Forget the age-old precept that there is nothing new under the sun. The coronavirus couldn’t have startled humankind more than the sudden arrival of aliens from space. The danger to health naturally brought forth an all-hands-on-deck response, but the persistence of the invisible pestilence has left Americans still groping for a solution that can’t be expedited like an Amazon order. The proper balance between life and livelihood can only be discovered through inventive trial and error.
April produced a much-anticipated flattening of the U.S. infection and death curves, but it also leveled a rising sense of hope for a rapid return to normalcy. Infections have topped a million and are working on a second million. Worse, deaths have already shot well past the low-60,000 mark that the White House coronavirus task force had projected. During a Fox News town hall on Sunday, President Trump did not mince words in suggesting the fatalities could top out at 100,000.
Residents of 17 states are still seeing their virus caseload rising, according to New York Times data — some after a decline that suggested they had the contagion licked. Only 13 states and territories are currently witnessing a decline, and the remainder have plateaued.
At the same time, a 4.8 percent crash in quarterly gross domestic product has sent Americans into the streets from coast to coast with banners pleading for permission to go back to work. As “laboratories of democracy,” the 50 states are feverishly experimenting with the proper mixture of medical and economic care. The pattern of pestilence doesn’t necessarily coincide with states’ degree of lockdown, though.
Georgia and South Carolina, which have caught heavy flak from media over their aggressive plans for getting back to business, have experienced no serious virus spike, while equally impatient Texas has watched its numbers turn north. Cases have continued to climb in Illinois and Virginia, though they have remained buttoned up. New York and New Jersey, the hardest-hit states, have finally reached the downside of their infection curve by locking tightly down.
Intelligence on differing strategies for fighting the pestilence is also arriving from abroad. Early on, the World Health Organization (WHO) held up China, with its tight quarantine around coronavirus epicenter Wuhan, as an exemplar. Instead, Sweden chose to forgo extreme shelter-at-home policies and asked its citizens to take personal responsibility for maintaining safe social distancing. Though it was roundly condemned by its neighbors, the nation of 10 million has suffered far fewer deaths than similarly populated nations, like Belgium, and a lighter blow to its economy.
The WHO has since come around to appreciate the Scandinavian nations’ way of thinking: “If we are to reach a new normal, in many ways Sweden represents a future model,” says WHO emergencies program chief executive director Michael Ryan.
Other evidence similarly questions conventional wisdom. It is well-established that while children suffer only mild symptoms from COVID-19 exposure, adults aged 65 and up are extremely vulnerable to serious illness or death. Reasonably, public health officials the world over have concluded that corralling the young is essential to preventing them from infecting their elders.
However, an Australian-based think tank specializing in pediatric medicine reviewed 78 coronavirus studies and found several that cast doubt on the assumption that children are ready sources of contagion. In one paper, a joint WHO/China commission studying contact tracing found no cases in which the virus was transmitted from a child to an adult. In another, a COVID-19-positive child in the French Alps exposed 112 individuals to the virus at three schools without a single resulting infection.
If borne out by further evidence, closing schools around the globe and separating grandparents from grandchildren may prove an ineffective remedy. To be sure, public health policy should not be built upon spotty evidence. And if snap judgments must be made to protect human life, erring on the side of caution is preferable to the opposite.
In the meantime, Americans are tempering their expectations for a return to normalcy. An early April Gallup survey of adults found 56 percent of respondents believing the coronavirus situation was getting worse and 28 percent saying things were improving. By mid-month, impressions of better and worse conditions were balanced at 40 percent each, and there they essentially remain.
Only trial and error will produce the proper balance point between the protection of life and livelihood. If a shortcut is discovered, credit will go to the inventive.
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.