As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announces a plan for a gradual lifting of COVID-19-related restrictions on businesses in New York State, the debate on “reopening America” is heating up across the country.
It’s clear that the shutdowns in effect in most of the country since mid- to late March cannot continue indefinitely until we find a vaccine or a cure. But any strategy for reopening has to be rooted in a balance between economic and public health concerns. But far too much of the pro-reopening rhetoric is not based on facts or common sense, but on ideology and junk science intended to prove that COVID-19 is far less dangerous than we think. It is also based on wishful thinking about going back to normal.
Take a Sunday New York Post column by Scott Atlas, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, calling for a strategy to “sensibly re-enter normal life.” Atlas suggests that several recent studies show the fatality rate for COVID-19 is far below early estimates which prompted drastic isolation policies and may be close to the seasonal flu. Therefore, he argues, we should protect high-risk populations (the elderly and people with health issues) while allowing the young and healthy to live normally and get infected until we get to “herd immunity.”
But some of the studies Atlas cites have come under withering criticism for non-random samples and high error rates. A more reliable study shows that by now as many as 2.1 million New Yorkers may have been infected, with half never developing symptoms. With an estimated death toll of about 15,000, that’s a fatality rate of about 0.7 percent, at least seven times that of the seasonal flu.
Since “herd immunity” requires a 70 percent infection rate, such a strategy for COVID-19 would truly mean, to quote then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, American carnage.
What’s more, the toll of COVID-19 is measured not only in deaths: many of those sick enough to be hospitalized survived with possibly permanent damage to lungs and other vital organs. And while critics of the lockdowns rightly talk about the devastating effects of mass unemployment, including depression and suicide, let’s not forget the pandemic’s costs to those who must cope with the loss — or even the potentially fatal illness — of a loved one.
It’s fine to talk, in theory, about low-risk populations resuming a normal life. What would this mean, in practice, for healthy people living with a spouse or parent in a vulnerable group? Imagine the psychological costs of isolating millions from their families.
Obviously, this does not mean we all stay locked up indefinitely except for Instacart delivery workers. “Non-essential” but low-risk business activities such as construction should resume quickly. Beaches and parks should be safe with social distancing. However, movie theaters, now reopening in Georgia, will require some serious safety measures to avoid creating germ factories.
Those clamoring for a quick end to the lockdowns say that we’re nowhere close to a vaccine or a cure, and most of us are likely to get the virus anyway when we reopen, so we might as well bite the bullet now. But many things short of a vaccine or a fully effective antiviral drug could reduce the toll of this disease. Scientists are learning more about it every day: the latest news is that some of COVID-19’s deadly effects are due to blood clotting, so blood thinners may help. Progress will likely come in incremental steps, not one big breakthrough.
Indefinite lockdowns are not feasible. But a rush to reopen could create far worse problems down the road.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.