Here in Coronaland, we have been awash in so many depressing COVID-19 statistics that we have nearly become inured to their real-world meaning. Nonetheless, like the virus itself, some numbers still have the power to take your breath away and stop you dead in your tracks.
That was certainly the case last week, when a study by Columbia University estimated that some 36,000 fewer people would’ve died had the United States—and New York in particular—enacted social distancing measures one week earlier than it did—and an additional 18,000 could’ve been saved had those lockdown procedures begun seven days sooner than that.
The implications of these staggering figures are clear enough: First, in retrospect, the authorities were catastrophically slow in responding to the initial COVID outbreak. And second, should the country re-open too fast and too sloppily—as it now threatens to do—there is every reason to assume the next wave of infections will be as bad as—or worse than—the first one.
On the first point, I would advise caution in judging our leaders for their slow-footedness more harshly than is strictly necessary, bearing in mind how little they (and we) knew at the time and how wholly unprecedented the notion of sheltering-in-place was once the trigger was finally pulled.
To be clear, I am not referring here to Donald Trump, whose willful, callous indifference to the entire problem—including the withholding of critical supplies to states that urgently needed them—has been a singular failure of leadership in every imaginable context.
However, when it comes to the state and local leaders making the real on-the-ground, hour-by-hour assessments—particularly New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio—it is worth reminding ourselves that on March 8—one week before its lockdown began—the city of New York had a total of 142 known infections of COVID-19 and zero known deaths.
Ask yourself: Without the benefit of hindsight and with human nature being what it is, would it really have been feasible for either Cuomo or de Blasio to have stepped in front of a microphone on March 8—or any date prior—and ordered the residents of the nation’s largest metropolitan area to lock themselves inside their homes, suspending all but their most essential life activities, in order to prevent the spread of a virus that, at that moment in time, had not killed a single person within the five boroughs and showed no obvious signs of becoming a once-in-a-century epidemic?
Yes, even at that relatively early date, infectious disease experts had warned of COVID’s high level of contagion—as had been seen in places like China, Italy, Iran and elsewhere. Nonetheless, for an American political leader to unilaterally shut down his own state or city—immediately and profoundly upending the life of every man, woman and child living there—on the mere presumption that things could get real bad, real quick, would have been an enormously large pill for any sizeable population center to swallow. Frankly, there just wasn’t enough carnage to convince us it would’ve been worth it.
Thus was the Catch-22 by which many public officials were constrained: The only way to avoid extreme casualties from the virus was to take extraordinary measures, yet the only politically palatable means of enacting those measures in the first place was to passively allow some of those casualties to occur, thereby proving how dire the situation actually was. While obviously not the official plan, that was effectively how the tragedy unfolded.
And now—100,000 U.S. deaths later—we are seeing this very same dynamic playing out in the minds and Twitter feeds of millions of Americans who are fed up with being confined mostly to their apartments with nothing to do, itching to resume life as it used to be.
The argument today—if only implicitly—is whether the nationwide economic disruption of the past two-plus months was, at long last, a good idea. Whether putting the country in a state of suspended animation was an overreaction and a folly, rather than smart public health policy that saved countless lives. Whether (to put it bluntly) the loss of 100,000 of our fellow citizens to an insidious virus was essentially unavoidable and thus not worth the trouble of kneecapping our GDP and driving unemployment rates through the roof.
As with the initial lockdown advisories, the debate invites a vicious paradox: A six-figure death rate might lead the lay person to believe—falsely—that the mitigation efforts were futile or counterproductive, rather than an indication that the mitigation efforts worked.
As horrific as the COVID fatalities have been with social distancing practices in place, the fairly obvious truth is that a less draconian version of them—let alone none at all—would almost certainly have produced an exponentially higher death toll—possibly above 2 million souls, according to an early projection by Imperial College London—and, conversely, that better overall adherence to such practices would have yielded marginally more tolerable results.
In short, as with so many things, we cannot assess the effectiveness of a given action without considering the alternative—the proverbial road not taken—which in this case would’ve been for all of us to carry on our lives semi-normally, allowing the virus to “wash over the country” (in the president’s words) and hope all the scientific models were wrong.
That, in effect, is the decision many of us have collectively made by opting to resume certain social activities—and the industries that provide them—for the sake of enjoying the summer warmth that is just beginning to settle in. Despite all we have learned over the last several months—how COVID spreads, who is most vulnerable and what it does to the human respiratory system—we are betting that, with enough social distancing and mask-wearing (or not), we can simply ride out whatever’s coming next and hope the consequences aren’t as dire as they were (and still are) the first time around.
It’s a hell of a gamble for a first-world country to take, and we shouldn’t expect it to end well. To paraphrase Boss Jim Gettys in Citizen Kane: We’re going to need more than one lesson. And we’re going to get more than one lesson.