By Alan W. Dowd
As the worst of the public-health crisis spawned by COVID19 recedes, some leaders and organizations are looking ahead. They are sprinkled throughout the country, across disparate sectors and vocations—physicians and other scientists, CEOs and thinkers, Major League Baseball and NASCAR, policy analysts and even some policymakers who initially supported the lockdowns. Also included among this group are a growing number of college presidents. Not surprisingly, Mitch Daniels—current president of Purdue University and former governor of Indiana—was one of the first to offer a roadmap back to some semblance of normalcy.
The President’s Plan
In his plan to reopen Purdue’s campus, Daniels calls the initial COVID19 lockdown a “necessary step.” But he adds, “Like any action so drastic, it has come at extraordinary costs, as much human as economic, and at some point, clearly before next fall, will begin to vastly outweigh the benefits of its continuance.”
That’s why Daniels is outlining how to return to on-campus instruction. “Assuming governmental authorities permit reopening of our schools by the customary August start,” Purdue will “accept students on campus in typical numbers this fall, sober about the certain problems that the COVID19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties but to tackle and manage them aggressively and creatively.”
Toward that end, Daniels is developing new policies to protect the Purdue community, including: “pre-testing of students and staff before arrival” and throughout the year, quarantining and caring for anyone who tests positive, “spreading out classes across days and times to reduce their size,” using “online instruction for on-campus students,” enlisting Purdue’s laboratories to deliver high-speed results, and employing “a data-driven…research-based strategy” throughout.
At less than 1,200 words, the plan sketched out by Daniels—succinct, straightforward, realistic—underscores why George Will once wrote, “Purdue has the president the nation needs.” (Before President Trump’s defenders fire off angry emails, Will wrote those words long before Trump was elected.) Moreover, Daniels’ reasoned, data-driven, common-sense plan provides a contrast to much of what we’ve seen from well-meaning policymakers during the COVID19 crisis.
If that sounds harsh, consider that the COVID19 lockdowns quarantined 328 million healthy people. That’s not how quarantines generally work. Throughout history, authorities have quarantined the sick, those in contact with the sick and those in high-risk groups, while instructing or requiring the healthy to take needed precautions—thus allowing society to keep functioning to the greatest extent possible. That’s what South Korea and Taiwan did in response to COVID19. Both experienced far better health outcomes and avoided the crushing long-term economic consequences Americans are now beginning to face.
Or consider that New York City included in its COVID19 death toll “people who had never tested positive for the virus but were presumed to have died of it” as well as cases “not explicitly linked to the virus.” Related, Dr. Deborah Birx (White House COVID19 coordinator) concedes that in “other countries…if you had a preexisting condition and, let’s say, the virus caused you to go to the ICU and then have a heart or kidney problem, some countries are recording [that] as a heart issue or a kidney issue and not a COVID19 death,” while in the U.S., “if someone dies with COVID19 we are counting that as a COVID19 death.” According to other medical experts, when there are multiple “comorbidities”—preexisting conditions like COPD, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, chronic smoking—the attending physician lists them all in the cause-of-death report. Thus, as physicians and microbiologists based in southern California explain, in many instances, COVID19 didn’t kill the deceased, “25 years of tobacco-use killed them.”
Or consider that the Imperial College models, which understandably terrified policymakers, predicted COVID19 would claim 2.2 million Americans if we went on with life as usual—what the experts call an “unmitigated” environment. Importantly, those same models predicted that even under “the most effective mitigation strategy examined…surge limits for both general ward and ICU beds would be exceeded by at least eight-fold” and that 1.1 million to 1.2 million Americans would die. These models proved wildly incorrect, thus achieving the opposite of what statistical modeling is supposed to do. In fact, the U.S. adopted sweeping mitigation measures. Yet the vast majority of hospitals were not overwhelmed, the healthcare system was not crippled, and we did not lose 1.1 million to COVID19. Instead, COVID19 will claim somewhere between 72,000 and 130,000 Americans (even employing the expansive accounting methods used by New York and Dr. Birx).
By way of comparison, that falls within the same range as the U.S. toll from the 2017-18 influenza season (which claimed up to 95,000), the 1968 H3N2 flupandemic (which claimed 100,000, out of a population of 200 million) and the 1957-58 Asian flu pandemic (which claimed 116,000, out of a population of 171 million). That’s of little comfort to those who have lost a loved one to COVID19. But the numbers do put COVID19—and the policy reactions it triggered—in perspective.
