Safety and Sustainability

To open up or not to open up -- is that the question?

At the very least, it is the narrative that seems to dominate both traditional and social media right now. Everyone seems to have an opinion, and even discounting the charlatans and hacks that obviously don't have your best interest in mind, there are legitimate differences of opinion, stemming from different perspectives.

"Both sides" can make rational arguments that are rooted, at their core, in protecting themselves and their family. For those of us fortunate enough to still have jobs or income while we shelter in place, the shutdown is our best effort at protecting ourselves, our family, and our community. The price of our enforced isolation may be steep, but it is cheap at the price if it prevents tens or even hundreds of thousands of deaths within our communities. From this perspective, it's easy to see those who are flouting or railing against the shutdown as irresponsible, callous, or worse.

But for those whose economic reality is much more uncertain (small business owners, gig workers, the newly unemployed, etc.) the risks posed by COVID, especially if it is not already prevalent in their community, may feel small compared to the very real risks to income security, and potentially subsequent loss of businesses and even housing. The shutdown is more than just an inconvenience -- it is a real threat, one that may cause more pain and human misery than the disease itself. Under these circumstances, the rational way to protect your family may be to brave the risks of the disease, rather than to hide from them; to carry on making a living as best we can.

Of course, this is not to minimize the risks of COVID, or to justify the complaints of those whose dim understanding of "freedom" could not possibly account for the effects of their actions on other people, or public health in general. But neither should we assume that everyone agitating for a loosening of restrictions feels this way, or that they could not have more vital interests in mind. It is important to understand that, depending on individual circumstances, each of us may approach the same risk/reward tradeoffs the shutdown imposes with very different calculations.

However, while these opposing perspectives may make for a compelling narrative, framing it in a "should we open up or not?" way is not actually helpful to government or society. As is often the case with conflict-driven narratives, the many politicians and media members pushing it are not actually incentivized to look for solutions, but rather to dig into one side and assail the other, as that helps score political points, or just attracts more eyeballs and advertising dollars.

So what should we do? We need to frame the situation differently, in a way that encopasses the myriad of circumstances each individual or family faces. To do that, we need to be answering a different question, and what question that is depends on our strategy for defeating COVID-19. I can see two viable paths forward, and depending on which we pursue, our current shutdown is either too strict, or not nearly strict enough.

If you want to eradicate the presence of the virus within American society as fast as possible, you need to go harder, with a Wuhan-style lockdown, including pervasive restrictions on movement that would amount to a draconian curtailment of personal freedoms. The goal is not to "flatten the curve", but to drive it into the ground, to the point where you have so few cases that you can rapidly track and isolate occasional outbreaks, allowing the rest of society to more or less get back to normal. The up-front costs to this are high, but the benefits of giving people confidence that the virus is no longer lurking in their communities are quite large, and are ultimately the only way that the economy can recover to pre-COVID levels.

However, if you're not willing to do this -- and the level of disobedience towards the current, much lighter restrictions indicates that too many Americans are not -- then you are conceding that the virus is going to be with us for a long time, perhpas years, at least until an effective vaccine is developed and deployed. If that is our course, then we must recognize that our strictest shutdowns are not realistically sustainable over such a long time-frame. Given this, we must instead determine how we can best live with the virus, limiting the damage to both our collective health as well as our economy and our well-being. "Flattening the curve" was only the first step; we must remain vigilant, and cannot fool ourselves into thinking that the virus is defeated, or wasn't that bad in the first place.

Resigned to this second course, the question we need to be answering right now is not "When should we open up the economy?", but rather "How can we open up the economy, at least partially, in a way that both minimizes our increased risk and allows society to function sustainably until the virus is (eventually) defeated?" Everything we're considering doing needs to be funnelled through the twin goals of "safety" and "sustainability". In some cases, "safety" will cost a lot, which will change the economics of the activity in question. It might not make sense to carry on such activities, except perhaps on a much more limited scale. Other activities, such as large concerts and other mass gatherings, just won't be safe at any cost as we currently know them, and will have to be rethought or even scrapped entirely.

I don't know what is the safest, most sustainable course our society must pursue, but while we should continue to dismiss those who seek only to minimize the risks of the virus, usually for their own personal gain, I think it's also long past time to recognize that we are in a marathon, not a sprint. We can't just give up and go back to normal because we're tired of the shutdown. We need a new normal, and to get that, we need to start by asking the right questions to get us there.

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