Politics & Policy

How Much Sooner Could We Have Locked Down?

People walk through a nearly empty Times Square during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, March 19, 2020. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
We were slow to act in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. But would people have followed lockdown orders if they’d come earlier?

The lead story in the New York Times today is a new study from Columbia University disease modelers, which finds that starting lockdowns and social distancing a week or two earlier could have saved many, many lives:

If the United States had begun imposing social distancing measures one week earlier than it did in March, about 36,000 fewer people would have died in the coronavirus outbreak, according to new estimates from Columbia University disease modelers.

And if the country had begun locking down cities and limiting social contact on March 1, two weeks earlier than most people started staying home, the vast majority of the nation’s deaths — about 83 percent — would have been avoided, the researchers estimated.

While some school districts closed as early as March 13, most states closed their schools between March 16, which the Columbia study uses as the rough start date of our pandemic-control measures, and March 23. State lockdowns went into effect from March 24 to April 7. The study is undoubtedly right that we would be in much better circumstances if we had started locking down on March 1. But it’s fair to wonder whether that could realistically have been accomplished. Imagine that President Trump or Dr. Anthony Fauci had gone before the country on the evening of February 29 and declared:

My fellow Americans, a new virus that first arose in China has now infected 68 people and killed one. We must immediately close all nonessential businesses and schools, postpone all non-life-threatening medical care, cancel every public event and gathering, and remain inside our homes, leaving only for brief periods of exercise and grocery shopping. We must stay six feet apart from everyone except our immediate families. These extraordinarily disruptive and strict measures will be maintained until further notice, even though they will almost certainly create a level of unemployment on par with the Great Depression. This is a terrible burden, but if we wait even another two weeks, we will bear witness to the deaths of 100,000 Americans by Memorial Day.

Would Americans have willingly complied? A lot of them probably would have, but a significant number of them would have thought the measures were a wild, paranoid overreaction.

The public might have been more receptive to a dire warning by March 8; by then, the United States had 541 cases and 22 deaths, and the exponential growth was starting to show in the figures and charts. But if any date represented a turning point for the coronavirus in the U.S., it was March 11, when the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic, the NCAA announced plans to play its later-canceled basketball tournament without fans, the National Basketball Association suspended its season, and the president announced travel restrictions on visitors from Europe. And even with all of that shocking news, across the country, people still gathered in large crowds for early Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations on the weekend of March 14 and 15.

“Normalcy bias” — the idea that tomorrow will be like today, because today was like yesterday — is an extremely powerful force in human psychology. For most Americans, the idea of a strict national lockdown until further notice in response to a virus was the stuff of sci-fi movies. SARS, H1N1, MERS, Ebola, Zika — we were warned about all of those infectious-disease threats, but most of them barely affected our lives. There was always going to be skepticism that this was that bad, and that sweeping, draconian precautions were necessary.

With all of that said, our government, at every level, is expected to see these problems clearly even when the public cannot. We spend an enormous amount of money to get the best information possible to policymakers. President Trump’s management of this crisis has been pretty bad. His long list of comments downplaying the potential danger, from “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China” to “The 15 [cases] within a couple of days, is going to be down to zero” to “It’s going to disappear one day, it’s like a miracle,” were ludicrously naive and uninformed. The reports that he simply ignored or didn’t understand the warnings from the intelligence community are deeply disturbing.

And Trump wasn’t alone. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio was arguably even worse, telling his constituents to go about their lives normally until March 11. On March 2, New York governor Andrew Cuomo assured his state, “We have the best health-care system on the planet right here in New York. So, when you’re saying, what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.” Just about every elected official wanted to believe that the outbreak wouldn’t be so bad and that their government was well-prepared to handle it.

It is indisputable that most places enacted lockdowns far too slowly. But those who want to fight pandemics with strict quarantines will always be fighting the nature of both communicable diseases and human psychology. Paradoxically, a virus is most easily contained when it seems like it isn’t a threat; as the danger becomes clearer over time, stopping the spread gets more difficult. Successful quarantines always seem like an overreaction, because the danger they were meant to prevent never manifests.

We might be comforted by the notion that we can take the hard lessons of the early days of this virus with us into the future and try to apply them to the next pandemic. But there’s a catch: The “luckier” we are — the longer we go without another deadly pandemic after this one passes — the likelier it is that members of the public will forget those lessons, and react with the same nonchalance and skepticism that initially greeted this pandemic.

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