Out of every major crisis comes a saying. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—now 9/11—it was “This changes everything.” During World War II the British said, “Keep Calm and Carry On”—good advice then and now. For the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, it looks like America’s version will be “Flatten the curve.”
Given what we’re up against, “flatten the curve” sounds like a useful rule of thumb—not only for the health-care system but for the economy, politics and even our social and psychological well-being.
It is appropriate that in an era dominated by technology, with much of life ordered by abstruse code running in the background, the crisis of our era should be defined by the arcane world of statistical epidemiology. Thus, flatten the curve: Rather than endure a crushing, immediate spike of Covid-19 cases, take extraordinary measures, such as social distancing across entire cities, to turn the crisis into a problem that allows mere mortals to cope.
Flattening the curve is not a solution. The coronavirus itself is what needs a solution, such as a vaccine or antiviral therapies. The implicit idea inside “flattening the curve” is that the virus’s spread will impose significant, immediate costs across society, and dealing with that also requires a strategy.
The epidemiologists’ strategy of social distancing is derived from measures taken during the 1918 flu epidemic, which only epidemiological historians remember. For the rest of us who still have historical memory (nonexistent on Florida’s spring-break beaches), the more useful, imperfect analogy is the sacrifices and hard choices of World War II.
The U.S. economy did not “shut down” then. But it was a crisis. Millions of young men—sons and fathers—went to Europe or the Pacific theater for four years, leaving women and older men to adapt. Which they did.
The subject has been understandably raised now whether the economic cost this time, or sacrifice, of business and school closures is worth the goal of flattening the curve of pressure on the U.S. hospital system, or for those likely to contract the virus and be killed or damaged by it.
This reminds me of the familiar debate, or dilemma, over the fact that most of the U.S. health-care system’s spending, particularly for Medicare, is on people in the “final years” of life. As a baseline in any of these discussions, I don’t like the idea of messing with the instinct of doctors and nurses, dating to Hippocrates, to save lives. Revise that instinct downward, and we’re undone.
Triage is obviously a legitimate concept in crises. But if we demote the medical profession’s instinct to save, for example by accepting X number of deaths while the rest of the population self-immunizes as it goes about its daily routines, we’re on a slippery slope. Legalizing euthanasia has already become more socially internalized than it should be.
While the medical troops fight the virus in the trenches, the rest of us need to flatten the coping curves inside our own responsibilities. The politicians always say Americans are up to the task of this or that challenge, but here optimism falters.
How long and to what degree social distancing in the U.S. should continue—two weeks, eight weeks, six months—is a subject that deserves analysis at least equal to what medical science is bringing to bear on the virus. So far, we have mostly the madness of crowds.
The financial markets are in an unrestrained and undisciplined panic. Whenever this happens, whether in 1929 or 2008, an overreaction of economically damaging regulation follows. If that post-panic panic occurs this time, it will turn the sacrifices everyone made fighting the virus into a long-term economic decline. The goal should be to create incentives for the economy to turn upward, not drive it down further with new burdens.
Again, it’s hard to be optimistic. Even as medical professionals in hazmat suits focus on mitigating infection, Washington addresses financial panic with its own panic. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, in concert with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, wants to throw a trillion dollars into the country. Meanwhile local officials in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are talking about releasing prisoners. And this even as an estimated 200,000 mom-and-pop stores in New York have voluntarily closed. Who’s going to release them?
Here’s a recovery idea Bernie Sanders won’t like, but what Bernie represents is looking pretty yesterday by now. Before this crisis, the real economy and the people who do real work were strong. When it’s over, every level of government—federal, state and local—should declare a two-year holiday from regulatory costs, such as the minimum wage. Ask any big-city shopkeeper or business owner if that relief wouldn’t help them hire back staff and turn the curve up quickly. Ask the laid-off workers if they’d take that deal.
The heroes of 9/11 were cops and firemen. The heroes of the pandemic of 2020 will be hospital workers. Miracles aren’t much in fashion, but if politicians took real risks to free the economy after the crisis, someone might even call them heroes.
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