Georgia is one of the largest states to reopen after imposing a virtual lockdown to fight the Wuhan coronavirus. “Republican Gov. Brian Kemp allowed gyms, barbershops, hair salons, tattoo parlors, and bowling alleys to reopen their doors, just a few weeks after he issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” according to reports. While Georgia is opening up, the mostly Democratic governors of other states—including New York, New Jersey, and California—have embraced lockdowns through June.
While Trump resisted and then acquiesced to lockdown measures in late March, he has continued to be ambivalent. He dramatically tweeted “Liberate Michigan,” a week ago. Then, surprisingly, he had critical words for the Georgia governor’s decision.
While many observers have suggested the economy will be in the tank regardless of formal restrictions, it appears at least some people are heading to beaches, to the barber, and to restaurants as soon as they have the opportunity.
Shutdowns Happened Amid an Atmosphere of Panic
The initial pressure to impose lockdowns was intense. The media, the Democrats, Trump’s expert advisors, many other scientists and doctors, and the serious emergencies in Italy and China combined to fill the country with dread only a month ago.
The tone of that period is exemplified by a March 24 New York Times editorial, which advised:
[T]he president needs to be pursuing even more drastic measures. He should announce that, within 24 hours, all nonessential businesses should be shut and residents directed to remain in their homes except for vital trips out, such as to obtain food or medical care.
Trump’s shutdown order came after this drumbeat of political pressure and the advice of experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci. His views were supported by an Imperial College study that concluded “upward of two million lives could be lost to the pandemic unless America somehow manages to ‘flatten the curve.’”
Extreme assumptions led to extreme measures. Almost every U.S. state imposed a lockdown. Restaurants and schools were shuttered. Commerce ground to a halt, and now more than 26 million people are unemployed. It now turns out that many of the underlying assumptions were incorrect.
Off By An Order of Magnitude
The models supporting the lockdown policies assumed the disease only emerged in China around November, that our country was in the early stages of the pandemic in March, and that it was not widespread. They also assumed a very high case fatality rate, perhaps 2 percent or more. This all turned out almost certainly to be false.
Infections may have begun in the United States as early as November. In California, a study showed 40 times the number of reported cases had been infected. In New York City—the worst-hit locale—as many as 20 percent of the population may have antibodies. Neither of these facts are consistent with recent emergence.
So, while this data does show that the virus is highly contagious and obviously serious for many patients, these numbers are actually good news, because they point to a manageable disease that has been around for some time with a case fatality rate of perhaps half a percent or less.
Coronavirus has not caused big problems outside of a few hotspots. The ventilator crisis has come and gone. New cases and hospitalizations have peaked in most places, including New York. The curve appears already to be flattening.
These facts should inform lockdown policies going forward. They strongly suggest that these draconian lockdowns were either too late or are now too costly to secure the intended benefit.
The Social-Distancing Warriors
In spite of these developments, the pressure to continue lockdowns has become as intense as the original call to impose them. The typical formulation contrasts the greed and materialism of those concerned with the economy to the Social-Distancing Warriors’ noble desire to save lives.
This is simply a false dichotomy. Jobs are more than the mere “economy.”
While harm to the GDP or the stock market may ordinarily be bearable, unemployment is in a class of its own, especially at this scale. I wrote in an earlier essay,
the cliff of joblessness is far more costly than employed people having to spend more on towels at Walmart. A job is the key to self-respect and good citizenship, particularly for men, whose structural unemployment is devastating to communities and fatal to the formation of healthy families.
The hostility to reopening is also driven by the partisan identification of the lockdowns with “commitment to science” for those on the Left, the media, and the managerial elite. Their political identity requires that people see them as smart and urbane, while casting Trump and his supporters as stupid and provincial.
But this is not about real science, a discipline for which I have great respect. It is about the priesthood of the academic elite. It manifests in the smug slogans repeated by media figures and other mediocrities, who seek to accrue the prestige of actual scientists through rote recitation.
A good example of this can be seen in a recent New York Times article that explored the genesis of today’s shutdown measures during the mid-2000s. The authors recast George W. Bush—whom the paper spent eight years mocking as a religious fanatic and an idiot—as a bookish intellectual, who directed the exploration of public health measures after reading a book about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. After a vigorous debate, the CDC adopted social distancing protocols as official policy.
