Why America’s Extreme Reaction to the Coronavirus Was Predictable—and Why It Must End

America is truly an exceptional nation, I would argue, for a nearly forgotten reason: geography.

Our place on the globe, positioned between Canada and Mexico to our north and south and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans east and west means that for centuries we have been immune to many of the basic problems every other powerful nation must face—past or present.

But our geographic exceptionalism has not always been an advantage—especially when it’s threatened from time to time. Americans don’t react rationally when our homeland comes under threat. History shows that many times we resort to extreme coping strategies—sometimes justified, sometimes not—to not only mitigate but destroy potential threats.

And yet, by and large, that strategy has been successful. During World War I and World War II, we transformed our nation into what amounts to a giant munitions factory, waging war against Imperial and then Nazi Germany and other fascist powers. Not only did we win those wars, but we crushed our adversaries in historic fashion. We then occupied them, rebuilt them in our democratic image, and then turned them into allies—on multiple occasions.

Then there are the clear mistakes that will haunt us for generations.

America’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks was neither proportional nor strategically sound by any objective measure. More a response to our shattered sense of security—and the destruction of an iconic symbol of American power and influence—the George W. Bush Administration spent trillions of dollars on a so-called “war on terror” while creating entire new government bureaucracies, invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, and dramatically increasing defense spending and our national debt in the process. 2,996 murdered souls—as tragic as that was—have resulted in trillions of dollars in spending, new national security commitments, and now “forever wars” that have no end date in sight.

33 Million Americans Out of Work

That brings us to America’s quite predictable response to the coronavirus. While there were many possible strategies that could have been employed to mitigate its impact—Sweden has been panned and praised, for example, by keeping large segments of its economy open and avoiding large-scale business closures—such ideas were largely ignored. America did what it always seems to do when presented with a threat to the homeland: the most extreme thing possible. And that meant shutting down most of the economy and asking nearly every American to shelter in place for weeks on end—no matter the cost.

While the reasons for such a policy were clear and, indeed, noble—to save as many lives as possible—the ramifications of that policy now are becoming clear. We have unleashed economic carnage on a scale that could rival or surpass the Great Depression. More than 33 million Americans—nearly the size of the entire population of Canada—have filed for unemployment insurance. That’s 1 in 5 Americans overall since mid-March. Iconic retailers like J. Crew and Neiman Marcus have filed for bankruptcy. Entire cities, towns, and states have been suggested to be next.

Looking just a little further downfield, things will likely get even worse. U.S. GDP could contract in the current quarter by as much as 30-40 percent. That means trillions of dollars of economic output, jobs, and national wealth will be wiped out for months—maybe years if economic recovery is not robust and quick.

Then there is the debt that has been and will be created. Overall U.S. debt will grow by trillions of dollars to mitigate the economic damage created by our coronavirus response. At an already staggering $23 trillion before the crisis began, the sheer size of the money owed creates the potential for slower economic growth when the current crisis passes. Worse still, massive interest payments will cannibalize future U.S. government budgets and potentially even lead to a future debt crisis if interest rates were to rise.

A Shift in Mindset

Clearly economic suicide is not and cannot be our strategy for trying to defeat the coronavirus, a threat that will surely be with us until a vaccine is found, something that could take two years or more if history is any guide. We must move to a more balanced approach, one that seeks to save as many lives as possible, mitigates the public health threat while keeping the economy moving as smoothly as possible.

To do that, Americans will need somehow to shift their mindset, to understand that no matter the extreme approach we take, our scientists and health professionals will need time to develop a vaccine but also therapeutics to help alleviate the symptoms of the disease. That means we must come to embrace the virus as a challenge we will need to make a part of our daily lives, not something that must be defeated—no matter the cost or sacrifice.

History tells us we know as a society how to make such a transition, to take the fear we have inside, cope with it, and make confronting it part of our daily lives. We transformed after the 9/11 attacks—we did not shut down the airlines forever, close our national monuments months on end, or lockdown every potential target that could be tempting to Osama Bin Laden. We decided that as a society that life must continue, that a new normal could be forged. There was a natural recognition that we must adapt and include this new threat into our lives—not stop our lives. We did what humans do best as a species: adapt and prosper.

Looking for Political Courage

That is why we must begin to recalibrate our approach to the coronavirus. We must find a balance between seeking some sort of total victory that may not come for many months, saving lives, and ensuring economic survival.

The easiest way to start is to continue work on increasing the amount of federal and state resources on contact tracing, testing for new infections, and testing for those who have coronavirus antibodies. We then must seek to protect those who are the most vulnerable—those who are elderly or have chronic health conditions.

This also means we will have to make hard choices that require true political courage. We can and must roll back lockdowns in areas of the nation that are not as impacted by COVID-19. While entire states might not be ready to roll back restrictions just yet, small counties or towns could see restrictions lifted much sooner. For example, why does a county in Western Maryland need to have the same restrictions as Baltimore where there are few to no cases? Or why does a county that borders Canada in New York State that has very few cases need to have the same restrictions as say New York City?

Ultimately, we can and must find a more balanced and nuanced approach to tackling the coronavirus threat. If we don’t, our nation will not only have lost tens of thousands of lives but be left in total economic ruin that may take generations to repair—if it can be repaired at all.

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About Harry J. Kazianis

Harry Kazianis is a Senior Director at the Center for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @Grecianformula. The views expressed are his own and don’t represent an institutional position.

Photo: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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