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OPINION | We only ever fight threats when they’re upon us

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THERE are some places in the U.S. where, as I write, you can still go into a bar, order a drink and have a meal within a few feet of fellow diners. “Take me there!” we may be tempted to say, especially those of us who are already weeks into a mandatory lockdown diet of home-cooked food, experimental cocktails and takeout.


These last, fading glimpses of normality are still visible as, everywhere, the scale of the threat from Covid-19 has become abundantly clear: thousands of deaths already and multiples more to come.
We have known for some time now how much of a menace this epidemic is and that proximity among humans is the primary means by which people will get sick and die. Still, in places there seem to be some — citizens as well as those in authority — who have decided to continue functioning more or less as normal.
I write this not to join the orgy of finger-pointing that is now routine. Quite the opposite. For all the name-calling and blame-apportioning we are now doing, the evidence of much of history is that the failure to respond adequately to a looming threat is embedded in our nature. Expecting us to respond to an impending challenge by taking the most extreme measures to prevent it is expecting something we have rarely done — something ahistoric and virtually unhuman.
Much of the media’s coverage of the past couple of weeks has been built around validating the claim that the U.S. failed to protect its people from this extraordinary scourge and is, as a result, headed for a far more devastating outcome than just about anywhere else on the planet. The focus is, of course, very much on the president. Warnings were missed, it’s said, and scientists ignored — all because of President Trump’s determination to keep public confidence high and the economy strong ahead of the election.
It’s surely true that Mr. Trump’s repeated dismissals of the seriousness of the threat contributed to a sense of security in the early stages of the epidemic that we now know was misplaced. More could have been done, especially to ramp up testing capacity. But to move from that proposition to the argument that Mr. Trump’s assurances were responsible for blocking preventive action is a leap at odds with all we know about human behavior.
For one thing, the president wasn’t alone. Those of us in New York City will long remember Mayor Bill de Blasio exhorting us to go out to bars when there was already evidence of extreme stress in the hospitals. Many in the same media organizations now condemning the president’s dilatory response were themselves dismissing Covid-19 as nothing worse than a seasonal flu. Neither will we forget how many of them denounced as xenophobic one early measure that the president did take to protect the U.S.: the decision to block flights from China in late January.
The point is not that individuals failed to respond adequately. It’s that it is devilishly difficult, especially in a complex democracy, to mobilize a community to preempt a challenge of this sort.
In hindsight, it was probably epidemiologically optimal to lock down the entire country a month earlier than we did — in mid- to late February, let’s say. We should have known, some say, because we had the experience of Italy. But look back at the commentary on Italy a month or so ago, and you will see how particular, rather than typical, Italy was seen at the time: its demographics, the high proportion of Chinese visitors, the spotty availability of health care.
What’s more, would it have been feasible — politically, administratively — to lock down the U.S. sooner? How could we have expected people to keep children home from school, stop working and suffer the enormous economic losses we are now seeing when the threat was still seen by most (including experts) as a low-probability outcome?
All the time, we have to make almost impossibly difficult estimates around the risk-reward calculus of our actions. Even now, as the virus threat is unmistakable, some argue that it does not justify the economic devastation of the lockdown.
History suggests that we rarely get these decisions right. In the 1930s, Britain and France failed to head off the threat posed by Nazi Germany. In the summer before Sept. 11, 2001, the White House was warned of an impending al Qaeda attack and failed to head it off. These were not failures of leadership. They were almost inevitable failures of human nature.
We never act until it’s too late, mainly because most of us don’t believe the threat is real until it is.

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