Learning from History and Each Other

By Alan W. Dowd

10.12.20
From the outset of the crisis spawned by COVID19 (and by government reaction to it), Project Fortress essays have emphasized that there are people of good will and good intentions on both sides of the COVID19 divide. But even people of goodwill sometimes engage in bad reasoning.

Patriots

Before going any further, it’s necessary to sketch the terrain of America’s COVID19 divide.

On one side are what we might call “individual liberty patriots.” These are Americans who so deeply identify America with freedom—and being an American with freedom—that they bristle at limits on freedom. They hold that America’s well-being—indeed its very essence—is a function of freedom. They believe it’s their civic duty to live free and take individual responsibility. They recall that America didn’t shut down during the pandemics of 1957 or 1968, criticize government responses in 2020 as drastic, and say life must go on in order to preserve individual liberty.

On the other side are what we might call “public health patriots.” These are Americans who love their country and countrymen so much that they’re willing to limit freedom and scale back the American way of life for the good of the whole. They hold that public health is at the very core of America’s wellbeing. They believe it’s their civic duty to prevent spread of the virus and promote social responsibility. They view COVID19 as more dangerous than past pandemics, applaud government responses as prudent, and say life must change in order to preserve public health. 

As we chart a path forward and build bridges across the divide, we need to remember that public-health patriots have legitimate concerns about safety, that individual-liberty patriots have legitimate concerns about freedom, and that both groups love their country.

Models

Given that backdrop, let’s start with some arguments heard on the individual-liberty side of the divide.

Fear is the real virus.
Some of us individual-liberty patriots seem to forget that fear is a healthy, necessary, God-given response to the unknown and to things that could harm us. Whether we encounter a hissing snake or a new virus, fear is a natural self-defense, self-preservation response. Given that in March the infection-mortality rate for COVID19 was thought to be 3.4 percent, COVID19 was definitely something to be feared. Indeed, the initial government responses to COVID19 were largely shaped by computer models that predicted if we went on with life as usual the virus would kill 2.2 million Americans—and as many as 1.2 million Americans even under “the most effective mitigation strategy.” Those models understandably terrified policymakers.

Yet the data—not computer models—soon revealed the actual infection-mortality rate to be much lower. By the end of April, the data indicated that the virus kills not 3.4 percent of those infected, but somewhere between 0.1 percent and 0.4 percent. By July, CDC officials concluded that COVID19’s infection-mortality rate could be as low as 0.26 percent. The seasonal flu, by way of comparison, kills about 0.1 percent of those infected.

Put another way, with a lethality of perhaps double that of the flu, there’s good reason to take extra precautions with COVID19. But by the same token, policymakers should have adjusted their pandemic-response policies when the data showed COVID19’s lethality to be much lower than originally feared. Regrettably, most didn’t make those adjustments.

Even if I get COVID19, I’ll recover.
Maybe, maybe not. COVID19 ruthlessly targets people in certain high-risk groups and people of certain age groups, as President Trump’s bout with the virus underscores. Again, the data are important here: Cancer and heart patients, diabetics, people with kidney disease, sickle cell or COPD, the immune-compromised, and the obese are in COVID19’s crosshairs. Americans 85 and older represent 32.8 percent of COVID19 deaths; Americans 75-84 represent 26.4 percent of COVID19 deaths; Americans 65-74 represent 21 percent. Add up all the people in those high-risk groups and age-groups, and a large segment of Americans need to adjust their behavior for their own good.

Masks are useless.
A properly fitted mask properly worn can be effective at preventing the spread of viruses via coughing or sneezing. Whether all of us have access to the proper kinds of masks, whether all of us are wearing them properly, and whether mayors and governors have the authority to order that masks be worn is a debate for another essay. But one thing seems beyond debate: If masks help people move toward some semblance of normalcy—even if wearing them is more about perception than effectiveness—then masks are performing a very useful function.

Limits

That serves as a bridge to the public-health side of the COVID19 divide, where we’ve heard some equally dubious arguments.

We can’t compare our response to COVID19 with our response to past pandemics.
A colleague recently shared a quote from a government public-health expert, who dismissed a question contrasting America’s response to the 1957 and 2020 pandemics by bluntly retorting: “We didn’t have the ability back in the 1960s and 1950s to do what we can do today.”

