Sunday, March 29, 2020

In Pandemic, More Liberty Means More Deaths

      Patrick Henry rallied his fellow Virginians to the impending revolution in 1775 with a stirring speech, well known to school children and others still today, that posited for himself the dramatic choice, "Give me liberty or give me death." Henry showed that he was deadly serious, according to the accounts, by bursting from imaginary chains and grasping an ivory letter opener as though in self-sacrifice.
      With the coronavirus pandemic forcing Americans to shutter businesses and shelter in place, some politicians and commentators on the political right are clamoring today for liberty to be restored, but they are less than deadly serious. Unlike Patrick Henry, these faux patriots call for sacrificing others, rather than themselves, not so much for liberty's sake, but for the economy's and for President Trump's re-election.
      The equation today, in the time of the coronavirus, is simple: more liberty means more deaths. The social distancing guidelines that Trump claims as his in a mass mailer sent to postal households last week come with the unanimous recommendation of actual public health experts; they will still be needed, the experts say, beyond Trump's 15-day pull date.
      The calls to sunset the social distancing guidelines with the pandemic still advancing come with a strong hint of libertarian resentment from, among others, the lieutenant governor of the "don't mess with me" state of Texas and from confirmed opponents of government regulation such as the Hoover Institution's Richard A. Epstein.
      Texas's lieutenant governor, Republican Dan Patrick, posed the choice starkly in an appearance with Fox News' Tucker Carlson [March 23] the same day that Trump had warned against allowing "the cure to be worse than the disease." As a septuagenarian grandfather himself, Patrick said the economically unproductive elderly, especially vulnerable to Covid19, could be sacrificed to get the United States' recession-bound economy back on track. "If that's the choice," Patrick told Carlson, "I'm all in."
      Even before Patrick's chilling suggestion, the idea of consigning the elderly to slow deaths from covid19 had advanced far enough to draw attention from, among others, Donald McNeil, science reporter for The New York Times. Appearing on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show hours after the Carlson program, McNeil let out a cri de coeur: “This notion that it’s only going to kill grandma — as if that were OK — has got to stop,” McNeil said.
      Epstein, a self-identified libertarian hawk, argued for lifting the social distancing guidelines even earlier in an article posted on the Hoover Institution's web site on March 16 and quickly circulated in the White House and in pro-Trump circles. With no training in epidemiology, Epstein opined that the warnings from statistically trained public health experts "radically overestimate the ultimate death toll" from Covid19. As of mid-March, Epstein contended, the number of deaths in the United States — then below 500 and now over 1,700 — "fall[ ] short of justifying the draconian measures that are now being implemented." With appropriate modesty, Epstein conceded at the end that "perhaps" his analysis was wrong.
      Economists, once famously described as knowing "the price of everything but the value of nothing," were adding to the debate over the spreading quarantines by hesitantly asking whether the benefits in lives saved were worth the costs to the economy. Those costs emerged starkly when the U.S. Labor Department Labor Statistics reported at the end of the week a record number of new claims for unemployment benefits: just below 3.3 million. For Trump, the data amounted to a bucket of cold water thrown on his boasts about the lowest unemployment rate ever and the best economy ever.
      Trump, with no evidence ever of empathy for the hardships of others, was most certainly concerned about the risk of unemployment: especially his own. With an approval rating below water throughout his presidency, Trump had been counting on a good economy as his hole card in the November election. An economy stuck in reverse would cast him perhaps as the underdog in what was going to be a difficult re-election campaign in any event.
      At week's end, Trump appeared intent on lifting the social-distancing guidelines by Easter Sunday [April 12] in order to help get the economy going again. His impatience flew in the face of evidence-based predictions from public health experts that relaxing emergency measures prematurely would allow the virus to spread beyond control and lead to a new spike in diagnosed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. That is what happened, the experts noted, when some U.S. cities eased restrictions they had adopted to combat the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918.
      Trump repeatedly insisted, contrary to the evidence, that the pandemic arrived completely unexpected. In fact, he had received warnings about the potential spread of the virus even in those early weeks when he was minimizing the risks. He also called the pandemic unprecedented, seemingly unaware of the Spanish flu epidemic a century earlier. Studies of the epidemic, as cited in a recent article in National Geographic, show that death rates were 50 percent lower in cities that adopted preventive measures early and that relaxing those measures could cause an otherwise stabilized city — for example, St. Louis — to relapse.
      Social distancing "saved thousands of American lives during the last great American pandemic," according to the article's headline. Trump's self-interested hopes for a favorable economy by November matter not a whit in comparison to the lives to be saved by staying the course.

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