We Are Needlessly Devastating Our Country

Over the last week, I have been emailing with an Ivy League professor who is deeply concerned about the damage being done to our country by governments’ reaction to the COVID-19 virus. Today she sent me this eloquent email, which I am posting with her permission.

I just thought I’d send a few more thoughts your way, for whatever value they might be. I’m just so anguished by what is happening in the country. The policy response is so far disproportionate to the threat and is wreaking such unthinkable damage on our society and our economy. I don’t have the readership you have (or any non-academic readership, for that matter), and it seems mainstream opinion outlets don’t want to question current policy. So I am glad that you are at least out there raising vital questions.

Like you, I see huge slippage in what was promised / sought from current policy. The goal of social distancing was to flatten the curve so as to avoid overwhelming hospitals. But hospitals are not being overwhelmed, even though social distancing should just now (at a 3-week lag) have started to reduce hospital demand. Hospitals are so empty that they’re laying off workers all across the country! The demand on hospitals from coronavirus is a mere fraction of what models suggested it would be.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, which has taken a far less draconian approach, hospitals are still not being overwhelmed, as per a report from 4/14: “So far, ICU admissions have remained steady’ … ‘As long as they can keep that flat…that means the Swedish healthcare system is surviving, it’s not at breaking point just yet.’”

Despite our “success” on the hospital front, it seems the goal has morphed to suppress the virus over the long term and keep us socially distanced until everyone can feel safe from disease. There isn’t a guarantee that will EVER happen, as a vaccine may not even emerge.

In the quest for assurances of safety, Governors, business, and labor leaders are demanding that there be hugely ramped up testing before reopening the US economy. If South Korea can do it, why not us? Because South Korea built up its infrastructure over years after SARS. South Korea also did ramped up testing before everyone in the world was competing for the same supply of the limited resources of reagents, swabs, and other supplies necessary for testing. Business and labor leaders think they are making a reasonable demand, because the policy exists in another, much smaller country that started far earlier than we did.

But a hard look needs to be taken at what is possible for us in the here and now. On March 27, University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm warned in the NYT that supplies for testing would start running out in 3-4 weeks as everyone in the world starts competing for a limited set of resources. Right on cue, the administration was notified this week that all needed testing supplies are falling short. We won’t be able sustain our EXISTING level of testing, much less ramp up further. What do we do if our preferred policy is not possible? Stay shut down until government officials can tell us we’re safe?

It is here where I think personal choice needs to come in. I am sure that lots of folks will insist upon staying home until they do feel safe, but government-ordered shutdowns need to be lifted. There will be great, inevitable economic damage from the pandemic. But let’s not compound it by ordering everyone to stay home and shutting everything down. People should be able to consider their own risks, as long as hospitals aren’t at risk of being overwhelmed. Maybe most restaurants and bars aren’t economically viable under current conditions due to insufficient demand, but they should be free to test the market. More importantly, people have many real needs—including even for health care!!—that are being denied right now. We’ve got to lift lockdowns if they are not needed to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

I am having real difficulties watching the country destroy itself and its future in an effort to do something that has never been successfully done in the history of the world: distance people from other people in society sufficiently and for sufficiently long in order to stamp out or control the spread of a virus. We will fail at this, and in our failure we will have also destroyed the livelihoods of a vast share of the American (and the world’s) people, along with their children’s futures.

Thanks, again, for your work and your voice of reason on these issues.

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