As the COVID-19 pandemic response prepares to move into yet another month, many of us are beginning to ask, are we saving lives? Or are we hurting them? The answer is becoming increasingly obvious. It is “yes” to both.
But how do we balance the solution?
Like most people around the country, I shifted to a work-from-home and self-isolation environment in mid-March. We have abided by the recommendations, limiting our outings to only those necessary and maintaining social distance on those rare journeys to the store. Still, we are some of the lucky ones; my job has continued, and my income as of yet has not been affected. Our greatest personal sacrifice thus far has largely been one of convenience. That is not the case for 30 million people thrown out of a job literally overnight. And the Fed is predicting that coronavirus job losses could total 47 million, causing an unemployment rate of up to 32%.
As a nation we are going to survive the disease. I am not so sure that we are going to survive the cure.
This past Saturday I had to venture to Home Depot for an item needed for a repair at our house. As I was driving out of the store, I passed a man standing at the entrance, facing the people leaving the store. He was middle aged, probably in his late 40’s. He was clean cut and presentable, casually dressed wearing a plain gray t-shirt and relatively new jeans. He was holding a sign, but it was no ordinary “will work for food” display that one might expect to see. His sign said, “Virus or no virus, I need a job. I have a family to feed.” It also had his name and phone number scrawled at the bottom.
It broke my heart to see that as it drove home the pain that many are experiencing; pain that may not be truly comprehended by those clamoring to keep everything closed and everyone in isolation for an extended period.
As testing expands and scientists get a better grip on the big picture, what is beginning to emerge is that COVID-19 was here before anyone knew it, and more people may have been exposed than previously thought. A study in New York has led some to believe that as many as 2.5 million New Yorkers have already had the disease and either had no symptoms or did not know their illness was COVID related. Similar results have been seen in Florida and California. If true, it means the actual mortality rate of COVID will be much lower than originally thought, and that “herd immunity” may already be playing a role in controlling the disease.
And what of herd immunity? Should we be allowing the healthiest amongst us to face a bit more risk? Would a greater number of people who have developed an immunity through past exposure slow the spread of the disease? Historical experience says yes, but some studies indicate that may not be the case here. But will the virus simply give up and go home (ostensibly to China, at the risk of being labeled racist) if we hide from it long enough? The short answer, is no, it won’t. At some point we will need to emerge and face our greatest fears. How we do that and still protect the vulnerable is the major question.
And what of the regular old run of the day flu? We aren’t really talking about that this year. The CDC is estimating that this flu season, which officially ended earlier this month, infected up to 56 million Americans and caused up to 26 million medical office visits. They say this resulted in as many as 740,000 hospitalizations and caused up to 62,000 deaths. That is actually, as of this writing, more than have died as a result of COVID, although it will be surpassed this week.
Still, the flu does this annually, and we don’t close the world for it.
Personally, I have always been skeptical of doomsday predictions. If Al Gore had been anywhere near right in his movie “The Inconvenient Truth,” my house would be 10 feet underwater now. Or at best I would own beach front property. It turns out the hole in the ozone layer during the 80’s didn’t kill everyone. Ronald Reagan didn’t unleash a nuclear hell upon the world. And the looming ice age predicted in the seventies never seemed to freeze us out. I’m even skeptical about the 47 million unemployed prediction cited earlier in this article. This round is no different. There were people predicting millions of deaths in the US from COVID-19. A few of them seem almost disappointed that it hasn’t come to pass.
I’ve been impressed by the willingness of Americans to sacrifice many things on the short term to protect the most vulnerable amongst us. The shutdown has been effective in flattening the curve and has undoubtedly saved lives. But the shutdown itself can only be a short-term strategy. Wisely used it would give the medical community a chance to prepare for a longer-term challenge that may be coming down the road. Ideally, stockpiles of needed equipment and supplies would be generated and calls for distancing and improved hygiene would be consistent and ubiquitous.
And when a medical pandemic can actually accelerate the closing of hospitals, someone somewhere has got something terribly wrong. Like it or not, we are going to have to start restoring normalcy to our lives. The thousands being impacted by COVID are being dwarfed by the millions hurt by the response.
I’ve noted, mostly through highly scientific studies conducted on Facebook, that those most adamant about keeping things locked down and hiding in our homes are those whose income has not yet been greatly impacted by the event. People who can work from home or retirees on a fixed income aren’t as insistent about getting back out and working in the real world. I suspect people standing on a corner begging for a job view things a bit differently.
And speaking of that Home Depot job seeker, there was a glimmer of hope. As I sat at the red light waiting to exit, the back door of the car ahead of me opened. A young man in his twenty’s got out, approached the job seeker and handed him a business card. They had a very quick conversation that appeared positive in nature before he returned to the car and we proceeded on our way.
Perhaps the man found work. He might once again be able to feed his family. And there might be one less economic victim of COVID-19.