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If DC traffic levels are any indication, it seems that a lot more people are taking the spread of the coronavirus seriously, which is undoubtedly good. In the media and online, though, the debate rages on whether the overall government response to the virus has been dangerously insufficient or unjustifiably draconian. The opposite poles of public opinion seem to range between demanding a complete, absolute national shelter-in-place shutdown for potentially months and a blasé, “virus? what virus?” approach that equally beggars the imagination.
The answer is likely in between these, of course, and complicated as always by politics. When President Trump opined that he’d like to see people back to work by Easter (nearly a good three weeks distant when he first said it), many commentators recoiled in horror, with Trump’s likely November opponent Joe Biden calling such a call potentially “catastrophic.” Many, and not only on the left, have claimed that Trump is presenting a choice approximating: profits or lives – choose one, not both.
This is yet another false dichotomy, one that has been exacerbated greatly by a lack of good information. Not to belabor the government’s primary role in delaying the mass deployment of COVID-19 testing, but through much of the past month, the government response to the pandemic has largely been flying blind, governed by worst-case estimates based on at-best incomplete data.
With private labs all over the country now churning out coronavirus tests as fast as they can, we ought to now be entering a phase where it’s possible to intelligently battle the disease by more targeted measures instead of relying on blunt-force measures such as a national quarantine that, to the President’s point, would likely have tremendously destructive consequences of their own.
In fact, a recent letter to the White House Coronavirus Task Force, signed by almost 800 professors of whom a majority are in medicine and epidemiology, warned that overly dramatic and widespread quarantine effort might be futile and even counterproductive to defeating the epidemic:
“Voluntary self-isolation measures are more likely to induce cooperation and protect public trust than coercive measures, and are more likely to prevent attempts to avoid contact with the healthcare system. … Efficiently identifying those exposed will be increasingly difficult as community transmission of the virus becomes more widespread, making quarantine a less plausible measure as community spread proceeds. Whether individuals can comply will be determined by the degree of support provided, particularly for low-wage workers and other vulnerable communities. While quarantines are in effect in many places already, their continuing and new use by federal, state or local officials requires real-time assessment and evaluation to justify them as the science and the outbreak evolve, through a transparent, open decision making process including external scientific and legal experts.”
The key there is voluntary, to the greatest extent possible, and it should become ever more possible as testing for COVID-19 becomes more widespread. Having a better handle on who actually has the disease, who actually needs to be isolated, and where it’s spreading allows localities and states to act in a targeted way, to attack the disease and not the people. South Korea demonstrated that this can be done to contain the disease without completely locking down large cities or shuttering all businesses, and if testing can ramp up over the next couple of weeks in the U.S., hopefully much of our nation (perhaps minus a few outbreak hot spots) can follow suit.
Those who argue this obsession with keeping the economy running is fueled by a callous or ghoulish lust for profits over people’s lives are missing the point. “The economy” is not a single, mechanical construct; it is rather the amalgamation of millions of people in their communities exchanging goods and services that we all need. Those with the least economic independence suffer the lack of these the fastest. In addition, private companies are working overtime to fill in the many shortages faced by the health care community in this crisis, something a nationwide shutdown may have put a damper on.
As our communities and officials start to receive better data so that they are not fighting this disease blind, it is imperative that fighting the coronavirus and keeping an operating economy not remain mutually exclusive. For this to work, it will require a large degree of voluntary cooperation from individuals in their communities to resist the sort of temptations that saw crowds of students on the beaches of Miami only a week ago. Then hopefully states and localities can take a lighter touch approach to the mass closures and shelter-in-place orders that have become increasingly common across the nation.
Especially in the wake of Congress spending an unprecedented amount in cash assistance and corporate bailouts, and the Federal Reserve adding trillions more dollars to its balance sheet, we’ll need people’s economic health to remain as strong as their physical health in the months and years to come.