A decade ago in Buenos Aires, I found myself under lockdown pressed up against 10,000 strangers.
Boca Juniors, the famed Argentine soccer team had just defeated a visiting Chilean club team. My wife, my sister, and my brother-in-law and I were in the “popular section” packed in backs-to-crotches in stadium seating with ardent fans. The porteño behind my sister lined up his cocaine on his knee right next to her face.
After the victory, to protect the visiting Chilean fans from attacks by local Argentines, the police locked down the popular section to give the Chilean fans time to disperse. Normally the post-game lockdown lasts about 20 minutes, but this time, they extended it for extra security. After 45 minutes, the calls began, first one person, then more: “Open The Gate!” The cry filled the stadium. “Open the Gate!”
The time has come to Open the Gate of American society.
We will not go back to the status quo ante right away, we’d be foolish to flood back out and risk crushing our hospitals and adding up extra deaths, but we must get as close to everyone back to work and school as we can right now. If we don’t, we will be eating our seed corn: there will be no money to pay for the poor, the sick, the old, the at-risk the firefighters and police, the nurses and doctors. We will be bankrupt. The future is in peril.
In continuing a lockdown into a second full month, our political leaders are zealously protecting the public health, and in so doing are trampling the public welfare. They need to reverse course. Urgently.
May is not March
What began in March made sense. Data was scarce, infections were growing. How to get control over the spread no one was sure, and leaders took bold action, ordering sheltering-in-place in an effort to save lives. I supported this at the time, and I still support the decision taken then.
But the information has changed.
Second, what began as an emergency action is now being treated a safe status quo. This is reckless. Every day of continued lock down means more suffering inflicted upon our society. More livelihoods lost, more families going hungry, more families going homeless, Six in seven of the twenty million Americans who lost their jobs already lived on less than $40,000 per year. In many areas in America you can barely make ends meet on that. Now they have nothing. If we face sustained mass unemployment, there will not be enough wealth in society to support all these people’s basic needs.
In the Bay Area, leaders have extended the sheltering in place order for another month even though the infection rate is 1 in every 1,000 people. This is wildly out of proportion with risk. It seems leaders seek a utopian ideal of perfect information and tracking. While aggressive isolation and contact tracing is a great idea, we also must face the constraints of the real world. Our ability to put food on the table is collapsing before our eyes. We already didn’t do a great job of it before the pandemic. It has dramatically worsened. The Governor of California’s office did not respond to my questions on this urgent problem. One Bay Area superintendent I spoke with agreed we were being irrational in keeping things closed so long when our infections rates were so low, and he desperately wishes to see schools opened, but he concluded his hands were tied: the public health officials continued to recommend keeping schools closed, and he didn’t want to go against this tide.
Some folks saw this coming. Famed free thinker Jon Ioannidis predicted in March a massive overreaction due to lack of data that infection fatality rates were likely far lower than expected.
Dr. Daniel Donoho, a surgeon in Los Angeles who wrote a medical ethics and practical hospital protocol (in a single week!) on how to handle Covid warned backed in early March, “It will be a pandemic flu [a flu where there is little herd immunity] at worst for most of us <60, but it can be life threatening for age >60. Start practicing social isolation, plan for telework. I would rather cry wolf and risk looking stupid.”
Data has revealed exactly Ioannidis and Donoho’s hypotheses. Covid has ravaged elderly nations like Italy. The elderly of New York have similarly been decimated, nearly 1% of them wiped out. And, critically, younger people have been largely unscathed. People under 65 without underlying conditions accout for less than two percent of the dead in New York City.
If you are over 75, obese, have pulmonary or coronary conditions, and/or diabetes, covid-19 is a cruel specter. And it is fearsome to anyone who lives with someone in these at risk groups as well.
But for anyone else, it is not. This matters hugely. This in fact, is what our leaders somehow seem to willfully ignore.
The data is here now. It is not March anymore. New York City, arguably the worst affected place on earth, makes it plain. The odds of death look like this:
If 21% of the population has been infected, as NYC reports from its tests, then the overall Infection Fatality Rates should be about:
- 0 – 44: 1 in 2,000
- 75 & older: 1 in 20
These are not the same universe of experience. One in twenty is terrifying. A one in 2,000 chance of death if you get it, is about the same as a pandemic flu, as Dr. Donoho presciently described it. Covid-19 is simultaneously a brutal disease taking the lives of the elderly with sweeping speed, and for the healthy, working-age population, it is a particularly bad flu.
Fortunately, very fortunately, the vast majority of Americans are under 75 and without pre-existing conditions. The financial costs of caring for those who cannot work and stewarding society through this challenging time can be borne by the rest of us—if we could go to work and send children to school. But we can’t. All of society is being locked in.
A Better Way
In my experience, liberal communities in California and other places in America often look admiringly at Nordic social welfare states. They should look to Sweden. It is practicing exactly what America started to do before the seven-and-week-and-counting emergency lockdowns began. And it is succeeding far better than our country. They’ve paid a far lower social and economic cost and seen the same level of loss of life.
