, and tsunamis across every aspect of human life in the last 6 months. Pandemic preparedness and responsiveness is a “we” activity. China very much had a “we” approach to health (among many other sectors) which was evident by their incredible response to SARS originally in 2002. Some would argue that had SARS emerged in any other country, it would have gone pandemic at a much faster rate with horrible consequences; yet, emergence in China meant the virus was facing a huge pre-programmed response. But importantly in the 2002 outbreak, CDC officials from the US were relocated to China and work closely with the Chinese government to plan, implement, and execute daily changes to the management of the outbreak. Relationships being what they are, China did not interact as closely with the US for COVID-19 and, thus, the response was not as successful. In healthcare, as in many areas of human life, we are stronger together, and we will be more successful with transparency and communication than with secrecy and seclusion. The health of humanity should not be a geopolitical issue.

The diagnostic medical team (DMT), composed of pathologists and laboratory professionals, is the backbone of modern healthcare. However, these are also people who have underlying conditions, have elderly parents, have to ride the train to work, etc. Everyday, even when there isn’t a pandemic, members of the DMT place their own personal health and safety on the line to provide patients with rapid, accurate diagnoses and continuous care. Fortunately, laboratorians are well versed in protecting themselves within the laboratory from potential risks; however, in a pandemic situation, they must also protect themselves from external risks, else the laboratory staffing falls below the levels that insure high quality patient care is available.

COVID19 testing by RT-PCR of SARS-Cov-2, for example, is a high complexity laboratory test that is often performed by a select number of laboratorians and not by all laboratory staff. When we hear discussions of laboratory testing for COVID and money for such testing or availability of kits, it must also be noted that the laboratory is the only segment in the system who can take money and tests and turn it into data that saves lives—but only if they have sufficient people to make this happen. Healthcare facility leadership and national leadership must support those teams by providing all necessary resources to meet the needs of patients including the laboratory direct and indirect needs. Expanding the ability of personnel in the laboratory to meet this emergent need through cross-training and potential emergency staffing coverages is essential to successfully navigating this pandemic.

The DMT is always practicing the “we.” But now that the pandemic requires transparency and communication for success, the entire health system must amplify the practice of “we” and advocate with external leaders for every member of the healthcare team, but especially the laboratories. It is no time for “me” in this situation. Hand washing, social distancing, and self-quarantine may seem like things that protect “me” but it is clear that the goal is rooted in protecting “we.” Flattening the curve may prevent the healthcare systems from becoming overburden; however, laboratories are going to be massively overburdened regardless. Asymptomatic, symptomatic with other diseases, and true cases of COVID19 all have to be tested and there isn’t a precedent for the pace the disease is moving. Laboratories are coming online this week (March 16th) with testing that needed to be available in January. Laboratory staff must be enabled and mobilized to meet this current needs. We are all behind the curve on this one, but I have full confidence in our DMTs to get this done if they can be supported. There will be struggle but the tenacity and perseverance of our nation’s laboratory professionals and pathologists will see this through to its end. Because we, the DMT, don’t have a choice but to always consider the “we” in our daily practice, our patients WILL BE tested and diagnosed. We will beat this together and in being together, we will be stronger.

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-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.