Prepare, Don’t Panic

A month before our first child was born my wife and I took one of those baby safety courses. It was taught by an emergency medical technician who had seen many horrific deaths of babies and children, and had become an expert at preventing such tragedies.

The course was like a sick parody of the old Irving Maimway skit on “Saturday Night Live.” The instructor kept ranting about dead babies, screaming “You just killed your baby!” at people who gave what he considered the wrong answers to his questions. 

Lollipops were a particular obsession of his. Children’s airways aren’t developed enough for them until about age eight or 10, he claimed, and pediatricians who gave them to younger patients were ignorant of the current literature and irresponsibly putting children’s lives at risk. 

You can imagine what he thought about slides and seesaws.

Of course, by virtue of the nature of his work, he was speaking from the unfortunate experience of having seen all the horror stories he railed about—the lollipop deaths, the monkey-bar maimings, the dead 2-year-old in Central Park whose father had given him a piece of apple. He was immersed in them, and he’d studied up and become an expert on them. But as a result, he’d totally lost perspective and common sense, monomaniacally focused on averting death to the exclusion of all the joys of childhood and the capacities of most parents to mitigate risk on their own.

This story has come back to me in thinking about the coronavirus pandemic and the reaction to it, because it illustrates two of the three reasons why I’m in the “Don’t panic” camp: skepticism of the temperance of so-called experts, and concern about the human and social costs of a worldview that maximizes mere self-preservation over the joy of life. 

A third reason is a practical political one that I think should give pause to those on the Right who are hopping on the panic train: encouraging inordinate physical fear of anything ultimately will help the Left on everything—including the border security issues.

I’m not going to focus here on the statistical disputes about the constantly changing estimates of transmission rates and case fatality rates, or on reports that up to 80 percent of cases are either mild or have essentially no symptoms at all. Nor am I even going to argue about all the other pandemic scares that fizzled: H1N1, West Nile, Swine Flu, SARS, MERS, Zika, etc. The concerns I raise are important even if—perhaps especially if—this time the experts have finally cried wolf about a real wolf, and this really is The Big One.

The Experts. We’re hearing a lot of counsel demanding we listen to the medical and scientific “experts,” and mockery of President Trump for his skepticism about trusting their judgment to the exclusion of all else.

But just a few weeks ago some of those very same medical experts, from the World Health Organization and the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, published a preposterous report purporting to show that the United States scored only 39th among the world’s nations in “child flourishing,” largely because we are supposedly outranked by third-world countries on “sustainability.”

This politically correct folly was no one-off aberration. In 2018 the leading science journal Nature editorialized that “institutions have a moral and ethical duty to make scientific research more diverse and representative. Improving the participation of under-represented groups is not just fairer—it could produce better research.” Another scientific journal recently ran this article calling for “a Critical Approach That Centers Inclusion, Equity, and Intersectionality.” And in January The Lancet lectured that “defending whiteness . . . kills.”

This is all voodoo, not science. I would go so far as to call it anti-scientific, ideologically driven, quasi-religious nonsense. And sometimes it goes beyond being silly and threatens monstrous, irreparable harm to vulnerable human beings—as with the current policy of the American Academy of Pediatrics banning treatment of gender dysphoric children except to allow them to begin “transitioning” with puberty-blocking hormones as early as eight and mastectomies or castration as early as 16.

If we only cared about maximizing everyone’s odds of survival we really would raise the drinking age to 55 and lower the speed limit to 21. Thankfully we don’t.

So, as I struggled with in this short piece a few years ago, we’re really at sea in trying to make sense of scientific issues these days, with so much of “the scientific community” not just hopelessly politicized but having gone down a cult-like ideological rabbit hole. This is not to say that they’re always wrong, and it’s certainly not evidence that they are wrong about COVID-19. 

But like all of us, scientists and doctors are humans subject to passions. And so many scientists and doctors have become zealots about theirs—on everything from the environment to sex identity that we can no longer take them at their word with blind faith. All we’re left with is our common sense and perspective, which should always counsel a bit of healthy skepticism, particularly when the experts’ warnings just happen to line up both with their institutional/bureaucratic interest in expanding their domains, and their philosophical/occupational tendency towards fearfulness. (Remember that baby safety course instructor.)

All this, by the way, would have been good advice for policymakers even before the age of political correctness. Experts notoriously get things wrong. It’s the job of government leaders to bring policy perspective and experience to bear on their recommendations (for example, by asking how a new virus strain compares to previous ones and to the common flu). It will be important to keep perspective in mind going forward, and not rotely accept “expert” prescriptions on a range of questions from trade to climate change, even if they turn out to have finally gotten one right on the Wuhan virus.

