False dichotomies pop up everywhere in the political discourse. You are either pro-life or you are a raging homicidal baby-killing feminist monster and, alternatively, you are either pro-choice or you are “at war with women” and would turn the world into “The Handmaid’s Tale” if ever given the chance. Of course, both sides of that dichotomy are grossly misrepresenting those on the other side. Some of the most vocal proponents of pro-life that I know are of the female gender, would rather not have their lives ruled by men or be treated like baby-making slaves. Likewise, many on the pro-choice side are intelligent and compassionate people who follow a different dogma as far as what does or does not constitute a separate human life.
Where you stand on the recent Covid-19 forced closures probably has much more to do with your politics than it does with your personal level of scientific sophistication. Sure, there are many, blinded by their own confirmation bias, who see everything they believe as being scientifically based and rational, but that is to be in denial of the role that their own emotions play in their judgment. The decision to shut down the economy due to the virus had has much to do with fear as fact. How do I know? Well, there weren’t a whole lot of reliable facts to go on when the decisions were being made. We had models, yes, but models are only as reliable as the data entered and the accuracy of the assumptions that they contain. Their predictions are not facts. What likely had a big influence is the scary stories coming from Italy and the lack of good information from China.
The Changing Understanding of Covid-19
I had been in favor of the shutdowns, initially, to give time to make a more accurate assessment of the actual threat and also to give time for our medical professionals to gear up amidst global shortages of personal protective equipment. Sure, many Americans are of the pigheaded mentality that they will drive eighty miles per hour into a blinding fog bank and then have massive pileups as a testament to their inability to slow down for anything. But it is only prudent to enter into a potentially deadly new situation, with many unknowns, with an abundance of caution. The arrival of Covid-19 onto the world scene was such a circumstance. The idea of social distancing to “flatten the curve” made sense at the time.
However, as a couple of weeks morphed into a month or more and the language of state politicians mysteriously shifted from slowing the spread (as we were told was the reason for the shutdowns) to trying to stop it entirely, while at the same time the there was growing evidence that the virus was not as deadly as first thought, was likely here earlier than had been previously known and may have actually reached the peak (unflattened before the shutdown measures had been implemented) in some places, I kept waiting for decision-makers to shift their policies according to the actual evidence. But they did not. Frozen by fear or too stubborn to revisit their previous decisions (or maybe even wanting to punish those opposed to their lockdowns and show who is boss, who knows?) there was no change. They were determined to plow ahead with their prior decision based on bad data, economic consequences be damned, so wear your masks, go to Walmart like good little citizens and shut up.
We all have an idealogical team we are pulling for, whether we realize it or not, and it can cloud our perspective of an issue. Sure, you might believe that your ignorance of virology is “common sense” (which, unfortunately, is probably common and yet good sense is not always common) and refuse to take reasonable precautions. Or you might think your own opinion (and that of the experts whom you agree with) is some kind of “scientific consensus” and an irrefutable fact. But the reality is that you might just be too arrogant (in your little knowledge or, rather, knowing just enough to be dangerous) to understand that there could be perspectives greater than your own. The frustrating part for me was always being caught between the false choices put out by those on either side of the political debate. Those calling the virus a hoax, dismissing the effectiveness of masks, and being generally ignorant only armed those pushing for control with a false moral imperative to double-down on their shutdown or die mantra.
Covid-19, while certainly deadly for many and even if those terrifying early estimates of a 2-4% death rate had held true, is nowhere near the Spanish flu. The real number, given growing evidence gathered by antibodies testing and from various ships where everyone was tested, shows a true death rate closer to 0.5% which isn’t too different from the seasonal flu over the course of an average year. Yes, it did certainly stretch our medical resources thin, and likely would’ve with or without the shutdowns, yet there is little evidence to show that our economic self-sabotage actually saved lives. No, if anything, we may have simply destroyed opportunity for those most vulnerable here and around the world for no real gain. It is quite possible, even probable, that more will die as a result of the forced shutdowns than were saved. In the end, the decision to shut down the economy was never a question of shut down or die. For many, it may very well be shut down and die.
