A brief recap of the past month:
March 16, New York Times headline: “White House Takes New Line After Dire Report on Death Toll”.
The dire report, by Imperial College London, predicted that “in the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour,” the Wuhan Coronavirus would kill 2.2 million Americans by October.
That shocking number, along with the news media’s irresponsible coverage – do you recall reporters cautioning that the projection assumed zero mitigation or that it had some pretty newsworthy flaws – helped give cover to state and local officials who preferred mandatory social isolation over something like outlier Sweden’s strategy. More on Sweden later.
As of this writing, more than 316 million Americans in 42 states are under shutdown orders.
Businesses deemed “non-essential” are closed. Dine-in service at restaurants is banned. City streets and shopping districts are ghost towns.
The First Amendment, we’ve discovered, is also “non-essential” when a mayor or governor declares it so.
Predicted epidemiological outcomes of a pandemic, arrived at via forecasting models of a complex and dynamic system, are basically speculations.
And that is how the government has justified some of the most brazen disrespect of basic American rights in our lifetimes.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, asked by Tucker Carlson how he squared the Bill of Rights with the arrest of 15 men for attending a rabbi’s funeral, said, “I wasn’t thinking of the Bill of Rights when we did this.”
On Easter Sunday, a church in Greenville, Mississippi, held a drive-in radio service. Everyone was in their cars, with the windows up. Police vehicles surrounded the service, and one officer yelled, “Your rights are suspended!”
In Raleigh, North Carolina, the police department, responding to protesters upset at the government’s power trip, tweeted, “Protesting is a non-essential activity.”
So, here’s the new formula, as I understand it:
Sell semi-educated guesstimates about a new virus as scientific forecasts that can tell the future.
Declare a public health emergency based on the guesses.
Suspend basic freedoms and tank the economy, in the name of public health.
Is this not what just happened?
In one month, 22 million Americans – 545 per minute – lost their jobs and filed for unemployment benefits. Likely millions more are ineligible for benefits or have not yet filed. Another likely tens of millions have had their pay reduced as companies trim payroll.
How many Americans will die, slip into addiction, or suffer any myriad of awful things that happens when you do this to a society of 330 million people? We’ll know more as stories and studies emerge.
But maybe it was all worth it?
How are states that locked down early faring versus states that locked down late, or not at all?
Results are mixed.
New York, which shut down on March 22, has recorded over 17,000 confirmed and “probable” deaths, or 873 per million, mostly in and around New York City.
California shut down only 3 days earlier, and has 1,041 deaths, only 27 per million.
Proponents of the lockdowns point to California’s relatively early action as key to its success.
But if placing a population under “quarantine” is a – if not the – key variable, then what about Florida?
Florida’s population of 19 million is nearly equivalent to New York’s.
Florida has the largest senior population in terms of percentage, and the second largest in absolute terms, behind California.
Florida notoriously allowed beaches to remain open and spring break parties to rage well after much of the country locked down.
But Florida didn’t issue a stay-at-home order until April 3, two weeks after California and New York.
And yet, Florida has 726 deaths, only 35 per million, not far behind California and well ahead of…Germany, 52 per million.
And in the five states with no stay-at-home orders – North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas – a combined 141 people have died of Coronavirus out of a population of 10 million.
Twenty three states individually, each of which are under full or partial lockdown, have more deaths than those five states put together.
All this is to say: there is good reason to believe the one-size-fits-all solution of locking down most of the U.S. will be remembered as a historical mistake.
New York is fundamentally different than the rest of the country, in terms of both population density and reliance on public transit.
Perhaps that helps explain why New York City’s death rate is nearly 1,400 per million, while Los Angeles County’s is 49 per million, while rural Fresno County’s is 7 per million.
The idea that most of the country should have a New York City approach, or that non-urban areas of a state should do as the metropolis does, is bizarre.
But absent lockdowns, would the entire country eventually resemble New York in terms of infections and deaths per capita?
The entire justification, though, for locking down in the first place, the reason Americans have tolerated this, was because we were told by public health experts that we have to bend the curve.
We were told America would look like Italy if we didn’t slow the spread of the virus.
For weeks we’ve lived under draconian policies we created to avoid 2.2 million deaths by October. That projection now sits at 60,000. It could turn out to be more. Either way, we’re still in lockdown in an imaginary world where we do nothing and 2.2 million Americans die of Coronavirus by October.
Even as far as medical capacity, the IHME model illustrated that projected hospital bed and equipment shortages was not a national problem. It was at most a regional problem.
By late March, and possibly earlier, California had a massive surplus of hospital beds. And California, along with New York and other states, now have so little need for ventilators that they’re giving up surplus ventilators.
No, the only crisis in most American hospitals is a shortage of patients and revenue, not ventilators or beds.
So the narrative changed: from “bend the curve” to “save every life.” As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “If everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”
The tragedy is that today we face the same exact choice and have to answer the same exact questions that I wrote about a month ago:
Do we open up, with reasonable social distancing to slow the spread, and risk-stratified policies to protect the most vulnerable?
Or do we stay locked down until there’s a silver bullet vaccine, which may not ever exist?
The second option isn’t a serious one. The gradual easing of lockdowns has already begun, and will rapidly spread.
Most likely, the U.S. and much of Europe will soon go the way of Sweden, which, from the start, decided that it would, as an excellent piece by T.A. Frank in Vanity Fair put it, “accept the coronavirus as a problem to be managed, rather than conclusively defeated.”
“Sweden has kept its elementary schools running and allowed most its businesses, including restaurants and bars, to remain open,” Frank writes. “Travel in and out of the country remains possible for E.U. nationals. And social distancing remains, for the most part, voluntary.”
Is Sweden doing nothing? Hardly. Frank continues:
Most Swedes have changed their habits a lot. Schools for older kids are closed, as are universities. People are working from home, when they can, and the elderly are being urged to keep to themselves. Gatherings of over 50 people are prohibited, and ski resorts are closed. Restaurants and bars are allowing table service only, and grocery stores are installing glass dividers between customers and cashiers. People who go to Stockholm may be stunned to see bars and cafés with customers, but they’re seeing only the Swedes who choose to run higher risks. They’re not seeing all the Swedes who are staying home.
Exactly, the Swedes who are okay assuming more risk go out. The ones who aren’t, stay in.
It’s really a terrific, refreshingly heterodox piece that you don’t necessarily expect to find in Vanity Fair. I encourage everyone, particularly people skeptical of opening up the country, to give it a chance.
Sweden’s approach, as Frank points out, means some more deaths in the short term on a per capita basis than its neighbors in Norway and Denmark, which locked down. But Sweden is doing better than Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium.
And anyway, as Johan Giesecke, Sweden’s former chief epidemiologist pointed out, ending a lockdown before a medical breakthrough only serves to “shift the curve…but you still get the curve.”
Instead of delaying the inevitable, Sweden has decided, so far, to confront it as tactfully as possible.
If cities and states in the U.S. begin to soon ease lockdowns and adopt something like the Sweden approach, that will be a tacit admission that they made a mistake.
After all, what new information do we have now about COVID-19 that we didn’t have one month ago that may have changed the minds of the officials who ordered lockdowns?
So easing the lockdowns next week or next month, absent such new information, would be an admission that the lockdowns are a mistake.
That’s not 20/20 hindsight.
There was a credible, alternative, moderate path that most of America’s political leadership decided against.
And the country is paying a terrible price.