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OPINION | Prepare for tendentious Covid ‘lessons’

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IGNORE the Atlantic magazine headline that proclaims “How the Pandemic Defeated America.”

You won’t be learning much except a paean to progressive policy prescriptions for social “inequities” that the author insists are the real root of our pandemic failings. Unfortunately, a society without inequities will never exist, so this is no help.

Ignore even claims that seem to go directly at real pandemic-management failures, such as: “The federal government could have mitigated [shortages] by buying supplies at economies of scale and distributing them according to need.”

Who knows what this misuse of terminology is meant to convey, but strong-arming suppliers is a good way to discourage supply. The government should do the opposite: advance sums to manufacturers and guarantee them a return on surge capacity that might prove unneeded.

Nor is any country likely to maintain, as the article seems to suggest, idle hospitals and staff against a pandemic that may not recur for decades. Richard Posner in 2004 published a valuable book on the range of potential cataclysms with a non-negligible chance of befalling mankind. The only policy that recommends itself against them all is to continue building the wealth and knowledge and therefore resilience of society (plus space travel to diversify our egg basket).

We’ve learned a few pandemic-related things. Whether or not it’s a good idea, politicians next time will be quicker to close their borders to global travel. Even the New York Times, in its own more useful drawdown of lessons, devotes its longest section to stopping international travel as the best hope of quashing a new bug.

Governments that don’t have them will seek laws and bureaucratic provisions for quickly isolating people involuntarily. The U.S. will consider banning travel between states to protect towns and cities not yet infected And when this total-suppression strategy fails, as it likely would in the case of an easily transmitted respiratory pathogen like the coronavirus? Stockpiling protective equipment was already on our to-do list but, embarrassingly, we forgot to replenish supplies after the 2009 swine flu outbreak. Let’s also not confuse an absence of surge capacity in things like masks and test reagents with supplier malfeasance. If the U.S. seeks too much self-sufficiency, it could harm rather than help the global ability to meet emergencies.

Sadly, many reporters covering the Covid story are weighed down with a single-variable mentality. This does not improve the quality of our policy discussion. Any goal other than zero transmission, no matter the cost, earns their condemnation.

Which makes this an interesting moment for a New Zealand update. The South Pacific country has exploited its unique wealth and isolation to try to eliminate the virus completely. Just days ago business leaders in Auckland were so sure of success that they called on the government to open new quarantine hotels to accommodate an expected flood of foreign businesses seeking refuge from “recurrent lockdowns” in their home countries.

Then Auckland locked itself down over a mere four cases of unknown origin. Why? Even a single transmission could presage defeat for the country’s costly investment in its “go hard, go early” attempt to expel the virus entirely.

The new outbreak, after 102 days in which no cases were reported, has risen to 30 infections and poses a disturbing question: Did the country ever really quash domestic spread of a disease that is often mild or symptomless? New Zealand may now find itself invoking repeated local shutdowns over mysterious eruptions. Even when a vaccine comes, vaccines are not perfect so the nation will have to accept some domestic disease or remain largely cut off from travel and tourism. New Zealand’s strategy may yet prove least-cost but the trade-offs are steeper than cheerleaders acknowledge. In the U.S., reporters have thrown over the traditional understanding that a disease that kills the young is more socially costly than one that kills the old. But human behavior still recognizes this reality. From Berlin to the South of France to Alpine, N.J., the young are now the chief dissenters from social distancing. The tradeoff they face is everything that makes life interesting, the experiences and relationships that will secure their future, vs. a disease that, in most cases, may not be worse than the flu.

In the U.S., we delude ourselves if we think riots, protests and rising crime are unconnected to school closures and the destruction of many small service businesses. (The politicians bending over backward to avoid more lockdowns are not so deluded.) Asking humans to stop behaving like humans is not a sustainable strategy over the time period required for coping with the corona-virus. We need a better understanding to deal with our current crisis, let alone future pandemics.

 

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