The Sledgehammer and the Scalpel: Reject Cuomo's Approach and Get Smart to Beat the Coronavirus

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If you watch many documentaries about lost civilizations, you’ve seen a common theme. After the archaeologists have detailed the amazing structures left behind and the staggering cultural achievements they have found over the course of their digs, they ask a question: What happened? Where did this once mighty civilization and all of its people go? They hardly ever find an answer. 

Over the past few months, we moderns may have stumbled on an answer. Imagine, say, some ancient culture ate the wrong creature, contracted a deadly virus, and suffered a swift pandemic. We don’t have to imagine that, since we are experiencing it now, but put yourself in the more mystical shoes of a citizen of an ancient people. Pandemic would inevitably lead to pandemonium. They would have no idea what was going on. They might conclude the gods had cursed them and the ground they walked on. They might abandon their beautiful temples, leave their dwellings and flee into the night. 

They might take a hammer to their terra cotta gods and smash them out of fear or rage. 

We like to think we’ve advanced beyond such primitive thinking. But have we? 

The numbers are numbing. More than 36 million people out of work. The other night I was texting with a high school buddy who’s doing well in life, winning. He’s a doctor now. Before we saw the economy imploding in its full gory glory he told me he’d already furloughed his physician assistant and wasn’t sure how things were going to go. Patients weren’t coming in for anything but COVID treatment. He doesn’t do COVID-19. So he had no patients. That means no income. 

His PA is one in a million. More than one million of the Americans who’ve lost their livelihoods are healthcare workers. Hospitals that were doing fine a couple of months ago are edging toward the brink. Wasn’t all this supposed to save our healthcare system from collapse? Isn’t that why we stayed home and turned off the economy? 

The economic damage is now staggering. How do you do such widespread damage across a nation of 330 million people spread through 50 states? Shut the whole thing down. Get spooked. Smash it. 

Back in March that’s just what we did. We took a sledgehammer to the best economy any of us had ever seen and smashed it. The NYT called this “The Hammer and the Dance” and that was a good way to look at this at the time. We hammered the economy for sure. Now we need a better approach. The cost of the current one is far too high. We have to stop hammering at some point. 

We had a good reason. It’s not like we just smashed the thing to bits for the fun of it. It’s what the experts told us to do. The models said we would have a catastrophe in our ERs if we didn’t do it. We are conditioned to accept science as the one true faith of modern times. Progressive politics are premised on the idea that a scientifically enlightened few rule everyone else, via democratic means until those means no longer serve them. How’s that working out, New York?

We all know the story by now of the virus that emerged in China and swept around the world. It’s deadly and contagious and we have no built-in immunity to it. It somehow jumped from one species to another, with maybe an intermediate species, to ours and it kills our most vulnerable, mostly. And here we are.

We are living through a transformation on a scale not seen in generations. We typically only see reordering on the scale we’re seeing now as the result of major wars, not a health crisis. Not that we can rule a major war out now. China’s behavior continues to be appalling. The United States has not been perceived as weaker on the world stage at any point since the onset of World War I than it is perceived right now, with our economy cratered and our manufacturing and supply lines far too dependent on China. Weakness invites challengers, and China believes it is in a strong position right now. It may be right about that. 

China also perceives itself insulted and aggrieved by the trade war that preceded the pandemic and the exodus of the world’s manufacturing and supply line from its soil now. But China is not as strong as it thinks it is.

China is not a net inventor and it’s not a net producer of core commodities such as energy. It remains dependent on us and the other more advanced economies for innovation. It only produced 5 million barrels of oil per day before the crisis, but used about 13 million. Demand has shrunk during the pandemic, but not enough to make up that yawning gap. The U.S. hit China’s tech giant Huawei today, and more can follow — from both Washington and Beijing.

Whole industries in the United States will go away and never come back. Air travel may never be as accessible as it once was, so it may return to the privilege of a wealthy few as it was during the early years of airlines. The government is amassing unsustainable debt to deal with unsustainable unemployment. It’s grim. 

Our leaders had a choice, and it’s difficult to fault them in the early days for taking the calculation that was apparently before them at the time: lives versus jobs. Shut everything down, which will kill jobs, as a trade for saving thousands and thousands of lives we would lose to the virus. 

That thinking produced a sledgehammer to smash the economy. 

The choice was much more complex than “lives versus jobs.” We need to put the sledgehammer away and use a scalpel. Treat and protect the most vulnerable while letting the rest of the body work. 

We now know that most COVID deaths are among the aged, with a large percentage in nursing homes. The Guardian reports that in states where nursing home data deaths is kept, the numbers are “staggering.”

Privately compiled data shows such deaths now account for more than half of all fatalities in 14 states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Only 33 states report nursing home-related deaths.

There’s more.

In Connecticut, 194 of 216 nursing homes have had at least one Covid-19 case. Nearly half the Covid-19 deaths in the state – more than 1,200 people – have been of nursing home residents. The proportion is higher elsewhere. In New Hampshire, 72% of deaths have been nursing home residents.

Seventy-two percent! But New Hampshire remains mostly locked down. It’s nearly 82% in Minnesota. This makes less and less sense as the days go by. New York Gov. Cuomo literally turned nursing homes in his state into death traps by forcing them to take COVID patients from hospitals when they were not prepared for it. 

Of the nation’s more than 26,000 coronavirus deaths in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, a fifth of them – about 5,300 – are in New York, according to a count by The Associated Press, and the toll has been increasing by an average of 20 to 25 deaths a day for the past few weeks.

Can we protect the most vulnerable while letting the rest get back to work? Shouldn’t we do that?

The virus is a killer but we have to be strategic about this or we could end up like one of those lost civilizations. Or in some version of The Hunger Games. We can’t just keep the people locked up forever, especially not when it seems clear now that most of us aren’t very vulnerable to the virus. We have to protect the most vulnerable — from the likes of Cuomo, evidently — while letting the rest of the country get back to work as much as possible.

Lose the sledgehammer. Pick up a scalpel. Use more common sense and let businesses open in sensible ways, with better disinfecting regimens, staggered shifts and other appropriate measures to let people work and let businesses thrive again. Let the country get back to work. 

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