Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed, but in every case it is someone else's blood. That is why some of our thinkers feel free to say just about anything. —Albert Camus
To lock down, or to open up, that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the minds of demagogues,
bands of armed blockheads, and sundry nitwits
to knuckle under to the expertise
of gloom-mongering scientists,
deep-state socialists, and cultural elites,
or to roll the dice, go for broke,
get the economy rolling again,
allow blind nature to take its indifferent course
in the lives of the aged and the infirm
who after all will in due course die anyway…
Alas, for the minds in question,
the question but answers itself.
The debate about whether to open up or lock down is misdirected when it is cast in the stark, binary terms toward which conventional discourse gravitates: good and bad, right and wrong, our side and the other side. The formulation lends itself to round after round of fruitless argument that does not take into account the terrible fact that in the absence of a multitude of qualifiers and caveats neither option is viable. An indefinite lockdown is not sustainable. The economic impact will compound suffering and deaths resulting from COVID-19 by orders of magnitude that cannot simply be accepted as the price of combating the pandemic. Opening up with appropriate caution carries risks that are far from negligible, and opening up precipitously will amount to throwing gasoline on a smoldering fire that had been beaten back somewhat, negating what good the past months of staying home and locking down accomplished. Our options are the bad and the less bad, the not quite as bad, alternatives not readily reducible to glib talking points and impertinent memes.
To wait for a vaccine that may come in a year or two or five is no more feasible than wagering our fate on wishful thinking that the virus will run its course and just go away. We can hope that effective treatments and a vaccine will be developed sooner rather than later, but that is only hope. It is better than despair, but hope is not the best basis for policy.
Neither is the proposition that the economy will come roaring back when restrictions are eased. The economy is not going to run smoothly and well if the health care system is overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. It is not just a matter of caring for those ill with COVID-19. There remain all the other diseases and conditions to which humans are subject. Some require immediate attention. Many others are rendered relatively benign with routine, preventive care but can become serious when that care is not available.
Even if we are incredibly fortunate and the worst-case scenarios do not come to pass, how economically viable will it be for restaurants, bars, coffee shops, movie theaters, gyms, and a host of other establishments to operate while observing the safe distancing and hygiene practices that will be a part of life for the foreseeable future? How many of us will feel comfortable frequenting even places that do everything scrupulously by the book until there is a vaccine?
Ezra Klein weighs in some of these issues in a good article at Vox:
Here’s the truth: Lockdown is economically ruinous, and America can’t sustain it from now until a vaccine. And you don’t have to take it from me. "You can’t be in lockdown for 18 months," says Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. "We’ll destroy society as we know it, and we don’t know what we’ll accomplish with it."
But this is also the truth: Reopening without a way to control the coronavirus will be lethal to both human life and economic growth, as an escalating death toll will force states back into lockdown. "We can’t just let the virus go," Osterholm says. "Lots of people will die and it’ll shut down our health system, not just for Covid patients, but for anyone with a health problem.
"What we need," he continues, "is a plan."
It is shocking. More than 60 days after President Trump declared a national emergency over the novel coronavirus, there is still no clear national plan for what comes next. “The lockdown is not meant to be a permanent state of affairs; it’s intended to be a giant pause button that buys you time to get ready for the next phase,” Jeremy Konyndyk, of the Center for Global Development think tank, says. (We don’t have a president, or a plan)
The time bought by the lockdown has been largely frittered away by those at the highest levels of government. We need a functioning and competent federal government not for top-down, one-size-fits-all dictates but for the coordination, guidance, and a coherent national strategy that only it can provide. This is something we will not have before January 2021, and then only if Joe Biden wins in November.
Many governors and state and local officials are working heroically to deal with the crisis in accordance with the best guidance available from those with expertise in epidemiology and public health. Experts do not always agree on every particular and they are not infallible. This too should be acknowledged. Responsible officials must act on their best judgment based on information available, which may never be as good as we wish, and always subject to critique and reevaluation.
Their efforts are undermined by Republican legislators and the usual alliance of chamber of commerce types, some churches and religious leaders, and radical libertarians whose absolutist doctrine of individual liberty and rights is inimical to government and civil society. (It would be too easy here to invoke Hobbes's state of nature where life is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.") In some states local officials in areas where infection rates are lower are opening in defiance of state officials, albeit with the encouragement of the president. In other states, mayors in large cities hit hard by the virus are imposing more rigorous restrictions than those issued by governors eager to open up for business. This Keystone Kops approach would be unfathomable if we did not see it happening before our eyes.
Safe distancing, face covering, and other precautions figure to be routine for many of us in the months and perhaps years ahead. Unfortunately, some of our fellow citizens, and it will not take many to be too many, will interpret the easing of restrictions as a go-ahead to resume life as it was lived prior to COVID-19. This too comes with the encouragement of the president. To all of this must be added the ugly prospect of anti-vax resistance to a vaccine when one becomes available.
In the meantime, hurricane and fire seasons will soon be upon us. It is not likely that nature will be beneficent and give us a pass because we already have our hands full with the pandemic. Career civil servants in departments that deal with natural disasters are part of what is now called the deep state. To the extent that we have a functioning government, these individuals deserve much credit and gratitude. I trust that they are working diligently to prepare for what surely lies ahead, but I see no reason to believe they will get the support from leadership at the highest levels that they and the country need.
"We were on the Titanic, and everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg," wrote historian Eric Hobsbawm in an account of the death throes of German democracy in the 1930s. We are on the Titanic, and everyone knows it is hitting the iceberg. All we can do is bail like crazy and vote in November. Our lives and our country depend on it.
Margaret Hoover, interview with Susan Rice, PBS Firing Line, May 15, 2020. Rice was national security adviser and ambassador to the UN during the Obama administration. She discusses Trump's handling of the pandemic in one of the best episodes I have seen since Firing Line was resurrected by Margaret Hoover.
Ezra Klein, We don’t have a president, or a plan, Vox, May 13, 2020
Mackenzie Mays and Mayah Ward, Reopening tension pits state, local officials against each other in sign of what’s to come, Politico, May 20, 2020