False dichotomies are dangerous. They are lies. This polarization of our many choices can come with tragic results.
Economic Shutdowns Also Kill People
In my many discussions about Covid-19 I’ve run into many reoccurring and economically illiterate sentiments, like this one: “I’m sorry but I can’t believe I’m reading this. No compassion for human life and suffering?” That in response to a well-written article weighing the benefits against the costs of the economic shutdown. Apparently, in this person’s emotion soaked and one-dimensional brain, the only way you can show compassion for human life and suffering is to keep people caged in their homes and unable to feed themselves?
As a starting point, there was never a scenario where there could be zero deaths from Covid-19. That ship had sailed long ago, in China, when the authorities there continued to let people from the epicenter travel around the world (although not domestically) and sailed when many Western leaders were more concerned with things like “xenophobia” than the virus. Maybe had Europe joined the Trump administration in banning travel from the source of the outbreak there may have been a chance of containing it. But it was already too late by the time concern about the virus and death tolls had finally exceeded worries about political correctness and virtue signaling about race. Places like New York City and Los Angeles were going to see tens of thousands dead regardless of what was done at that juncture.
When the shutdowns began, in earnest, the virus was already deeply entrenched. The first verified case in France, for example, has been recently discovered to have been back in December already and much earlier than initially thought. It had likely spreading while some politicians here were still encouraging people to crowd the streets of Chinatown and was definitely being passed around while Italian leaders were telling people to hug Chinese people (from Wuhan, no less) in a misguided effort to prove they weren’t racist. The die had been cast and we were in for a wild ride.
But what we did have a choice over is how we responded to the threat. Certainly, the virus had not reached us all, and we could not know (without significant testing) if the peak of infections was a couple of weeks out or still months ahead. If the virus had reached relatively few of us and the death rates were already skyrocketing then the most desperate measures were completely justified even if it cost some lives. On the other hand, if the virus had already been in circulation for months and the hospitals weren’t already jampacked, there was very little to be gained and plenty to be lost from sweeping anti-economic measures. Those with strong social networks and a fat wallet, like the Hollywood celebrities urging us plebes to stay at home while they sip martinis in their hot tub, might not get it, but there are serious consequences to economic shutdowns even if you do not personally experience them.
For those who still think that there’s no harm done by shutting down (simply because they are amongst the privileged less affected and able to put food on their own tables), keep reading.
This idea that the economy is about Wall Street and stock portfolios is complete and utter nonsense. The concern many have about the shutdown has nothing to do with the fiction you hold of Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault full of gold coins and perpetually worried about losing his wealth. Not at all. First, no billionaire (other than the Hollywood fantasy villain version) actually has moldy money, billionaires are billionaires because they make good investments and their investments are often in life-sustaining industries, like healthcare. Second, most of the economy is Y-O-U. The economy is, simply put, our transactions together, the labor we use to produce things of value to trade with others for our wants and basic necessities.
That out of the way…
Domestic Abuse, Drug Overdoses, and Suicide Rates
Shutdowns have consequences and the consequences are often much more devastating for those most vulnerable. I think often of my waitress and waiter friends, people in the restaurant industry, who have suddenly without warning had their entire income stream dry up by the executive fiat of someone who gets their paycheck via the state treasury or through an accumulation of assets. Sure, Trump and Congress have taken action to offset some of these losses by direct payments, unemployment compensation has been extended to many who might not otherwise qualify and yet that will do nothing for those permanently unemployed.
For many in the world, in the same way that Covid-19 is deadly to those with comorbidities, an economic shutdown is (or will be) that proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Sure, you can say that the guy devastated by the bills piling up and his bank account drying up, his business being shuttered, should see the bigger perspective. But that is no different from saying that we should not care about Covid-19 deaths because those most impacted were dying anyway and that their comorbidities actually killed them. The fact that not everyone is as financially healthy as you are or as emotionally able to weather the storm caused by the shutdown doesn’t undo the damage done to those who are more vulnerable.
