What Is the Coronavirus Endgame?

In the full course of human history, man has eradicated exactly two infectious diseases: smallpox and rinderpest. Smallpox was the continual scourge of mankind for millennia. Rinderpest, a disease of even-toed ungulates, devastated cattle herds in Europe, Asia, and Africa, with death rates nearing 100 percent among animals lacking acquired resistance. It is also believed to have been the origin of the measles virus in humans.

In each case, eradication required decades of coordinated international effort. Smallpox was the first disease to be prevented by inoculation, in the 18th century, but worldwide eradication was not achieved until 1979. The international campaign against rinderpest began in the mid-20th century; the last known case was in 2001, and the disease was not considered eradicated until 2011. We are working on several other maladies, and are relatively close to eradicating polio, though that has been in progress since the 1950s.

When infectious diseases would flare, it was common to quarantine individuals and families. My own mother remembers being quarantined when her sister contracted measles. Everyone else went about their business, and neighborhood kids knew that they could not play with the infected kids or their siblings for a while.

For everyone else, however, life continued. My grandmother recalls the fear of polio that gripped families every summer, as public swimming facilities were known breeding grounds for the virus. Yet people still went swimming, en masse, every summer.

By the standards of 2020, these people were insane, stupid, criminally negligent, or some combination of the above. Didn’t they understand the risks? Didn’t they understand how these diseases were transmitted? Yes, in fact, they did. They simply made the judgment that the risks were acceptable, and that they couldn’t live in perpetual fear.

Sometimes they were wrong. The risks weren’t acceptable: there was an outbreak, and people and communities took precautions until the risks returned to acceptable levels. But these times were the exception and not the rule.

Right now, we are in a situation that can only be described as unprecedented in modern history. Entire civilized nations are shutting down over the Wuhan coronavirus. Hundreds of millions of people are being ordered to stay at home. “Emergency” powers are being invoked at all levels. A thriving economy has been wrecked, and the full consequences of that may not be known for months or years.

All this for what is, comparatively speaking, minor. Stop comparing Wuhan coronavirus to influenza; it may or may not be worse than that. The death rate for the most common strain of smallpox, variola major, is 30 percent. That’s a better basis for comparison, and yet somehow society continued functioning.

How long are we willing to allow this shutdown to continue? Are you willing to shelter in place for decades until we eradicate this one? Assuming you’re a rational person, your answer is obviously “no.” In that case, at what point would you consider it safe enough to resume normal living? In other words, what would constitute an acceptable level of risk to get back to normal? This is the same calculation you make every day with regard to every other illness in the world. It’s the same calculation you make every time you get behind the wheel of a car, board a plane, or go for a walk.

We should expect no answers to these questions from our public health experts. We are regularly treated to dire predictions about infection rates and death tolls, and the danger keeps extending through the calendar.

Dr. Anthony Fauci (who once famously pooh-poohed the risk of Wuhan coronavirus) thinks it will require months of national and international disruption. He goes on TV and wonders aloud why more constraints haven’t been imposed. He swats away non-medical concerns like millions of lost jobs as “inconvenient.” Nothing in the training or experience of these experts qualifies them to provide answers to these questions. Their field is public health, and these are political questions.

The politicians, if anything, are worse. Long after the initial shock of pandemic has ended, they are still governing in panic mode.

California Governor Gavin Newsom is openly talking about canceling football season next fall. In my state, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has asked the legislature for a 70-day extension of her emergency powers (Michigan law caps those powers at 28 days from the time a state of emergency is declared), though mercifully the legislature has thus far been unwilling to grant that much.

In an atmosphere of fear, the shutdowns and quarantines stretch out before us, with no end in sight. And that’s the problem with “shelter in place,” “flattening the curve,” and shutdowns of every sort. What does victory look like, and how will we know when it is achieved? When will the risks be acceptable, knowing that “zero” is unrealistic? Our ruling class does not seem to have any answers to these questions, or even any interest in trying to find them.

We’ve been in this situation before, and the precedents are not promising.

In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson declared “war on poverty,” arguing that we had the ability to transform the human condition. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan declared a “war on drugs.” In 2001, George W. Bush reacted to 9/11 with a “war on terror.” All of these “wars” are ongoing, none has yielded satisfactory results, each has eroded confidence in our government, and each has massively expanded the power of the state.

Right now, this is shaping up to look like one of these “wars”: an ill-defined crusade requiring massive expansion of government power with no realistic goals and no clear endgame.

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About Kevin Portteus

Kevin Portteus is the Lawrence Fertig Professor of Politics and Director of American Studies at Hillsdale College.

Photo: Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

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