Those policy reactions, spurred by well-intentioned experts in infectious disease, remind us why we elect politicians—not topic experts—to craft and carry out public policy: Topic experts base policy recommendations on their area of expertise. Politicians base policies on a vast array of constitutional, economic, political, cultural and health factors, plus at the federal level, calculations related to diplomacy, national security and international stability. To be sure, effective leaders consider the advice of topic experts. As Proverbs reminds us, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” However, topic experts are not equipped to take into account all the factors that an elected chief executive is expected to consider.
Think of it this way: We want our presidents to listen to what the generals recommend, but we wouldn’t want the generals to be in charge of federal policy. We want our governors to listen to what labor, business and environmental experts recommend, but we wouldn’t want the AFL-CIO, Chamber of Commerce or Sierra Club to be in charge of state policy. Yet during the COVID19 crisis, many elected chief executives, in effect, deferred policymaking to topic experts. Advocates and critics of this course of action would agree that the results were far-reaching. The former will argue that we successfully “flattened the curve.” The latter will argue that in doing so, we flattened America’s economy and trampled individual liberty. The irony is that both sides of this debate will fall back to the same defense: “Just imagine if we had done nothing.”
Both sides need to consider the motives of the other. We may disagree about how and when to “reopen America,” but we should do so with charity toward motives. There are thoughtful people of goodwill who view COVID19 as similar to influenza outbreaks, who criticize the government’s response as drastic, who believe life must go on to preserve individual liberty. And there are thoughtful people of goodwill who view COVID19 as more dangerous than any influenza strain, who applaud the government’s response as prudent, who believe life must change to preserve public health.
This tension is evident in Daniels’ roadmap and in how his peers are approaching this issue. Their various reactions suggest that efforts to reopen campus are important for at least three reasons.
First, it sets an example and provides hope. Purdue University enfolds a community of 50,000 students and staff, with thousands of daily visitors and uncounted commercial, cultural and social interactions. It is, like many campuses, a city unto itself. If Purdue can reopen and return to something that looks and feels like normal, then it can be done elsewhere. That alone would be a great public service.
Second, there are practical factors at play. As Brown University’s Christina Paxson explains, the financial costs of the COVID19 lockdowns on higher education already reach into the billions. “Remaining closed in the fall…would be catastrophic,” she warns, adding: “It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many.” She notes that many students face technological and economic barriers to remote learning. Indeed, while we should be thankful for Zoom and other technologies that allow us to experience a sense of connection, we must remember that many millions of college and K-12 students cannot learn from home, and that many millions of Americans cannot work from home. Even those of us who can are discovering that these computer-screen connections are no substitute for gathering together. What was true in the beginning is true today: “It is not good for man to be alone.” We are made for real connection—for hugs, handshakes, high-fives and as Daniels understands, for hands-on learning. “The learning experience is enhanced not only by being closer to faculty, labs and classrooms,” he contends, “but also by being closer to other students.”
Third, there’s a philosophical debate to be had. Purdue’s “return-to-operations strategy,” Daniels explains, “is undergirded by a fundamental conviction that even a phenomenon as menacing as COVID19 is one of the inevitable risks of life…It is a huge and daunting problem, but the Purdue way has always been to tackle problems, not hide from them.”
Soon after Daniels shared his vision, the University of Missouri announced plans to reopen campus. Arizona, Baylor, Clemson, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, N.C. State, Ohio St., Oklahoma, Utah, Wake Forest, Washington St., West Virginia, Virginia and others are planning to return to on-campus instruction in August/September. The list grows by the day.
Still, college administrators are highly risk-averse (Daniels being the exception that proves the rule). Given the litigiousness of today’s America, it’s hard to blame them. COVID19 liability issues have to be addressed to shield colleges, workplaces, theaters, restaurants and stadiums from unwarranted lawsuits. Federal legislation on COVID19 liability-protection is an essential step on the pathway back to normal commercial and cultural activity.
Some will bristle at the haphazardness of what the 2020-21 school year may look like—some schools opening campus, others offering hybrid instruction, still others hunkering down sticking with online-only instruction. But in a sense, this would be a reflection of what America’s founders envisioned. The COVID19 crisis reminds us that our federal system makes it difficult to force everyone in every state to get on the same page. Yet this very system encourages the sort of flexibility and creativity needed to address challenges in a targeted way. In other words, what makes sense for New York in responding to COVID19 may not for North Dakota—and what makes sense for Princeton may not for Purdue.
Daniels’ plan—premised on the notion that the lockdown’s costs are beginning to outweigh its benefits, that America and Americans cannot thrive in a reactive crouch, that living carries risk—calls to mind something President Theodore Roosevelt said. Even as we care for the sick, protect the at-risk, and bolster our hospitals to prepare for another wave of COVID19 or influenza or H1N1, we must “live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.”