On the menu today: why our response to the virus has always been hobbled by our individual and collective difficulty accepting hard truths; why we shouldn’t be surprised that doctors and politicians disagree because of their different incentives; a tough question of matching the most vulnerable workers to the work that needs to be done before the pandemic can come to an end; and all kinds of helpful advice to parents from all of those wise sages on Twitter.
Americans Struggle to Deal with Hard Truths
Think back to March 9, when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert touched all the microphones of the assembled reporters. The National Basketball Association, growing worried about the potential spread of the coronavirus, had barred reporters from the locker rooms and instead had players appear for post-game press conferences in a separate room. Gobert apparently thought the precautions were ridiculous and that the league was being paranoid. Two nights later, Gobert tested positive for coronavirus, prompting the NBA to suspend the season.
Rudy Gobert is not a bad person. He was shocked and remorseful about what he had done and he subsequently donated $500,000 to an employee relief fund and local charities. There is no indication that he’s the kind of person who would deliberately put someone else at risk of contracting a dangerous virus. So why did Gobert touch all the microphones? Because the idea that he could be putting people at risk just by standing close to them, or merely touching an object they would later touch, was just unthinkable to him. It was a truth he was not ready or willing to accept.
We’ve all been forced to accept and adapt to some hard truths — maybe even once unthinkable ones. As of this writing, the American death toll is above 83,000 and we’re approaching 300,000 deaths worldwide. Our official figures are probably undercounting the true toll, as the overall mortality rate since mid-March is significantly higher than the official number of coronavirus deaths. (Some of these were probably people with non-coronavirus health issues such as strokes and heart attacks, who didn’t go to a hospital in time.) The unemployment rate is at Great Depression levels. Certain industries such as airlines and tourism have collapsed and are unlikely to recover for at least a year, maybe significantly longer than that. Our food supply chain is scrambling to cope with disruptions, shut-down restaurants, and meat-packing plant closures. Almost every school in America is closed and our “nonessential” businesses are only now starting to reopen after about two months.
For a long time in American life, most people could look at the news most days, shrug, and say “Eh, this is much ado about nothing, things will turn out okay.”
Even our worst natural disasters — such as Hurricane Katrina — only affected one region of the country at once. The 9/11 attacks were absolutely horrific and terrifying, but most of America outside of New York and Washington managed to return to something resembling “normal” daily routines pretty quickly. The Great Recession was painful and slow, but even at its worst, about 90 percent of the workforce kept going to work, the schools remained open, and food was on the shelves. Things that seem like a big deal to those of us who follow the news closely — the massive hack of the Office of Personnel Management, Healthcare.gov, unprofessional behavior in the U.S. Secret Service, Fast and Furious, IRS abuses — were no big deal to millions upon millions of Americans. Many probably never even heard much about them. Whether or not we think people should ignore these developments, it is undeniable that most of the general public chose to ignore them and suffered no real consequence for tuning it out. Most Americans got used to being able to tune out the news and the problems of the rest of the world and preferred to think about happier topics such as reality TV or sports or video games or whatever. No matter how excited the people on the television seemed to be screaming about Lehman Brothers or Ebola or Russia or the Deep State, things always seemed to turn out okay.
But now . . . things are not turning out okay.
The coronavirus pandemic is the first problem in American life in a long time that has affected the life of just about everyone. It is the first crisis in a long time that people from coast to coast cannot choose to ignore. Your local hospital canceled your nonessential visit. Your employer laid you off or furloughed you. You cannot visit your elderly relative in a nursing home. Businesses around you are closed — other than your supermarket and pharmacy. The shelves in your store may not have had toilet paper a few weeks ago — or meat now. Your local restaurants are either now only take-out and delivery or have shut down entirely. Your locality may be requiring you to wear a mask, and you’re not allowed to gather in groups. Every major event and gathering is canceled. Your children’s school is closed.
What’s more, no one in any position of authority seems to know when things will go “back to normal.” I suspect that’s what’s really frightening Americans. We can endure a lot, as long as we know there’s an end date, a light at the end of the tunnel.
We thought South Korea was showing us the better way and were ahead of us — but they just had a new spike in cases. France and Germany saw sudden rises, just as they were getting ready to loosen restrictions. Spain’s daily death toll is remaining stubbornly high. Forget worries about a second wave; no one is sure we’re done with the first one yet.
