Reopening? Your money or your life

Jack Benny’s famous bit: A mugger demands, “Your money or your life!” Benny hesitates. Then says, “I’m thinking it over!”

Between economic sacrifices and sacrificing lives, we really had no choice. Couldn’t tolerate seeing hospitals overwhelmed and people dying for lack of care. We opted to accept the economic pain, and it’s proving to be immense. Now we’re confronting the issue of reopening. The federal government no longer endorses shut-downs. In fact, an America that once would have led a global response now won’t even lead its own states. Some (mostly Republican) are already relaxing restrictions, others planning for it.

I have a bad feeling about this.

In many places, notably New York, the restrictions succeeded in flattening the curve, with illnesses and deaths trending downward. Elsewhere they’re actually still rising. Many states aren’t testing much, so are flying blind. In any case, relaxing invites a new virus explosion. At the outset, The Economist foresaw repeated cycling between lockdowns and disease spikes until either there’s a vaccine or until something like 80% of a population has experienced infection. Creating “herd immunity,” where the virus dies out for lack of enough infectable victims.

We’re nowhere near that. On the other hand, reopening could make sense if the number infected were low enough that testing and contact tracing could feasibly contain new outbreaks. Unfortunately we’re in between those two infection levels. Ours is sufficiently high that to reopen safely would require testing and contact tracing on a massive scale, well beyond existing capabilities. Ramping that up enough could cost hundreds of billions. It would actually be worth it, as against the cost of economic shutdown in the trillions. But the Trump administration is not biting this bullet; hardly even tonguing it.*

A compromise approach might conceivably be reasonable: relaxing hard lockdown restrictions while still urging carefulness — masks, social distancing, hand-washing, etc. Perhaps gaining much of the benefit while avoiding much of the cost.

This resembles Sweden’s approach. They never locked down, but did push social distancing and the like, while also taking more rigorous measures to protect the most vulnerable. The idea was to arrive at herd immunity at limited cost in both lives and economic damage. Sweden’s death rate does exceed that in otherwise comparable countries, but it’s not out of control, and may actually represent a reasonable balance between fighting the virus and protecting the economy.

But America is not Sweden, whose citizens have a very high level of social consciousness and trust their government. America’s government is widely viewed with hostility. Certainly its president inspires zero trust in anything he says. He’s even issued lockdown guidelines while encouraging people rebelling against them. Protesting with their “Trump 2020” banners, guns, and Confederate flags — and no social distancing. These nitwits may be a small minority. But even if most Americans act more sensibly, too many (thanks to Trump’s inconsistent messaging) are irresponsibly complacent about Covid-19. Relaxing restrictions will exacerbate that. Enough foolish people and the virus can spread like wildfire.

So the danger of a big resurgence is very high. What’s our Plan B for that? Lock down again? The public’s willingness will be limited, having suffered it once and relishing their escape. And closing the economy again is the last thing Trump will want as the election nears.

During tough wars voices always say we should just declare victory and go home. Trump’s strategy may be something like that. Reopen the economy, swagger about his imaginary tremendous victory over Covid-19, and basically ignore its recrudescence. The administration may use various wheezes to actually avoid reporting infections and deaths. Even now they’re much undercounted. Trump and his dupes are masters of reality-denial. Many Americans will avert their eyes.

Coronavirus coming here was not Trump’s fault. But the human and economic damage would have been much less had he not refused to listen, in January and February, to repeated cogent warnings urging action. Since then his response has been shambolic in every way. He is directly guilty for tens of thousands of deaths and trillions in economic loss. (Talk about “American carnage.”)

And if we reopen too soon, those sacrifices will have been for nought. We’ll have paid the price without getting what we thought we were buying. “Your money or your life” — we’ll have forfeited both.

* At every stage, lying about our testing capability. Claiming it exceeds that of any other country is blatantly false. In fact we’re nowhere near having testing and tracing capability to reopen without a virus resurgence.

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