The Perfect Enemy | How Davos does COVID: UV lights, ventilation, and PCR tests - Slate
January 29, 2023
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This piece originally appeared on the Gauntlet, a newsletter about COVID. 

In photos of 2023’s World Economic Forum—or Davos as it is commonly called, after the Swiss resort town where it annually occurs—you might not notice the HEPA filters. They’re in the background, unobtrusive and unremarked upon, quietly cleansing the air of viruses and bacteria. You wouldn’t know—not unless you asked—that every attendee was PCR tested before entering the forum, or that in the case of a positive test, access was automatically, electronically, revoked. The folks on stage aren’t sporting masks (mostly), so unless you looked at the official Davos Health & Safety protocol, you wouldn’t be aware that their on-site drivers are required to wear them. You also might be surprised to learn that if, at any point, you start to feel ill at Davos, you can go collect a free rapid test, or even call their dedicated COVID hotline.

It’s hard to square this information with the public narrative about COVID, isn’t it? President Joe Biden has called the pandemic “over.” The New York Times recently claimed that “the risk of Covid is similar to that of the flu” in an article about “hold outs” that are annoyingly refusing to accept continual reinfection as their “new normal.” Yet, this week the richest people in the world are taking common sense, easy—but strict—precautions to ensure they don’t catch COVID-19 at Davos.

In addition to high-quality ventilation, masks, hotlines and PCR testing, some have noted the signature blue glow of Far-UVC lighting, demonstrated to kill pathogens in the air, although this is unconfirmed. We can be certain, however, that the testing, high-quality ventilation, and filtration protocol is effective at preventing the kind of super-spreader events most of us are now accustomed to attending.

It seems unlikely to me that a New York Times reporter will follow the super-rich around like David Attenborough on safari, the way one of their employees did when they profiled middle-class maskers last month. I doubt they will write “family members and friends can get a little exasperated by the hyper-concern” about the assembled prime ministers, presidents, and CEOs in Switzerland. After all, these are important people. The kind of people who merit high-quality ventilation. The kind of people who deserve accurate tests.

Why is the media so hellbent on portraying simple, scientifically proven measures like masking—in environments absent of high-quality ventilation, full of people who do not have easy and consistent access to tests—as ridiculous and unnecessary as hundreds of people continue to die daily here in the U.S.?

Why is the public accepting a “new normal” where we are expected to get infected over and over and over again, at work events with zero precautions, on airplanes with no masks, and at social dinners trying to approximate our 2019 normal?

We deserve better. We deserve to be #DavosSafe, as the hashtag going around on twitter puts it. Your children deserve to be treated with the care that world leaders are treating each other. Your family deserves to be protected from the disease which is still—unlike the flu—the third leading cause of death in the U.S. We don’t deserve to be shoved back into poorly ventilated workplaces while our politicians and press assure us that only crazy people would demand to breathe clean air.

Clean water and clean food are rights we fought for; we have regulatory bodies that ensure we aren’t exposed to pathogens via our water supply nor our food. In 1854, John Snow famously conducted his Broad Street Pump study in London and demonstrated that cholera was water-bourne; however, it took decades for our public policy to catch up with our scientific knowledge.

A public health case study published by the NBCI describes the years that followed:

The first use of chlorine as a disinfectant for water facilities was in 1897 in England. The first use of this method for municipal water facilities in the United States was in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois, in 1915. Other cities followed and the use of chlorination as standard treatment for water disinfection rapidly grew. During the 20th century, death rates from waterborne diseases decreased significantly, and although other additional factors contributed to the general improvements in health (such as sanitation, improved quality of life, and nutrition), the improvement of water quality was, without doubt, a major reason.

Forty-three years passed from the initial demonstration that pathogens were being spread via water, and public action and regulation to halt disease.

Can you imagine, in the 1890s, being somebody who argued against cleaning the water?
Can you imagine, in those years of plentiful cholera, calling the people who demanded shit-free water—and took personal measures until that happened—“hold outs”?

One thing COVID realists are accused of is being “doomsayers” and “fearmongers,” so let me share a dose of optimism about the future with you. When we choose—whenever we choose—to get COVID under control, there’s an exciting new world awaiting us. One, not only without constant COVID reinfection, but where our kids can grow up free of colds, flus, RSV, and many other common bugs. And no, contrary to what you may have heard, staying healthy (shockingly enough) is not bad for children!

Once we choose to institute ventilation standards and introduce new technologies like Far UVC lighting—and embrace masking as an easy, kind, and useful tool to control outbreaks—we can bring every nasty airborne pathogen under control the way we did cholera. We didn’t have the science before; now we do. (I mean that quite literally; I can’t recommend enough the linked Wired article cataloging the long journey to establishing that COVID is, indeed, airborne).

We face a stark choice; down one road, the one with zero infrastructure upgrades, no air quality regulations, and COVID safety only for those who can afford it, you and your family will get COVID this year. You will get COVID next year. You will continue to get COVID over and over and over again, as the health problems—like cardiac damage, viral persistence, and immune system dysfunction—continue to build up. (The billionaires, of course, will not).

Down the other road, we quite simply treat ourselves the way Davos would. We engage with what the science is telling us and we build a safer, better world for our kids. We embrace the lessons this pandemic is teaching us, and let go of things we now know are harming people. We stop clinging desperately to the idea that 2019 will come back if we just get the virus one more time, and we come together to achieve what we’ve been told is impossible: elimination. The economic elite thrive on our divisiveness and blame casting. They don’t mind that we’re calling each other names, engaging in racial stereotyping, or leaving disabled people to die, so long as we keep their machine running. But we can choose to stop throwing blame at each other, and direct it where it belongs: at the powerful people who’ve left us to suffer, at the politicians who are whipping people into a frenzy over masks instead of over our millions of dead, at the talking heads on TV that work so hard to convince us: you want to get sick. It’s better than being a ”weirdo” or a ”hold out.”

We needn’t wait 43 years to redirect our energies. France and Belgium have already introduced new air quality standards, and DIY projects to build Corsi-Rosenthal boxes for schools and healthcare settings have popped up around the country. We have the science, we have the technology. All we need now is the political will and the solidarity to truly end the pandemic—the kind of solidarity the super rich always show with one another.

The billionaires at Davos don’t accept continual COVID reinfection. They demand better. It’s time we demand better too.