The socio-economic cost of the shutdowns should be factored into the decision as much as the potential gain. Sure, there is a possibility (although it is not proven) that the shutdowns may spare a few that would otherwise have perished from the virus and accompanying complications. But there is definitely an uptick in things such as domestic violence and child abuse that comes with forcing weak and emotionally vulnerable people to stay confined together, away from their sources of stress relief and friends, for months. Believe it or not, not everyone shares your advantages in mental health, not everyone can keep doing their work via Zoom, we aren’t equal in this together as some will proclaim, some are isolated alone, and with only their suicidal ideations to keep them company for the duration.
And, for those of you looking down your noses in condemnation of the shutdown protestors at state capitals, thinking that your own rationality and compassion is what is guiding you, think again. True compassion would have some sympathy for those who are suffering from the economic consequences of the hasty and arbitrarily enforced shutdowns. Unlike you, they might not be able to afford to shelter in place for months at a time. The truth might be that you, in your fearful overreaction to Covid-19, simply do not care enough about their livelihoods being ripped out from under them and are too ignorant of the economic consequences, the increase in domestic abuse, drug overdoses, and suicides that accompany economically dire circumstances.
It is certainly no more dangerous to do a couple of laps around a state capital, than it is to go to Home Depot, Walmart, or the grocery store. I suspect the real issue some have has to do with political affiliations. It is a moral superiority contest between them and those who decided that the risk of government overreach and economic ruin is greater than the virus. Some would rather live in denial of the serious economic consequences they’ve imposed on others, ignore the evidence of the suffering caused by their selfish demands for safety at all costs (to their neighbors), and maintain their dangerous tunnel vision?
Of course, who knows, in the current political climate, maybe some would rather the protestors killed themselves than peacefully vent their pent up frustrations?
But this is far bigger than domestic politics…
Economic Downturns, Food Shortages, and Starvation
The most troubling and continuing consequences of the imposed shutdowns is the impact it is having on the agricultural industry and food supply chain. It was very early on when the stories started to cross my newsfeed about small farmers, in the Philippines, being forced to dump their produce. If one understood the labor that it took (most Americans can’t even imagine), that these farmers would give up their meager profits, it is hard to understand. But that is what happens when the market is closed down, there is no refrigerated warehouse to store their vegetables until things reopen again. And, sure, some of it is distributed to their neighbors, and yet the real demand comes from the cities. So the cities are cut off from their suppliers and the poor farmers from their buyers and only source of income.
I’ve realized recently that many people can’t understand logistics even at the most basic level and see the actions of agricultural producers here as being greedy or suspicious. When I mentioned how producers were culling herds due to processing plants being closed over Covid-19 concerns and the possibility of people starving, I had a guy respond with the following, “If we don’t want people to starve let’s start by distributing this food that is being wantonly destroyed by the factory farms.” His ‘solution’ may seem reasonable at first glance. I mean, why not? But then you have to considfer that these big producers would not just throw away their profits. They aren’t that stupid. And if they can’t process this protein then you can be 100% sure that government or anyone else is going to replace their production capacity. They are the specialists.
Sure, like in rural parts of the Philippines, the neighbors to these massive barns will get all the pork or poultry they will ever need. However, that’s nibbling around the edges of the problem. The real reason we have these “factory farms” is not to supply Union County and the surrounding communities. No, not at all! The real market for this meat is the big cities. So, while it is great that some rural neighbors get to fill their freezers at a below-market price, that is going to do very little for the needs of those downstream and cut off from their food source. A couple of “community gardens” in Brooklyn can’t offset the literal tons of beef, pork, and vegetables that are imported into that city every day. Don’t get me wrong, I love a ‘feel good’ story as much as the next guy, but this isn’t an issue that will be solved by a couple of generous farmers.