It’s a cryptic quote, to be sure. Is he talking about the use of modeling and data? The monitoring and control of movement? The feasibility of quarantining the healthy due to technologies that allow for some (but not all) Americans to engage in remote learning and remote working? Regardless of what he means by “ability,” the response reflects a troubling view of power.

If he’s referencing the use of modeling, the computer models that terrified policymakers and led to the lockdowns and triggered a cascade of destructive consequences proved wildly inaccurate—so inaccurate and so destructive that many observers are raising hard questions about such modeling.

Related, if he’s referencing the analytics capabilities offered by today’s technologies, he’s not alone: A CDC report concludes that government agencies today have “situational-awareness tools to help monitor influenza activity.” Likewise, the World Economic Forum trumpets “aggregated mobility information from telecom data” that allows “insight into preventive actions, population mobility, the spread of the disease, and the resilience of people and systems to cope with the virus.”

True, this sort of real-time data-collection, data-mapping, data-tracking and data-sorting didn’t exist during the pandemics of 1957 and 1968. However, in a free society like ours, technologies that allow the sifting, sorting and manipulation of data should be used to promote human flourishing—never to smother it. Just because government agencies have the ability to do something, doesn’t mean they should do it.

Finally, if he’s suggesting that governments didn’t have the ability to monitor, control and confine people during those earlier pandemics, that’s flatly wrong. In fact, dating to the time of Pharaoh and Moses, governments have long had the ability to confine people, prevent commercial and religious activity, and limit individual liberty for the greater good.

That’s the very reason America’s Founders wrote a constitution that expressly limits the power of government. President Eisenhower and President Johnson (who was stricken during the 1968-69 pandemic) had the wisdom and perspective to respect those limits during past pandemics, and governors and mayors followed their lead. We would do well to learn from their example.

All we need to do is follow the science and listen to the experts.
That makes for a good soundbite, but it’s not that simple. Scientists disagree on lots of things, including how to respond to COVID19.

For example, before COVID19, infectious-disease experts recommended that policymakers respond to pandemics by: ensuring that “the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted,” recognizing that “the negative consequences of large-scale quarantine are so extreme…that this mitigation measure should be eliminated from serious consideration,” urging that “all who are ill remain isolated at home or in the hospital,” and encouraging “others to continue to come to work so that essential services can be sustained.”

Those are the words of the late Donald Henderson, a giant in epidemiology and disease mitigation. Shaped by Henderson’s work, 800 virologists and epidemiologists signed an open letter in March that warned policymakers against lockdowns and cited many of the unintended consequences Henderson had forecast in 2006. (Project Fortress detailed those consequences here.) Infectious-disease experts in countries as diverse as Taiwan, South Korea and Sweden largely followed the time-tested methods laid out by Henderson and those 800 scientists. The comparatively low number of deaths per million in those nations, as well as the lack of disruption to their economic-commercial-cultural wellbeing, underscore how effective those methods are. Regrettably, the infectious-disease experts who advised the president and most governors recommended a very different response, which yielded very different results.

Moreover, how do we follow the science when a scientist disagrees with himself? In January, Anthony Fauci said of COVID19, “This is not a major threat for the people of the United States, and this is not something that the citizens of the United States right now should be worried about.” In February, he concluded in a medical journal, “The overall clinical consequences of COVID19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1 percent) or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968).” But in March he dramatically reversed course. He did a similar one-eighty on the issue of mask-wearing, saying there was no need for masks in late winter, before urging “universal wearing of masks” in early summer.

Similarly, officials with the World Health Organization reported “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of COVID19 in January and said there was no need for masks in February. They, too, then reversed course, declared a global health emergency due to the highly-contagious COVID19 virus, and urged everyone to wear a mask.

It’s all well and good to defend these reversals and the rejection of a century of science related to pandemic response by declaring, “When the facts change, we must change our minds.” But given that the underlying facts of prudent pandemic response didn’t change, given the chaos caused by the reversals, given the consequences of rejecting what worked during the pandemic of 1957-58 (which had an infection-mortality rate of 0.67 percent), Americans can be forgiven for questioning “the science” and doubting the experts.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd.