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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

No, we are not overreacting to COVID-19

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As much of America settles into a surreal “new normal” in which we are allowed to leave home only for necessities or “essential” jobs, small businesses get shuttered, and unemployment claims surge, some are raising the inevitable question: Are we overreacting to the coronavirus pandemic and, as President Donald Trump suggested in an all-caps tweet, letting “the cure be worse than the disease”?

I believe that a fairly draconian lockdown for at least six to eight weeks is needed to prevent a public health catastrophe. But I also realize that it’s easy for me to say that as someone who can do virtually all of her work from home. For millions, a total or partial shutdown will mean total ruin. Others chafe at restrictions that subject Americans to de facto martial law and worry that accepting these rules may lead to permanent loss of liberty. Those concerns need to be addressed. We need to talk about ways to mitigate the economic damage and about an exit strategy from the coronavirus war.

But what definitely isn’t helpful is peddling misinformation to claim that the crisis isn’t as bad as we’ve been told and that things can go back to normal sooner rather than later.

The other day, for instance, Silicon Valley tech guy and Republican activist Aaron Ginn posted an essay on the Medium blogging platform titled “Evidence over hysteria — COVID-19,” which argued that the virus’ transmissibility and deadliness had been greatly exaggerated and that the drastic measures to curb its spread were unnecessary. Critics quickly pointed out that Ginn, who has no background in epidemiology or any other relevant field, was misinterpreting and cherry-picking scientific data. (After several million views, Medium took down the post due to complaints, though it promptly reappeared on a far-right conspiracy website.)

Alarmingly, a number of mainstream conservative media personalities, including Fox News Channel talk show host Laura Ingraham, rushed to endorse Ginn’s junk science, touting his post as an essential contribution to the debate.

Coronavirus minimizers point to the low death toll of the disease — so far, fewer than 600 Americans have died — and ask why we’re crashing our economy and putting millions under house arrest to stop something that is killing far fewer people than we lose every year to car accidents, opioid overdoses, or “regular” flu.

The answer is that, if allowed to spread, COVID-19 is likely to kill hundreds of thousands if not millions. It’s instructive to remember that in Italy, there were a dozen dead coronavirus patients in late February. Today, the death toll has surpassed 6,000. The problem is not simply the exponential growth of the infection; it’s the fact that having so many sick people at once overloads the health care system. This causes mortality rates to rise dramatically, since there are simply not enough resources and not enough personnel to help all those who need help.

Yes, trade-offs are part of life; we don’t, for instance, lower the speed limit to 20 mph to minimize traffic fatalities, and we don’t impose shelter-in-place rules during the regular flu season to minimize deaths. But those deaths are known and predictable quantities, and we know what steps can be taken to minimize them both individually and socially (from flu vaccination to strict laws against drunken driving). With the coronavirus, we don’t have a vaccine or effective treatments, and there is much we still don’t know about transmission.

As time passes, we will know more. But right now, we need to buy time. That is not an overreaction.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.