Friday, May 8, 2020


When the coronavirus began to spread all over the United States, the reaction was different from state to state. The decisions being made by governors and state legislatures were not always consistent with the message coming out of the CDC and the coronavirus task force in Washington. Different rules and restrictions applied depending on where you lived.

One overwhelming theme was dominant, however. Shut it down. By “it” they meant virtually everything that wasn’t deemed essential, like groceries or medicine. Close hair salons, gyms, sporting events and restaurants. The result has not just been shuttered businesses, but lost jobs and, quite literally, a shattered economy.

Prior to COVID-19 there were 300,000 unemployment claims made in the entire United States. That number now stands at 33 million. In just over a month, the pandemic wiped out all the job gains since the 2009 recession.

The U.S. economy, which had been consistently growing at a healthy clip in the Trump years, shrunk by 4.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020.

The International Monetary Fund has forecast that the cumulative loss to the global GDP from 2020 to 2021 as a result of the pandemic could be approximately $9 trillion. That is more than the economies of Japan and Germany combined.

Make no mistake, we are now in the midst of global recession. In America, many people are anxious to get back to work, to make money to pay their bills and feed their families. A debate is raging whether or not it is safe or wise to open back up and if so, how rapidly?

The more logical question may be what if we had never closed? Should we have handled this entire thing differently?

Millions have tested positive for exposure to the coronavirus and tens of thousands have died. This is held up as proof that we had no choice but to close down. We are told that if society hadn’t put on the brakes, the sickness and death would have been exponentially worse. Would it though? Do we know that? There are theories and models showing all kinds of statistics. It’s just a shame we don’t have any real world examples of what would have happened if society had continued to operate business as usual.

Wait. We do. We do have real life examples of exactly that.

Sweden has largely stayed open, including schools and restaurants. It kept its borders open, allowed bars to keep serving, placed no limits on public transportation or on activities in local parks. Yoga studios and movie theaters have remained open. Sweden’s social distancing programs are voluntary, and its leaders count on residents to exercise common sense and some self-restraint. Apparently it is working.

Sweden has a population of just over 10 million people, and has suffered 3,040 deaths from the coronavirus. Contrast that with Michigan, a state with a population of 10 million and where the lockdown has been so tight and oppressive that in late April, some residents began raucous protests at the state capital. Michigan has had 4,343 coronavirus deaths. Two very different approaches and Sweden seems to have had a better result.

The best example however, may be Belarus, an Eastern European country that borders Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Belarus has a population of 9.5 million people. The government there has essentially ignored the coronavirus. Its football league continued uninterrupted. Its churches have remained open and this week Belarus held a military parade to honor the defeat of Nazi Germany 75 years ago.

President Alexander Lukashenko has been more than a little flippant about COVID-19, at one point referring to it as a “psychosis.” When pressed about what his citizens should do in preparation for the pandemic, Mr. Lukashenko urged them to drink vodka, go to saunas and return to work.

Neighboring countries and media outlets around the world have been shocked and highly critical of Belarus for their refusal to change anything in the face of the world-wide medical emergency. The assumption has been that the people of Belarus would pay a steep price.

The actual result however has been just the opposite. This country of 9.5 million people has had only 112 deaths from coronavirus. Let’s put that in perspective. Michigan (10 million people) has had 4,343 deaths. New Jersey (8.9 million people) has had 7,742 deaths and New York (19.4 million people) has had nearly 19,000 deaths. Only 112 in Belarus. Perhaps their approach deserves a closer look.

A significant portion of the United States population and an apparent majority of US media are expressing panic at the gradual reopening that some states are undertaking. That panic feeds fear, which in turn overwhelms the desire of some to work and provide for their families. The best thing anyone can do is gather as much factual information as possible and make rational, well-informed decisions.

Fact: Belarus is home to 9.5 million, had had no restrictions at all and only 112 COVID-19 deaths.

Fact: New York and New Jersey have had some of the heaviest restrictions (remember the mayor of New York City personally breaking up a Jewish funeral, saying it didn’t conform with coronavirus protocols?) and those two states have the highest deaths as a percentage of population (CDC).

Do the restrictions help, do they hurt or do they make no difference at all? Study the numbers from around the globe and you may be surprised at what you find.

I offer the following conclusions and an obvious suggestion:

* In New York, 85 percent of all deaths are aged 60 and above.

* In Sweden, 86 percent of all deaths are aged 70 and above

* According to the ever-changing CDC data, roughly 80 percent of the coronavirus deaths in the entire U.S. were aged 65 and above.

* There have been only 375 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. under the age of 35.

Recognizing the worries some harbor about a second wave or continued infection by the coronavirus, wouldn’t it make sense to put safety measures on those we now know are overwhelmingly impacted and most at risk? A statistical analysis makes a strong case for letting the population at large go back to work tomorrow while putting considerable restrictions on senior citizens. There is a duty to protect those at risk, but surely there is also a duty let the work force get back to doing what it does best. Don’t penalize working families when their risk of a coronavirus death is proving to be statistically insignificant.

Open it all back up. Now. Every store. Every restaurant. Every gym. Let the sporting events and concerts return. Let the economy that was rolling so well prior to the pandemic come back to life. At the same time, restrict the movements and activities of senior citizens to minimize the risk to this vital but clearly at-risk group. Seniors will howl at the suggestion, of course, but if the world fears catastrophic death numbers, we should focus specifically on protecting who is dying and let the balance of the population go about their business.

Call it the Belarus model, with an asterisk.

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