In early-March, America was: encouraging work from home for roles that could, disinfecting regularly, keeping social distancing practice in public and private places, minimizing large gatherings public and private. All of this we should do to serve the public welfare since they are reasonable sacrifices and manageable ones we can do together and for months or years if necessary.
As importantly, we were not taking actions with major consequences on society. We were not closing elementary schools. We were not closing businesses. We avoided this, and then the mid-March panic overcame us.
Not so for Sweden. Their wisdom doesn’t surprise me. In the brief time I spent there, all I found were industrious, warm, civic-minded people committed to building a just and prosperous society. We are supposed to be doing that on a much larger scale in America. Right now, when we should be spending socially-distanced time strengthening communities and caring for the needy, we are instead shuttering schools and businesses and wounding ourselves.
Sweden is not the only model to look at either. Hong Kong, Israel, and Japan, appear to be learning quickly, setting reasonable policies, and keeping a focus on economic stability so that society can ride it out for the long-term.
In the United States we are creating and insisting upon an unsustainable financial and social burden.
These times feel strange, but they are far from unprecedented. Dozens of pandemics fill the history books. For whatever reason, horribly, disease is part of the experience of all living things. Whether it is elm trees or cattle or human beings, disease cuts all of us down. So it’s important we realize we are up against a familiar if terrible foe, from which will eventually be delivered.
The 1793 yellow fever killed 17% of all of Philadelphia. The federal government, based there at the time, shut down. Businesses voluntarily shut down. President George Washington got on his horse and rode all the way to Mount Vernon. And the city today is fine, with six million inhabitants.
The 1957 Avian Flu pandemic came from China to America and around the world and killed 100,000 Americans (equivalent to about 200,000 Americans today). It preyed on the elderly in particular. No one seems to reference this tragedy much, but it’s the closest historic parallel I’ve seen for lethality and scope and it happened in the memories of many people living today. In their case (as hopefully in ours), a vaccine was found after a year cutting the suffering short.
We are unbelievably fortunate to live in an age of vaccines and other modern medicine and public health practice. Pasteur and Salk are mine and others’ heroes for a great reason. Vaccines, as I’ve always told my children before the needle goes in their arm, are the single invention closest to magic that exists.
But because of the good fortune of having vaccines and the bad fortune of our lack of studying history, we are blinded to the sad history of human suffering, and as a result we are turning to the government to save us. But it cannot save us. It can lock us down. But done on end that is neither freedom nor society and cannot stand. And if it means mass joblessness, it is also self-destruction: a self-inflicted disaster that posterity may never forgive us for.
On Liberty and Society
There is a time and place for governments to tell us what to do. These include protecting our country from external invasion or protecting individuals from the recklessness of others, for example, drunk drivers. But in deciding to protect us from diseases through prolonged mass lockdowns, our governments are neglecting their most sacred duty: to look out for the long-term public welfare.
Nearly two hundred years ago, John Stuart Mill wrote in “On Liberty,”—an essay that should be mandatory reading for all citizens of democracies— “The worth of a state in the long run is the worth of the individuals composing it.” Our leaders locally, in state capitals, in countries the world over, would do well to act like this. Their job is to allow us to be our best selves. Their job is not to blindly follow the diktats of public health officials. Our leaders must make the tough decisions about how to best manage the welfare of society now and in the future.
This requires a thoughtful stewardship that can and must be done. Instead of fear mongering and hiding in lockdowns, trying to wait for a better day, we need to be thinking about the future now. One of the positive unique features of Covid is how little it affects children and the middle-aged, leaving society’s future and society’s present producers the least affected.
But we are missing this opportunity. Our leaders are robbing tens of millions of people who want to learn and want to work of that freedom. In trying to protect the at risk, they are endangering the whole of us, including the at risk. Every day of lockdown increases the chances of deeper recessions and job losses, ensuring there is less wealth left to pay for the doctors, nurses, the first responders. Ensuring there is less wealth to cover the jobs that the elderly and the at risk cannot do without risking their lives. Public debt was already high, and the bill we are running up has yet to come due, and when it does we’ll suffer even deeper job losses, with financial security evaporating. All of that is already coming. We cannot afford to keep ourselves shut any longer.
We must remember we are setting an example for posterity. There will be more global pandemics just as there have always been. If we spend all our money stopping this virus, and we ruin society, then next time around will the healthy majority being willing to sacrifice again for the at-risk? Or will the vulnerable be told “we already sacrificed too much for you. You’re on your own.”
Let’s send the right message now: we are going to do what we can to save lives now with smart actions, with social distancing, with masks and disinfectants, with encouraging the elderly and at risk to stay sheltered, and with letting people work and go to school so that there is enough wealth so that society can support the at-risk human beings who are going to have to live in fear for many months to come. They are in dire need of our financial and moral support now and in the future.
We are a single society, and a single species. We live together now and always. Right now, we should be calling forth the better angels of our natures. Not locking them down.
Open the Gate.