The abrupt shutdowns and closures are causing incredible bottlenecks that cannot be easily resolved overnight. Closing down schools and restaurants, for example, meant that all of the food in that pipeline, packaged for that kind of usage, was now jammed up. There are some grocery stores now selling meats that were originally intended for restaurants. But the retooling cannot happen like the flip of a switch. That is why some dairy processors, what specialized in supplying schools, had to dump their milk at the same time grocery shelves had run dry of the staple. That is why potatoes are piled up to rot in Idaho. When networks within the supply chain break down, when the market is majorly disrupted without warning, there are shortages in some places and over-supplies in other places.
Those big animal operations need to keep moving things along, the whole process can’t be held up for long before there are major problems, finished pigs need to be moved along or there is no room for the feeder pigs to go. Sure, they can change the feed to try to keep the finished pigs at a particular weight for a period of time. But eventually, something as to give. That is why there are piles of dead pigs a hundred feet long, going to waste, and soon enough the shelves will run empty as well. It will seem strange. Many won’t understand how it is possible, but it is happening and it is happening like a slow-motion train wreck.
That all said, I’m not afraid for myself or most Americans. We might miss out on a steak or pork chop. We will likely pay a little more for our food in the coming months. However, my real concern is for those in the many places around the world where people work hand to mouth. The rickshaw driver in Mumbai can’t afford to pay more for his family’s food and especially not after being locked in his own house for months. The person in a Manila slum, already living on “pagpag” (a Taglog term meaning “garbage chicken” or literally food pulled from the trash) will not do well when others are fighting over the disappearing scraps as food becomes scarce. Many in the world live on a very small ration, meat is a luxury to them, and now have been deprived of their income in a desperate fight against a virus that may not even be stopped by their sacrifice.
Making the Right Trade-offs…
There is no question about the seriousness of Covid-19. I have a close friend in NYC who lost two friends. They were both my age and died in their own homes. It is not a virus that should be laughed off or treated as no big deal. Tens of thousands have died and tens of thousands more will likely die and in a relatively short period of time. Sure, many of these people may have had comorbidities and yet they would very likely have been with us for many more years had they not had their encounter with this deadly virus.
It is possible that some could be saved from Covid-19 through the shutdowns. There is no solid evidence that this is the case. Nevertheless it is possible. That said, it is also possible that our efforts only prolonged or even worsen the pandemic by preventing “herd immunity” from ever happening, which means we could suffer more deaths from Covid-19 and also the experience the hardships of the economic shutdown.
Whatever the case, the “shut down or die” mythology needs to be confronted. Those looking for a perfect solution here are living in fantasy land. The hope that a vaccine will be developed quickly and then become widely available is (sorry, anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists) basically a Hollywood fiction. We still don’t have a vaccine for SARS or MERS and may never have a vaccine for Covid-19. So, this idea that we can just hunker down and wait this out is not realistic. Sure, I would be glad to be proven wrong, it is possible, but there are also huge trade-offs to our waiting that need to be discussed.
Speaking of trade-offs: According to ASIRT, 1.35 million people die in car accidents every year (over 38,000 in the US) and an additional 20-50 million are injured (4.4 million US), some with permanent disabilities as a result. This, unlike Covid-19, is a ‘pandemic’ that disproportionally impacts the young and with no pre-existing health conditions. We could, quite easily, in the name of safety, ban all automobiles and save far more lives in a couple of years than the shutdowns ever would. Of course, we would never do that, we have valued the freedom of movement and economic advantages over the risk of serious injury or death. I suppose people feel more in control behind the wheel, but if we were really in control of the outcome of our trip then nobody would leave home knowing that they would get into a fatal car crash, would they?
Based on what we now know about the virus and death rates we should not have shut down the to the extent that we did. We may have saved a little on the front end, compared to Sweden who remained open, and yet will very likely end up in the same place as far as Covid-19 and far worse off in terms of the economic consequences. My fear is that many more will perish as a result of the shutdowns than from the virus. Millions of the world’s young and most vulnerable are suffering right now, as I write this, and could die of starvation. A good analysis must weigh all factors. We cannot be zoned in so much on one problem and only one solution that we cannot see any others. The virus from China is bad, but the panicky response of governments around the world may have made it many times worse.