Winning the Coronavirus War Requires a Smart, Balanced Solution Not a Panicked Lockdown

The US is now in a full-blown panic over SARS-CoV-2, the 7th infectious iteration of the coronavirus (4 common-cold viruses plus SARS and MERS).

It’s a bit surreal that 1,209 US Covid-19 deaths to date are behind the shutdown of the world’s wealthiest and most advanced society with a population of 340 million. The panic seems driven primarily by the coronavirus’ unfamiliarity to the medical community.

Each year the US suffers about 840,000 heart-attack deaths, 650,000 cancer deaths, 190,000 gun deaths, 80,000 drug-overdose deaths, 50,000 auto deaths, 50,000 suicides (out of 1.4 mil attempts) and about 45,000 flu deaths. Yet we generally go about the business of living without implementing drastic, life-destroying measures to curtail these deaths.

I understand the panic is over Covid’s potential to overwhelm our medical system, but the underlying premise should be examined before we stop life dead in its tracks. Would there really be millions of deaths if we don’t lock down society? Or are there other ways to minimize casualties without destroying trillions or even tens of trillions of dollars’ worth of our collective livelihoods and wealth?

The panicked first-draft response we are seeing from the likes of Anthony Fauci, Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom is alarming to me and to other rational minds. They insist the only solution is to forget about the economy and shut ourselves in for months to “flatten the curve”, i.e., slow down hospitalizations to a pace that can be comfortably handled by the medical industrial complex.

That sounds to me like saying, “Let’s throw ourselves under the bus to avoid getting hit by a car.”

It’s a startling reminder that some of our leaders and experts are so far removed from reality that they have forgotten that human life has always been driven by the need to provide food, shelter, clothing, education, transportation, recreation — all the necessities for modern life. They insist it’s our moral duty to abandon all that to spare ourselves an unknown probability of death from a new virus. They may as well demand that we move to a desert isle to spare ourselves the probability of death from the multitude of natural and man-made causes that kill about 5 million Americans every year.

I understand that “We will pay any price to save even a single life,” is a better soundbite for a public figure than “We must balance the demands of maintaining livelihoods with our desire to reduce casualties.” But the latter is precisely what any sensible leader should be doing.

The only leader who has had the fortitude to express the need to strike the difficult balance is one of my least favorite of all time, Donald Trump. “We can’t have the cure be worse than the disease” is the wisest thing he has uttered as President, and the one that required immense fortitude given the panicked cries for an indefinite lockdown from the liberal establishment (with which I am generally in agreement on most issues) and from the medical industrial complex (MIC).

At about 7 times the size of the military industrial complex, MIC exerts an irresistible force on most politicians, far more irresistible than the gun lobby. And Fauci’s call for an indefinite lockdown is the voice of the MIC seeking to reassert its centrality in our society and to expand its share of GDP from the currently exorbitant 20% to something even larger. Consider that in other developed nations healthcare makes up only about 10% of GDP.

The search for a solution that balances and optimizes conflicting demands is the essence of good leadership and good government. And Trump’s willingness to limit the lockdown from an indefinite number of months to a date certain (April 12, Easter) is an effort at balancing the first-draft strategy for slowing infections with the urgent need to keep the economy from completely stalling.

Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx began fleshing out possible alternatives by suggesting that a blanket lockdown should be replaced by measures “laser-focused” on protecting at-risk people. This statement in itself is a ray of hope that rationality may yet prevail in the US as it has in South Korea, the nation generally cited as having the most effective response to the crisis.

There has been no lockdown in S. Korea as that nation took steps to identify and isolate the infected as its chosen strategy against Covid-19. That strategy seems to have worked well, holding total deaths down to just 131 as of March 26 even as societies that chose lockdowns like Italy (8,215 deaths), Spain (4,365), China (3,287) and the US (1,209 and exploding) were seeing many multiples. Japan, another country that avoided a lockdown and chose to identify and isolate the infected, has kept Covid-19 cases down to 1,387 with just 47 deaths thus far.

Of course each country faced different conditions and response timelines. But it’s clear that lockdowns are no more effective in stopping infections but are far more damaging in destroying businesses and livelihoods.

The US doesn’t have to adopt the strategies of S. Korea or Japan. Another possible strategy that could work even better would be to isolate and shield the most at-risk people, those over the age of 65 with preexisting conditions. That can be done by using data available to the Medicare administration. As more data comes in, the shielding efforts can be refined to others who may be at risk due to genetic or environmental factors. Meanwhile those who are not at high risk would be able to keep the economy rolling to produce the goods and services needed to sustain the population and the essential government and medical services.

But the shift to a more effective, less destructive strategy requires that we stop heaping praise on public figures who pander to the lowest common denominator of popular sentiment and stop reviling leaders seeking a truly balanced approach. Saving lives while destroying the very foundations of society — its economy — is, indeed, a cure that is far worse than the disease. We can and must save both lives and the economy if we are to win this war against the coronavirus and emerge a functioning society.