November 24, 2020

Opinion | We need a serious conversation on reopening strategies, not arguments based in fantasy

Sadly, the Roosevelt will not be the first hotel to be closed by the pandemic when it shutters at the end of this month. But it will become part of another historic trend, as covid-19 scythes through entire sectors, and not just commercial ones.

Kids are losing out on a year of education, and the biggest losers are the vulnerable ones whose parents can’t step in as substitute teachers. The arts are withering, along with restaurants and hotels and commercial office buildings: New York’s Metropolitan Opera canceled its 2020-21 schedule, and Broadway will remain closed at least through May. Expect other cities to follow suit, and big arts complexes that were already struggling with changing tastes may not recover from the revenue drought.

Many of the businesses that are closing will never come back, and some of the lives that are being upended will probably stay upside down forever. But even before you consider the long-term effects, this is all pure loss; there’s no cosmic refund office where we can all demand our lost year back.

So it’s quite legitimate for President Trump and his supporters to ask whether staying in our houses and waiting for a vaccine isn’t actually making us worse off — especially the large number of “us” who can’t do professional office jobs from home. And because the nature of infectious disease means such decisions have to be made collectively, we should have that conversation, rather than attempt to forestall it with a wall of outrage, as much of the professional class has been doing for the past seven months.

Before you retort that we can’t make trade-offs with human lives, remember that policymakers do just that all the time, and so do we. Few of those arguing for tight restrictions would also suggest a speed limit of 15 miles per hour, even though this would effectively prevent all automotive deaths. Nor, for that matter, do we hear calls to close grocery stores to contain the virus.

Where those lines are is, of course, a matter for public debate, and Team Reopen has a good point when it calls for us to have one. And perhaps we would have done so, if only its Debater in Chief had been a better spokesman for weighing costs against benefits, instead of playing down the seriousness of this disease, to the point of attacking his own experts.

If you want to see a good argument against lockdowns, look to a recent interview the Spectator did with David Nabarro of the World Health Organization. Nabarro doesn’t pretend that covid-19 is harmless, or that you can achieve perfect disease containment without serious restrictions; instead, he points out that maximum disease containment is devastating to economies, especially poor ones in which many lives are already quite precarious, and that on net, this may be increasing rather than reducing human suffering. So instead, he urges countries to find ways to “keep the economy going and keep cases down.”

As a matter of moral philosophy, I’m loath to suggest that the rest of us ought to take mid-pandemic holidays to aid tourist economies, as Nabarro sort of implies. But that, at least, is a debatable proposition; “covid is no more lethal than the flu” really isn’t. And with serious new outbreaks spreading in Madrid, the city of Manaus in Brazil, and among New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, who were already among those most devastated by covid-19 during the first wave, the claims that we’ve already reached herd immunity are not going to persuade anyone.

So while Team Reopen may have a point when it complains that the well-insulated professional class has become blindly dogmatic about pandemic control, its own blind spots have driven it to the worst possible counterstrategy: debating reality, instead of hard choices. This makes it impossible for us to talk about anything between the all-or-nothing choices of “Cancel Everything” or “Open America for Business” — mitigating risks with masks or ventilation, keeping restaurants closed to focus on schools.

Worse still, this makes it hard to take Team Reopen seriously, which is fatal to an effort that depends more on persuading millions to leave their homes than it does on any government policy. If you insist that our only choices are enduring a devastating recession, or joining Trump in his grisly game of make-believe, then don’t be surprised if people choose the unpleasant reality over the implausible fiction.

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