The metanarrative of the article was quite unsubtle: the evidence-based and intellectually curious George W. Bush gave us these gold-standard measures in contrast to the impulsive, anti-intellectual, and conceited Donald Trump.
Are These Lockdowns Based in Any Science?
Buried near the end of the article was the account of a dissenter, D.A. Henderson, an M.D. and former dean of the John Hopkins School of Public Health. To the Times’ credit, the story linked to his article critical of shutdown measures. Henderson’s piece is quite important—clairvoyant even.
A number of mitigation measures that are now being considered could have a serious impact on the ability of the health system to deliver adequate care and could have potentially adverse consequences for the provision of essential services. Many could result in significant disruption of the social functioning of communities and result in possibly serious economic problems.
In spite of the “science worship” behind the quarantine measures, Henderson discusses the lack of actual science supporting them:
There are no historical observations or scientific studies that support the confinement by quarantine of groups of possibly infected people for extended periods in order to slow the spread of influenza. A World Health Organization (WHO) Writing Group, after reviewing the literature and considering contemporary international experience, concluded that “forced isolation and quarantine are ineffective and impractical.” Despite this recommendation by experts, mandatory large-scale quarantine continues to be considered as an option by some authorities and government officials.
The mark of real science is experiments, not cheerleading and “belief” in things. This is what “evidence-based” medicine is all about. It is supposed to proceed with controlled experiments, not hunches, and post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies that wouldn’t impress a sharp eighth-grader.
The original arguments for lockdowns focused on slowing down the growth rate to prevent medical capacity from being overwhelmed. They were sold through plausible inferences about infection rates and people’s interactions, as well as the frightening predictions from the Imperial College model. But there was no real science to prove the efficacy of lockdowns. There was no control group, for example, and the underlying assumptions about the timing, infectiousness, and fatality rate of coronavirus were all basically guesses.
We now know that at least seven or eight states didn’t shut down and were not significantly worse off than those that did.
An Experiment Is Afoot
With large states like Georgia making changes, there is an opportunity for real science. How does Georgia do compared to, say, California and Florida or other states still under lockdown?
Some have dismissed the states that didn’t lockdown as nonrepresentative outliers, but Georgia is a populous state with several large metro areas. It had a worrisome spike in cases after a funeral that drew significant attention.
In Georgia, there is little doubt, even after the lockdown ends, that there will be new coronavirus cases, some fatal. But additional cases have been sprouting up there and elsewhere in spite of lockdowns. Would they have happened anyway? Will more infected people without disease create “dead ends” for disease transmission, even if not full herd immunity? The math here is actually rather complicated.
But one piece of math is not complicated. These shutdowns have been economically devastating. They’re psychologically taxing, hard on relationships, and damaging to our communities. And they’re encouraging the worst instincts among the ruling class and its servants.
Public policy, medicine, and life all involve risk assessments and changing course based on new evidence. After two months of shutdowns, it looks like we’ve killed our economy to forestall a phantom threat.
If this were actually a situation where millions of deaths were the alternative, continuing the lockdowns would be defensible. They’re even forgivable considering the state of our knowledge a couple of months ago. But with the benefit of the last two months of experience, it is clear that the toll of coronavirus has been and will be much closer to a bad flu season than millions of deaths.
The insistence on continuing the shutdown appears as much about saving face and spite than actually accomplishing something or following science. After all, if Georgia and other states are able to get off the ground without a hitch, it will make the critics appear obstinate and cruel, in love with the asceticism and social control aspects of the lockdowns more than any plausible benefit.
One can expect the media, no matter what happens in Georgia, to report on every public gathering as ominous, to exaggerate the spread of the disease, and to shame the people of Georgia for their foolhardiness. As with hydroxychloroquine, the factual question of whether or not this is an acceptable risk will be subordinated to the social identity of rejecting every word out of Trump’s mouth, no matter how reasonable.
Reopening may, of course, prove to be a deadly and costly mistake. This is a new virus, after all, and its impact is not entirely known, treatment protocols are haphazard, and Georgia’s decision to “reopen” is being made under conditions of uncertainty, though not as much uncertainty as the original decision to close. Real science looks to evidence, not ghost stories about what could happen.
As both the scientific method and President Trump like to say, “we’ll just have to see what happens.”