Doing It Wrong

We have done everything wrong. We shut down major portions of the private economy when, in fact, the private economy was, and is, our best weapon to get us through this pandemic.

How so? Because the private economy provides the funds for food, shelter, and health insurance coverage for the vast majority of our citizens. If that economy is crippled, it puts many of these citizens a month away from defaulting on rents and mortgages, and puts them one step away from living on the street with no money to buy food and no health insurance.

Why would we ever risk that result to fight a pandemic which is primarily concentrated among an easily defined group of people who are over 65, and who are, for the most part, no longer employed, already have permanent health insurance through Medicare, and already have permanent significant living expenses met through Social Security without lifting a finger to change a federal program? Many also have pensions or IRAs from their working years that give them a continued good lifestyle, and they will react quickly if the value of their assets start going down with the economy. These parties include unions and other groups with significant clout.

For small businesses especially, a lockdown is not a temporary condition. Some reports say as much as 40 percent of small businesses will be destroyed permanently.

Did we know this basic paradigm before we started to shut down the private economy? Yes, we did. The one chunk of factual knowledge we had from the start was who was being hospitalized and who was dying from COVID-19. It was the same group in every country in the world from the very beginning. It was, and is, primarily the elderly. And one further breakdown, it was, and is, the elderly with comorbidities, high-blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, compromised respiratory systems, and compromised immune systems caused by cancer or other illness.

On February 7, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) put a study online of 138 patients at a primary Wuhan hospital in China who had what was then called the 2019 novel coronavirus. The median age was 51. Thirty-six moved on to the ICU with a median age of 66, of which 72 percent had comorbidities. Six had died as of February 3, 2020.

Fifty-seven of the 138 were “presumed to have been infected in [the] hospital;” 17 were patients admitted for other illnesses and 40 were health professionals in the hospital itself. Thus, the pattern was set for a highly contagious pandemic, concentrated in the higher age groups, and especially severe for those with comorbidities. It was a pattern that was reinforced as the virus spread to Italy and finally to an elderly care facility in Seattle, Washington, where the first concentration of deaths appeared in the United States.

As the virus spread, the conventional wisdom was that hospitals and medical facilities were in grave danger of being overwhelmed, and we needed an immediate way to “flatten the curve,” i.e., to spread out the rate of the infection over a longer period so that hospital and medical facilities could handle the influx of seriously ill patients. This led states and cities to consider isolating or locking down their citizens to delay transmission, and thus, ”flatten the curve.”

But lockdown whom?

It should have been the lockdown of those predicted to overwhelm the medical facilities, not the whole economy.

Thus, the age of 65 would have been a sound hard-line number to select for a total lockdown, causing minimal damage to our unique economic structure. (Currently, the CDC says that 8 out of 10 deaths are among people 65 and older.) And further limited lockdowns could have been carved out for those below 65 with obvious comorbidities.

Masks, good hygiene, and revamping some workplaces could have been instituted to protect the remaining workers. Moreover, it would never have required the feds to pump $2.6 trillion into the economy with more on the way, a drag that will affect the fiscal health of the nation for several years to come.

Yet none of this begins to touch on my now total contempt for the agencies that should have been on top of this issue: the FDA, the CDC, and WHO.

What more serious existential mandate do these agencies have than to prepare us for the treatment of pandemics that seem to come down the road, often more than once in a decade—think SARS, MERS, H1N1 (swine flu), all respiratory, and others such as AIDS, Ebola, and Zika.

I had written out a couple of paragraphs about gaming pandemics when an opinion column appeared in the Wall Street Journal by Frank Keating titled “War-Gaming The Next Pandemic,” in which he said that war-gaming could help us devise the best response to the next pandemic. What amazed me was how calm he was, instead of being totally irritated like me. Why hadn’t the health agencies already done that before the pandemic hit? Transmission, cohorts affected, and economic damage are central to all serious pandemics.

We have the most creative agency in the world for creation and innovation to meet extraordinary events, an agency that no one has been able to duplicate—DARPA (the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). I would wager that if we had given DARPA the challenge to war-game a response to COVID-19 in early February, starting with the early insight of the AMA study cited above, it would have had a game plan ready to go before the first lockdowns in mid-March, a plan tracking the factors that I have mentioned here among others, only it would have done it much better and in greater detail.

In less than five or six weeks, DARPA would have done what the FDA, CDC, and WHO should have been doing years ago, a plan they should have had ready to implement with a new weighing of factors in February-March 2020.

Indeed, DARPA could still help. It could start with correcting the botched job that we and many other countries have engaged in to-date.

There is a reason that economics is called the dismal science—because it ultimately gets down to survival in the literal sense. Ignore its lessons, and devastation can follow threatening the lifestyle that we have assumed could not be challenged. Keep spending those trillions using the printing press, and our currency will no longer be the reserve currency of the world, and we will be heading down a path we will deeply regret.

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About Peter R. Taft

Peter R. Taft is a former U.S. assistant attorney general and retired lawyer in Southern California.

Photo: BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

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