Most Americans fall into one of three groups when it comes to the surreal coronavirus event we are experiencing.
The first group believes we need to lock nearly everything down except essentials and wait it out until we’ve “bent the curve.”
The second group believes the virus is not the threat public officials have made it out to be, and that we should more or less go about our normal lives as we do during every flu season.
The third group, myself included, believes that the virus poses a serious threat: to at-risk Americans and possibly to the capacity of our intensive care system. But I think that our current response poses a major threat to our way of life, and to millions of Americans’ economic lives, in ways not considered by most people who feel, for now, economically secure.
I believe that the first group should not just consider the cost of under-reacting, but also the cost of over-reacting. I fear that America has decided to enter uncharted territory – instantly and fundamentally transforming the daily economic lives of tens of millions of people is a high-risk experiment – without first asking basic questions or considering likely costs.
“Better safe than sorry” is not a plan. It is not even true when “safe” is more damaging than “sorry.”
I also believe the cost of under-reacting could be high. Italy’s medical system has apparently been overwhelmed. Would the same happen here if we did not react strongly and swiftly enough? Maybe, and we should take reasonable precautions against that possibility, like social distancing and abundant washing of hands.
Not even public health experts agree with one another, as we’ve seen different countries, from South Korea to Denmark to the United Kingdom all take varying approaches. Further, public health experts, in this context, are knowledgeable about how a virus can impact a population, but they have nothing to say about how an economic recession or depression brought on by our response to the virus could impact a population. It is the job of elected government officials to weigh all the costs and benefits – both health and economic – of all possible actions.
Here are some questions that I hope everyone, particularly elected officials, are asking:
1. To those who support cities shutting down businesses or even ordering residents to shelter in place, as San Francisco has done, do you acknowledge just how much pain this will create in many people’s lives? At what point of economic pain would you say we are going too far? You agree there is a point at which the government is going too far to save one life, or even a thousand lives.
After all, you don’t think all speed limits should be 10 MPH, except for emergency vehicles.
Where is that point for you in this situation? How bad will the economy – and thus people’s lives – have to get?
2. As I understand it, the worst-case scenario, at least in the West, is something like what Italy is experiencing: too many elderly people getting the virus in a compact period of time, stretching the medical system past its breaking point. In the U.S., then, why isn’t the top priority to specifically protect older Americans? Why isn’t the loudest message from government officials for seniors to self-quarantine, as it appears to be in the United Kingdom? Wouldn’t a measure like this better address the “bend the curve” challenge than telling the entire population to stay inside, thus shutting down the economy?
3. Is there a plan? If there is, what is it? How and when will we know if the plan is working? If the plan is to manage COVID-19’s spread in order to protect the medical system, how will shutting down cities for a few weeks or months meaningfully help? What will happen when life returns towards normalcy? Won’t the virus return with a vengeance when life begins to return to normal? Then, won’t we be in the same position we are now, only poorer and thus less equipped to handle a medical crisis?
4. I know you are not allowed to use the word “flu” in this discussion, but: The H1N1 swine flu broke out in the United States in spring 2009. By the end of that pandemic, about a year later, the CDC says the swine flu “caused 60.8 million illnesses, 273,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths in the U.S.” Those numbers marked the end of that pandemic. We are still at the beginning of COVID-19, so the numbers are not apples to apples. But in the beginning of H1N1, did we react nearly as severely as we are reacting now to COVID-19? Why not? I suspect one reason is because we have seen Italy’s medical system become overwhelmed by COVID-19. If that is the main reason, is shutting down our economy the right way to try to avoid that situation? Why is our reaction to COVID-19, seven weeks since the first U.S. case, so disproportionately severe compared to our reaction to the swine flu seven weeks in? Or is it not disproportionate? It’s a fair question.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth about this is that we have to accept that COVID-19 is now a part of our life, that many or most of us will get it at some point, that it will kill some of us, as every disease does, that the only way to avoid it would be to shut down our economy, and that we are not willing to pay that price. At least, I hope we are not.
When we begin to re-normalize life, whenever that inevitable day comes, people will die as a result.
Yes, that is tragic.
Also, remember, before COVID-19, we went to restaurants, concerts, and ballgames knowing that leaving our houses meant we faced a higher risk of death from disease, car accidents, and crime.
Until we know how dangerous COVID-19 is, until we can safely say that it is another one of many diseases that will come and go every year with fairly predictable results, we – especially seniors and people who are at-risk – must be vigilant.
But there is a fine line between vigilance and whatever you call what we are doing now, the costs of which I predict we will regret.