A preprint study by Columbia University researchers finds that if U.S. officials had imposed lockdowns one or two weeks earlier, they could have reduced the COVID-19 death toll by tens of thousands. Over on the homepage, Jim Geraghty observes that it would have been a heavy political lift to impose lockdowns on March 1 or March 8, as the public hadn’t yet come to see the virus as dangerous and the confirmed case count remained low. But, he writes, “our government, at every level, is expected to see these problems clearly even when the public cannot.”
Indeed. But I think the government’s failure to see the problem and to call attention to it vitiates the argument that public opinion would have thwarted the faster imposition of lockdowns. Two reasons come to mind. First, the testing failure meant the public did not have enough data to accurately perceive the threat. As William Saletan points out on Twitter, a lack of tests concealed the true number of cases across the country. Wouldn’t New Yorkers, who unknowingly seeded outbreaks across the country, have been receptive to lockdowns by March 1 had they known there were already thousands of infections in their state? Second, elite cues on hard issues that require technical knowledge, like pandemics, can be enormously influential. But political elites systematically understated the threat until it was too late, ignoring politically inconvenient warnings and embracing dubious advice.
So public opinion could have been different. Maybe most Americans didn’t know how dangerous the virus was by March 1 (Jim and Michael Brendan Dougherty excepted). They might have known if we had had better leadership — from New York, from the CDC, and from the White House.