Doctors and Politicians Do Not Have the Same Incentives
Yesterday’s Senate hearing featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had a much-discussed exchange between Fauci and Senator Rand Paul. Unsurprisingly, quite a few people are choosing to see the exchange as yet another familiar battle between “wise doctor and foolish Republican senator” — who, oh, by the way, is a doctor himself and who already was diagnosed with and beat SARS-CoV-2.
Fauci’s job is to tell us the truth, as best he can determine, in his medical judgment. His job isn’t to sugarcoat it or make the truth easier to hear or bear. Fauci’s job is not to be popular. He’s not up for reelection. While he would probably prefer to not leave the American public with a sense of despair, he’s not obligated to try to make us feel better about what the truth is. To paraphrase a wise not-so-old philosopher, his facts don’t care about our feelings.
Politicians, however, do care a great deal about what the public wants to hear. And year by year, decade by decade, our electorate has shown very little patience for any lawmaker that tells the public hard truths that it would rather not hear. We don’t like hearing that we’re spending more money that we’re taking in, and that interest payments on our debt will grow larger and larger in the future. We don’t like to hear that 60 percent of federal spending is Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, and that reducing the deficit would require more than just cutting less popular programs such as foreign aid. (Polling indicates many Americans think foreign aid is about 25 percent of the federal budget; it makes up less than 1 percent.)
The Fauci approach — “tell the truth, whether or not people want to hear it” — is only half the challenge. The other half is getting people to act upon truths they did not want to hear.
We don’t like hearing that we need to eat healthier and exercise more. We don’t like hearing that we have to save more and spend less. We don’t like being reminded that we should be prepared for disasters — either natural or manmade. Those who like public transportation as a tool against climate change do not like hearing that public transportation could be a particularly dangerous vector for infectious diseases.
The biggest story of this pandemic is how quickly we can come to terms with some very hard truths. Among them:
- There is still quite a bit that we don’t understand about this virus.
- The virus may do lasting damage to some of those who do not succumb to it.
- While it’s not impossible that a vaccine is discovered by the end of the year, it is unlikely. The White House is attempting a secretive project called “Operation Warp Speed” to get a vaccine ready by the end of the year. If it works, it will be miraculous. But we cannot count on it working.
- While our potential options for treatment are steadily growing and improving, we do not have a way to treat the infected that is certain to save their lives.
- Any economic activity involves human interaction, which is likely to at least modestly increase the spread of the virus.
- Extended lockdowns and quarantines carry their own ill effects for human health, physical, psychological, and emotional.
- As Stanford University professor Keith Humphries observes, “Testing programs depend on people being so compliant that they will stay home for 14 days because a health worker told them to.”
- As Avik Roy observes, “People are way overestimating the willingness of 2 million Americans per day to get 6-inch nasal swabs sent up their nostrils to comply with a population testing regime.”
The challenge before us is to figure out a way to live with these hard truths. “Everyone stay in your homes until further notice” is not really living.
How Do We Match Vulnerable Workers with Work That Needs to Be Done?
When you read “the Avik Roy plan,” it stinks. But the plan has the advantage of being realistic; it does not assume that any of our problems magically get better in the coming year.
If your risk categories include being 40 and over, or having diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, smoker, kidney dialysis, any kind of cancer treatment or recovery, or being overweight . . . that’s a lot of Americans who need to consistently practice strict social distancing “until further notice.” A wiser and sharper group of leaders would already be brainstorming how to match these demographics — who still need to make a living — with work that needs to be done to alleviate the pandemic and can be done while social distancing.
ADDENDUM: I’m so glad that the world has so many non-parents to tell parents how easy this summer will be on kids, without any summer camps, summer schools, summer jobs programs, sports leagues, public pools, large gatherings of any kind, and minimizing time with grandparents. You see, back when these folks were young, they did all kinds of things and these darn kids today are just too spoiled and it’s all the fault of overprotective helicopter parents! By no stretch of the imagination could the coming summer be a difficult one for children across the country and around the world! I’m so glad that Twitter gives all of these people a venue to share this wisdom to the rest of us.
Yesterday I also learned, any expression of concern about the state of the nation’s children experiencing several months of isolating social distancing means that you don’t care about the elderly or unemployed, in the eyes of a total #*$#ing moron.