Political Implications. The ideological lines have been more blurred than many realize over coronavirus. A writer in Slate advises that the virus “isn’t as deadly as we think” while several conservative intellectuals such as Claire Lehmann of Quillette and Rod Dreher are leading the drumbeat for the most extreme and socially disruptive responses. This view is most common among my own faction of the Right—populist-nationalist cultural conservatives—and is perhaps understandable given what the spread of the virus says about the dangers of globalization. And about the criminal scandal of allowing 97 percent of our drug supply to be controlled by China.

But they’re still making a mistake politically if they throw in with panic. 

To be blunt, the major political-cultural divide of the era is between John Wayne and Pajama Boy, between fear and dependence on the one hand, and strength, toughness, and courage (“toxic masculinity” if you will) on the other.

Between “the Mommy Party and the Daddy Party.”

Yes, I know, I know; I can hear the shrieks of derision: “What’s strength and macho got to do with it? You can’t beat up a virus, you stupid Neanderthal.” And of course, you can’t. But I’m talking about a mindset here. And to the extent that public policy encourages a mindset of fear it will always redound to the benefit of the Mommy Party.This should concern not just social conservatives like me who worry about things like “toughness,” but economic conservatives who worry about dependence on government.

To take one obvious example, which also ties in to the discussion above: if we teach people to fear calamity, and to accept the word of the experts, how do we dispute the “97 percent scientific consensus” on global warming—and what will likely soon be the consensus of the politicized scientific community that only measures like the Green New Deal will avert the imminent catastrophe?

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Broader Considerations. There are broader concerns as well that counsel against encouraging fear. These overlap a bit with the political considerations, but they should be of concern to people across the political spectrum.

The first issue is “the human cost of a widespread economic shutdown,” as Steve Malanga discussed in City Journal the other day. Concern about “the economy” is not just about the stock market and corporate profits; it’s about real people losing jobs and having to scrounge to support their families. Financial deprivation and anxiety about it entail health risks that have to be weighed along with the risk of the virus. Economic disruptions like shutting down public places may be necessary, but should not be undertaken hastily out of undue fear.

Beyond this, there are more fundamental questions about the import of a populace cowering in fear, and about a worldview that elevates maximizing the odds of survival above all else. I don’t know how to quantify these intangibles, but somehow they have to be factored into the risk equations.

And policymakers, particularly right-of-center policymakers, have generally done so in other areas. This is captured by one of my favorite political quotes, from an upstate New York State Senator named Vincent Graber, who said in response to liberal arguments about “the death rate” in a debate on one of the following two issues: “We could really reduce the death rate if we lowered the speed limit to 21 and raised the drinking age to 55.”

The social and human impact of a populace cowering in fear—physically afraid of others and, as necessarily follows, looking out only for themselves—should scare (pun intended) both tough-guy conservatives and touchy-feely liberals. Do we really want to live in a world without either heroism or hugs?

My point is not that it’s courageous to expose yourself to the small risk of disease, but that a public steeped in fear, encouraged to indulge rather than overcome that fear, will be less likely to display courage on anything. Will they run into the Battery Tunnel towards the burning towers as the off-duty firemen did on 9/11? And where are we as a society, what kind of people are we, without these objectively foolhardy actions?

Finally, as a 64-year-old with what might qualify as a pre-existing respiratory issue, I think I understand one reason why, paradoxically, older people seem to be no more panicked about the virus than younger people—and far less supportive of drastic responses to it. The older you are the less likely you are to maximize the odds of self-preservation over all other considerations.

We hear that younger people shouldn’t hug grandma, shouldn’t even visit her, lest they infect her; as a matter of fact, grandma should sit inside alone, cut off from all human contact. But a hug from her grandchildren, or a visit with friends, or just the dignity of going about her life, may all mean more to grandma than mere life extension.

This is why Senator Graber’s joke rings so true. If we only cared about maximizing everyone’s odds of survival we really would raise the drinking age to 55 and lower the speed limit to 21. Thankfully we don’t.

I’m not saying the restrictions being imposed around the country are necessarily unjustified. But let’s apply them with caution, with perspective, and with an awareness of what we’re sacrificing.

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About Dennis Saffran

Dennis Saffran is a Queens, N.Y.-based appellate attorney and political and policy writer whose work has appeared in City Journal, The Federalist, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. Follow him on twitter @dennisjsaffran.

Photo: BLOOMINGTON, UNITED STATES - MARCH 10, 2020: An aisle that had toilet paper been completely cleared out by Coronavirus shoppers at a Target store in Bloomington. Shoppers have been panic buying toilet paper, cleaning supplies, wipes, paper towels, cold medicine, pain relievers, immune boosting vitamins, and other items on Coronavirus pandemic fears. (Jeremy Hogan/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

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