From the Right: We Must Properly Navigate the Health vs. Economic Balancing Act

“Social distancing” is a logical policy our government is implementing to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Don’t get to close to each other, we won’t get each other sick. Good for us individually, good for society. We have all seen the numbers; not many people are diagnosed with the disease in the U.S., but it grows exponentially. Each infected person infects 2.5 other people, who infect 2.5 people, and so on. The real concern is that if everyone gets sick at once, a huge surge will overwhelm our medical system, especially intensive care units (ICU). The critically ill, especially the elderly, will need ICU beds, and possibly ventilators. We have an enormous hospital complex, but it isn’t built out for that kind of surge. It wouldn’t make sense to have hundreds of thousands of hospital beds sitting empty for years, even decades, for such a contingency.

Enter, social distancing—but what does that mean? First, it was, “Don’t shake hands, don’t even stand close together.” Fine. “Businesses should encourage employees to work remotely.” Good. Then it was cancelling large social gatherings over 200 people. OK. “No more concerts, conferences or sporting events. Close the colleges and schools, which are statistically giant petri dishes to spread disease.” Agreed. Next was, “Spread out the seating in restaurants.” Got it. Then it was, “Close all the restaurants, gyms, public counters at vital government agencies and even libraries.” What’s left, having law enforcement require that people can’t leave their homes? Martial law?

Today [March 16], officials in seven San Francisco Bay area counties ordered, that’s right, ordered, that residents must stay inside and only leave their homes for necessities, for three weeks.  San Jose Mayor Liccardo stated, “History will not forgive us for waiting one hour more.” No martial law yet, but every day they clamp down harder. On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, advocated for a 14-day national shutdown. 

Be clear, this will make a huge difference. It’s proven to slow the spread. The tricky question is whether it is appropriately balanced. Our freedom is invaluable, but all of us are willing to sacrifice temporarily in the face of a pandemic. Human life in our society is something you can’t put a price tag on. However, we do expect our government to balance their actions. 

Overnight, the government has thrown millions of Americans out of work. The stock market has crashed, wiping out the hard-earned retirement of millions more. How long will this last? Some say a couple of weeks, but what’s the metric for measuring when to let up? Are you offended that I’m asking the question? Don’t be. This trajectory could take the country, and possibly the world, headlong into a depression. Depressions result in misery, hunger, increased disease and higher death rates. Today, the stock market crashed another 3,000 points. 

This pandemic could be horrible, killing several times more people than the annual flu (80,000 in 2018; 50,000 this year), but it doesn’t seem to compare to the deadly Spanish flu of 1918. We will take the hit from this shutdown, but the government better trot out the longer-term solution quickly. Will the disease magically disappear in three weeks? No. The shutdown is to gain time, so use it wisely. We should frenetically build temporary ICU hospitals like the Chinese did, a lot of them, equipped with ventilators, as quickly as possible. Perhaps the elderly will have to be quarantined for a longer period of time. That being said, it is important that the American people, businesses, and our markets, know what the end game is. That is, sadly, lacking.

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The panic is palpable. Previously rational people horde months of toilet paper and canned goods. Cases of bottled water fly off the shelves, as if the taps will stop flowing. Fist fights over hand sanitizer. History shows that panic can result in worse things than fist fights. Governments panic, too; they are, after all, just people like us. Add to the toxic mix partisan finger-pointing about whose “fault” this is, and suddenly leaders are competing to show who takes the strongest actions.   

Everyone needs to calm down. You’ve heard the expression: “The cure is worse than the disease.” There is no price tag on human life, yet on the macro scale we make those societal decisions constantly. Who would advocate us shutting down our society like this annually to stop the yearly influenza outbreaks? If we did so we could save 50,000 lives per year. Should we? Confronting questions, and a tough conversation. Society must function, even in a pandemic. The unprecedented steps to slow this pandemic down have been taken, now it’s time to show us the long game solution. Reassure us. Tomorrow would be good. 

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