Coronavirus Doesn't Care About Public Opinion and It Still Kills
USA Today , June 09, 2020
Officially or not, the United States is adopting the Swedish model of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic — on a much larger scale and with a more divided and rambunctious population.
Even before the brutal killing of George Floyd catalyzed mass street protests across the country, the United States was ready to break out of its COVID-19 shutdown — never mind the health statistics. Weary of sacrificing their freedom, education, jobs and businesses to save the lives of largely anonymous and disproportionately elderly people, increasing numbers of Americans wanted out of the house.
Politicians, not just in Trump country, were beginning to bend. My own city of Los Angeles, where new cases continue to rise, began allowing hair salons, restaurants and retail centers to reopen with safety restrictions.
Americans have cabin fever
Photos of crowds enjoying Memorial Day weekend at the Lake of the Ozarks or watching the SpaceX launch suggest “serious problems,” Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a congressional committee on Thursday. “We are very concerned that our public health message isn’t resonating.”
Now waves of protesters have hit the streets, many in masks but few 6 feet apart. The protests, Redfield warned, could become “a seeding event” for future outbreaks.
By supporting, or at least tolerating, the protests, officials seem to have declared the pandemic less important than they previously made out. To some Trump supporters, the double standard validates their belief that the shutdown was a political ploy to hurt the president’s reelection prospects by harming the economy. To others, it shows that what really matters is who suffers: small businesses are fair game, left-wing protesters aren’t.
Less paranoid and partisan voices, especially in New York City, point to the protests as evidence that the lockdown has gone on long enough. With reasonable precautions, they argue, we should open up. “If you can give blessings to protesters who are exercising their right to protest without social distancing, then surely we can be free to practice our right to conduct business in a safe and social distanced manner with masks and sanitizing,” a hairdresser told New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz.
But the protests don’t mean the virus has disappeared. Neither does our weariness with quarantine.
What society's decision to reopen means
The implicit decision that the shutdown is over signals something else entirely — not about nature but about people and politics. “Flatten the curve” worked as a slogan, because most Americans wanted to avoid overrun hospitals. They didn’t want what happened in Lombardy to happen here. And, outside of New York City, flattening the curve has worked. Hospitals have been able to cope with the influx of COVID-19 patients.
But once you’ve solved that problem, then what? Officials never offered a coherent and realistic plan for going forward. Epidemiologists, people began to suspect, would demand that we stay home forever — or at least until a vaccine worked — never mind the economic, mental and physical toll. But the public was never going to tolerate a year-plus shutdown, at least not as long as most people had no direct experience with the virus.
The unspoken plan was always that, one way or another, enough people would come down with COVID-19 for the pandemic to burn itself out. Along the way, if we were lucky, enough effective treatments would be developed to dampen the fatality rate. Either way, we’d achieve herd immunity without ever admitting that was the only viable option.
By infecting many more people, who will take the virus home with them, the protests will accelerate that process. Many protesters realize the risk they’re taking but believe that the cause justifies the danger. But many don’t fully grasp the danger — particularly young white people for whom the virus is a largely abstract threat.
Whatever reopening takes place in response to the double-standards argument will also spread the disease. Letting businesses and their patrons decide for themselves what risks to take may be justified, even necessary. But it doesn’t make the risks disappear. We are about to see what happens when hundreds of millions of people suddenly exit quarantine.
The good news is that hospitals are more prepared now and clinicians have learned more about effective treatment. But the virus still makes people sick, some grievously so. And it still kills. Nature doesn’t care about public opinion.