By Alan W. Dowd
“I would shut it down,” Vice President Biden recently promised when asked about how he would respond to COVID19 flareups. “I would listen to the scientists.” After experimenting with that option in March and April, President Trump has staked out a different position, vowing, “We won’t be closing the country again.”
President Trump and Vice President Biden are providing are great public service here. Their divergence on this issue offers a clarifying distinction as Americans head into the homestretch of the presidential election. But what about gubernatorial, mayoral and school-board elections, and what about elections beyond 2020? Knowing where public officials stand on this issue—which affects literally every American—will be important for years to come. As such, Americans on either side of the COVID19 divide—those who believe it’s their duty to take individual responsibility, who recall that America didn’t shut down during the pandemics of 1957 or 1968, who believe life must go on to preserve individual liberty, as well as those who believe it’s their duty to promote social responsibility, who view COVID19 as more deadly than past pandemics, who believe life must change to preserve public health—deserve to hear how would-be public servants plan to respond to the next COVID19 spike, the next pandemic, the next influenza outbreak.
This is important for at least three reasons.
First, China’s intentions or incompetence will likely unleash another virus on the world in the years to come. After all, H5N1, SARS and COVID19 are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths globally; each began in China. Specific to COVID19, the world now knows that Xi Jinping’s regime lied about human-to-human transmission of the virus; allowed thousands to leave the epicenter in Wuhan for destinations around the world; ordered scientists not to share findings about coronavirus-genome sequencing; and carried out a premeditated plan to hoard 2.5 billion pieces of medical equipment as the virus swept the globe.
In short, the Pandemic of 2020 proves what many of us have argued for decades: China’s internal political system is an international problem (see here, here, here and here p.50). Xi’s China is an ends-justify-the-means regime that has disdain for human life and norms of behavior—a place where physicians are arrested and left to die for trying to live up to the oaths of medicine; where churches are smashed and Christians are sent to laogai prisons; where Buddhist temples are bulldozed; where Uighur Muslim men are herded into concentration camps, Uighur women are forcibly sterilized and Uighur babies are forcibly aborted. As dissident leader Xu Zhangrun observes, “A polity that is blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well.”
Second, once our government takes a certain action, it’s easier and more likely for it to take that action again. The first action serves as precedent for succeeding actions. After months of government-mandated shutdowns and shelter-in-place decrees that smothered worship and work, culture and commerce, this reality should concern conservatives and liberals alike. No matter how noble the intentions or pure the motives, government intervention is often counterproductive, sometimes downright destructive and usually unsettling. As President Reagan observed, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
That brings us to a third reason we need to know how prospective public servants plan to respond to the next public-health crisis: Government-ordered lockdowns in response to COVID19 have done more damage than the disease itself. But don’t take my word for it.
“History will say trying to control COVID19 through lockdown was a monumental mistake on a global scale,” concludes Mark Woolhouse, a member of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pandemic advisory team. “The cure was worse than the disease.”
Indeed, the lockdown way of life is an enemy of life and living.
The lockdowns prevented hundreds of millions of Americans from gathering together for worship, cost tens of millions their jobs and permanently shuttered more than 100,000 U.S. businesses (and counting). The isolation, job loss and depression triggered by the lockdown way of life will lead to 75,000 deaths from drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide. (Not even $3.2 trillion in deficit spending—since March—will rescue them from the despair.)
Millions of surgeries have been canceled or postponed. Heart-attack death rates have spiked not because of COVID19, but because fear of COVID19 has kept patients away from needed care. Researchers project 10,000 excess cancer deaths in America as a result of delayed screening caused by lockdowns. A team of research professors notes that half of cancer patients have missed chemotherapy treatments; transplants are down almost 85 percent; emergency stroke evaluations are down 40 percent; more than half of childhood vaccinations have not been performed.
Brookings concludes, “The COVID19 episode will likely lead to a large, lasting baby bust…a drop of perhaps 300,000 to 500,000 births in the U.S” next year. This is not a function of deaths among women of childbearing age, but rather a function of despair and uncertainty.
Domestic violence and childhood malnutrition surged during the lockdowns. Some 212,500 cases of child abuse have gone unreported due to the lockdowns—a consequence of kids not being in school, where abuse is often first detected. Indeed, we may never be able to quantify the costs of a year without classroom instruction, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics calls for reopening schools. Data—not wildly inaccurate computer models—tell us why doctors say it’s safe to return to classroom instruction: COVID19 poses virtually no risk to Americans younger than 24, with that age group representing just 0.1 percent of COVID19 deaths. In fact, Americans younger than 14 account for statistically 0 percent of COVID19 deaths. Yet governors, mayors and school boards apparently know more than pediatricians about child wellbeing.
Living and Dying
Rather than closing the schools, quarantining the healthy and idling the economy, Sunetra Gupta, an infectious-disease professor at Oxford University, has argued for months that we must find “a way of living with this virus.”
Indeed, both history and science tell us that the lockdown way of life isn’t the answer to pandemics. Yes, COVID19’s infection-mortality rate was initially thought to be 3.4 percent, which understandably terrified policymakers. But as we learned more about the virus, the actual infection-mortality rate rapidly emerged in the data: The virus kills between 0.1 percent and 0.4 percent of those infected.
The seasonal flu, by comparison, kills about 0.1 percent of those infected. So, those of us who argue that government reaction to COVID19 is at best ahistorical and at worst draconian must concede that COVID19 might be more deadly than the flu. At the same time, those who support the government response to COVID19 must concede that COVID19 is definitively not another Spanish Flu. It’s not even another H2N2 pandemic, which killed 0.67 percent of those infected in 1957.
In raw numbers, COVID19 has claimed more than 185,000 Americans (out of a population of 331.3 million) and will likely claim thousands more. That sounds like a high death toll, until we compare it to that 1957 pandemic, which claimed 116,000 Americans (out of a population of 171 million). If we project the 1957 pandemic’s infection-mortality rate onto the U.S. population of 2020, it would be equivalent to 225,000 deaths. In other words, even with the expansive, sometimes sloppy accounting methods used by New York, Colorado, Washington, individual hospitals, and key federal officials who argue that dying with COVID19 is the same as dying from COVID19, this disease is less deadly than the 1957 flu. But again, don’t take my word for it. “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).” Those are Anthony Fauci’s words.
The numbers and Fauci’s assessment force us to ponder the vastly divergent policy reactions triggered by H2N2, H3N2 and COVID19. Elected chief-executives didn’t close churches, schools or businesses, de-prioritize other health issues, shut down sports and culture, or amass staggering debt in response to pandemics in 1957 or 1968. But they did in 2020. Is this the new-normal response to viruses?
Policymakers and would-be policymakers should follow the lead of President Trump and Vice President Biden—and go on record answering that question. Lockdown supporters could call it the “Pandemic Protection Pledge,” while lockdown opponents could call it the “Liberty from Lockdowns Pledge.”
Similar pledges help Americans know where policymakers stand on taxation, abortion, fossil fuels, the Second Amendment, Social Security. The list goes on. Like those other pledges, this one isn’t about partisan politics. It pays to recall that there are Democratic and Republican officials who support the lockdown way of life, and there are Democratic and Republican officials who oppose the lockdown way of life. This is a philosophical issue. As such, these pledges would serve as a way for us to educate ourselves about the philosophical bent of those vying to run our school boards, cities, states and country.
Whatever the label and regardless of which side of the COVID19 divide we find ourselves, these pledges would equip us with information and knowledge—the building blocks of a self-governing people. As Madison observed, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
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. A shorter version of this appeared in the Federalist.