The Faulty & Irrational Arguments Behind the COVID-19 Shutdown
Shortages are not the only thing hampering a proper response to COVID-19. So are a series of questionable arguments being wielded to justify a more stringent response by the states than may be wise. Let's look at a few of those arguments in the hope of promoting rational decision making.
This crisis is unprecedented
This crisis is frightening but it's not unprecedented. Comparable viral outbreaks since the middle of the twentieth century provide helpful perspective.
Though the forecasts of American deaths from COVID-19 vary, a consensus of epidemiology experts anticipates about 200,000 such deaths this year. That's in line with the 100,000 to 200,000 deaths predicted by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert. More recently, the most influential COVID-19 model's estimate of U.S. deaths was revised down to 60,000. Higher worst-case estimates abound but Fauci reminds us that he's never seen a disease for which "the worst-case scenario actually came out."
Fauci's numbers are grim but they're comparable to the 1957 pandemic caused by the novel and highly contagious H2N2 virus and the 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic, which produced U.S. death tolls equivalent to 220,000 and 165,000 respectively after scaling up for our 2020 population. A decade ago, more than 60 million Americans were infected with the H1N1 virus, a novel strain for which there was no vaccine. And just two years ago, more than 60,000 Americans died during a bad flu season that few of us remember because there were no headlines about the 250,000 new cases per day nor the sad truism of "mounting death tolls."
While the deadliness of COVID-19 is not unprecedented, the severe restrictions imposed by the states are. The death tolls from the other outbreaks are heartbreaking, but they did not result in panic nor stay-at-home orders and a shutdown of businesses and schools.
Admittedly, each pandemic presents different challenges and can require different preventative measures. But one wonders whether it was the lack of panic in the past that makes it so hard for people to accept what might otherwise be reassuring — that we've been through this before.
Better safe than sorry
The problem with the dominant "abundance of caution" argument is that we are being anything but cautious. We cannot afford to take COVID-19 lightly, but neither can we afford to act rashly.
Severe restrictions were put in place with no debate about the consequences, no exit plan, and no strategy or even precedent for how the nation would survive and emerge from an economic shutdown. Moreover, the damage from this broad shutdown is certain, while the worst-case scenarios the shutdown is designed to mitigate are speculative, as are the shutdown's benefits relative to narrower, more tailored safety measures. That doesn't sound cautious.
Furthermore, the shutdown is at odds with how we handle virtually every other risk to life. Consider that limits on non-essential driving would save many of the 40,000 Americans killed annually in auto accidents. A ban on excessive alcohol consumption would further cut down on car fatalities and otherwise save countless lives lost to or destroyed by alcoholism. Likewise, many of the 35,000 American influenza deaths in a typical year could be prevented by prohibiting larger gatherings during flu season.
Each of those lives is no less precious than a life lost to COVID-19. Yet we reject such restrictions because we also value our freedom, prefer individual responsibility, and eschew a one-sided focus on caution.
Those suggesting a more measured approach to COVID-19 are routinely accused of favoring Wall Street over people.
Of course, Wall Street will be hurt by the economic decline — expected to rival the Great Depression in its steepness — caused by the shutdown. However, bread lines during that depression remind us that the primary victims of a severe economic downturn are ordinary people.
Economists at the Fed project a 32% unemployment rate. Even half that rate would guarantee that the number of shutdown victims dwarfs the wildest predictions of COVID-19 fatalities. And that's before considering the broken dreams of countless small business owners, as well as the millions of older Americans — the very folks the shutdown is supposed to be protecting — who lost a third of their life savings as the stock market reacted to the unfolding shutdown.
Meanwhile, the education of the nation's schoolchildren is suffering, as are the civil liberties of every American. The shutdown is challenging the constitutional rights to free association, religious worship, due process, and interstate travel, along with property rights, voting rights, and the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, the one-man rule of gubernatorial COVID-19 decrees gives citizens little say in all of this.
Because the shutdown has no exit plan, we have no idea how long the economic and other hardships will last. Arguing that compassion and the welfare of ordinary Americans lies on only one side of the COVID-19 equation is disingenuous.
Protecting our health is most important
Nonetheless, we need to consider the damage the shutdown is doing to our health.
Skyrocketing unemployment means less access to health insurance and less income to purchase health care. The closing of public schools and colleges has cut off access to their doctors, nurses, and clinics. The shutdown of gyms, sporting activities, and the like has turned most of us into couch potatoes.
Most alarmingly, Americans' mental health will suffer under the social and professional isolation, unemployment, and other economic devastation caused by the shutdown. The inevitable result will be more suicides and more drug and alcohol abuse. Suicide and drug overdoses already take the lives of more than 100,000 Americans annually, and studies show that this death toll will rise as unemployment increases.
Limiting the number of lives lost to COVID-19 is crucial. But so is preventing the additional suffering that will take place if panic and governmental overreaction to COVID-19 displace a measured response informed by the tradeoffs involved.
Curt Levey is president of the Committee for Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting individual liberty and the rule of law. Before attending law school, he worked as a scientist in the field of artificial intelligence. Follow him on Twitter @Curt_Levey.