News & Politics

Which Way Now to Fight the Coronavirus -- Should We Stay Or Should We Go?

President Donald J. Trump arrives at Naval Air Station Norfolk Pier 8, Saturday, March 28, 2020, prior to his remarks at the departure of the USNS Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Texas will be the first state to begin re-opening its economy. In the next few days more retail shops will reopen for pickup and online purchases. State parks will reopen. It’s far from normal, but it’s something. One million Texans have filed for unemployment, overwhelming call centers. 22 million Americans have done likewise. This level of joblessness is simply unsustainable, but it’s still growing.

Some Florida beaches opened up this weekend, for eight hours. Social distancing still must be maintained. It’s not normal, but it’s something. People can get out of their homes and blow off some steam after weeks in unexpected captivity.

Protests against the increasingly unpopular lockdowns have spread nationwide and they’ll continue spreading until officials figure out how to deal with this terribly complex and deadly situation — and until they stop behaving like dictators.

As we think through the next steps and what to expect, it’s not as simple as we’d like it to be — stay closed and stay safe, or re-open and take our chances. Staying closed comes with its own dangers, and if those are allowed to go on, we will see disruption in food supplies and energy. What happens when we can’t power our stuff or even feed ourselves? We could see full economic collapse, with dire and unpredictable consequences, here and worldwide. But reopening is perilous too. And we cannot stay closed until there’s a vaccine, as some argue. Science has produced many vaccines against many viruses but there may never be a true vaccine against this virus. What then? There’s still no AIDS vaccine after spending untold billions and 35 years of trying. On the other hand when H1N1 emerged in 2009, it took about five months from go to the first vaccine. But coronaviruses attack the lungs, making them extremely difficult to create vaccines against.

Japan and Sweden provide sobering examples of how badly things can go wrong. Maybe. Japan shut down early but failed to conduct widespread coronavirus testing. It also lacked PPE. Japan appeared to have dodged a bad outbreak and reopened some, but that’s coming undone and now its health care system — which has long been touted as one of the world’s best — is in danger of being overwhelmed. If that happens, Japan could suffer a failure cascade in which hundreds of thousands die, including many who simply could not get even basic care unrelated to the virus when they needed it.

It turns out Japan’s health system has a fatal flaw. It only has about 5 ICU units per 100,000 citizens. The U.S. has 35. Japan is also the world’s second-oldest country, and coronavirus as we know tends to target older people. Japan also has a moderately high rate of smoking, which damages the lungs. Coronavirus attacks the lungs, along with other organs. So smoking rates may matter to a country’s coronavirus fatality rate. What happens in Japan may not apply to the United States or any other country, but it’s still worth monitoring.

Sweden is trying a much softer lockdown model than most of the world. This may give us another approach to keep an eye on, a control to the experiment of shutting everything down and locking everyone in our homes. The results are coming in and they’re not good at this point. Sweden is running at 118 deaths per million, compared to Denmark’s 55 and Finland’s 15. Denmark and Finland locked down far more than Sweden did. Strangely enough, Belgium appears to have one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the entire world, at 471 per million. Coming out of all this, it’s possible Sweden has developed more herd immunity by taking its risks up front. We don’t know yet.

The U.S. coronavirus death rate may be around 113, which would be close to Sweden’s despite our very different strategies. Or it may be much lower. It depends on who’s counting and how they’re counting, and how localities and countries are reporting, just as our outlook depends on which models are being used and what their underlying assumptions are. Which brings us to the next problem.

New York is reporting coronavirus deaths even if the victims never tested positive for the virus. That’s happening elsewhere nationwide and it’s going to skew the numbers higher, which threatens to invalidate our national count. You can see a rationale for doing this that isn’t opportunistic and sinister — that some people had COVID-19 symptoms but for one reason or another were never tested before they died. But given some governors’ behavior, and the statement by CA Gov. Gavin Newsom that the pandemic provides him and others the opportunity to reshape the country, suspicion is not only understandable — it’s warranted. Too many state and local officials have acted in obvious bad faith during this crisis. Michigan’s Gov. Whitmer still stands out as the worst, but she has stiff competition. These officials did exactly what the nation did not need them to do, and undermined the entire effort to halt the pandemic more than any protester ever could.

The numbers are deceiving in another way. Most of the U.S. deaths are clustered in the densely populated areas, with New York City the epicenter. Texas, the nation’s second-largest state by population, has far fewer cases than New York state, which is third by population. Texans don’t ride subways to work and the population density even in Houston, its largest city, is far lower than New York. Our most populous state, California, ranks 6th in coronavirus cases. One size does not fit all.

It’s no coincidence that New York City’s population density is the highest in the nation and it has been struck the hardest by this contagious disease. As we re-open, we’ll have to take regional differences very much into account. Rural areas and smaller and less dense cities may be able to open much earlier than the larger and denser cities. The larger cities are economic centers, though, so leaving them behind hurts us all. But letting them reopen too early poses risks of overwhelming our healthcare system. Preventing that was one of the core reasons to shut down the economy in the first place.

The numbers may be deceiving in yet another way. Infection rates among those that remain asymptomatic may be far higher than we know. Which among other things means the death rate would be far lower than we’ve feared and been led to believe by the models that all have their own flaws and limitations. So the deadly virus would be less dangerous to those without underlying conditions or who are not yet senior citizens. But that study only covers one county, and its results need to be reviewed and repeated.

The Chinese virus pandemic is very much a Chinese finger trap. The harder you pull in either direction — toward lockdown, or toward reopening — the tighter the trap gets. Which brings us to China and its appalling behavior. As 2020 opened, China faced unrest in Hong Kong, a warming U.S. relationship with India, the strongest American economy we have ever seen, it was losing a trade war with Trump, and it was dealing with a growing international movement to bring manufacturing out of China and either back home or to other more reliable countries. Now in the world of the pandemic, the U.S. is at its weakest economic point in decades. The Hong Kong protests are over. Divestment is speeding up. There’s a rumor floating around Asian countries that China already has a coronavirus vaccine but it’s hoarding it, as it is hoarding medical equipment. There’s no evidence at this point that this rumor is true, but it speaks to how China’s recent actions have opened eyes and turned its image deeply evil — an image it has deserved since the communists took power, through the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square right to the present.

China recently bumped its virus death numbers up by about 50%, but they still remain low against other countries. But is there any reason at all to believe them? There isn’t. The communists who rule China have lied from day one and are probably still lying. This may serve their political ends but it’s also skewing the science yet again. We’re at the point where the fatality numbers may be meaningless, here, there and everywhere, just when we have to make the most difficult decisions.

So we need to reopen the country. We have to. We should be federalists about it and take regional factors into account. Texas will be the first. It’s the world’s 10th largest economy. It has counties with no cases at all, and cities with a lot of cases. The number of cases across the state —  especially in Houston and Dallas, where populations are most dense — is likely to rise. We have to expect that. And we have to move forward into the risks anyway. Despite the risks, many want the state and the nation to move ahead and faster, please. We need to get back to work if we’re to have a country at all.

Bryan Preston is the author of Hubble’s Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries

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