August 31, 2020
How we stand on COVID-19 depends on what we believe to be true.
How people stand on our response to COVID-19 is a function of what they consider to be believable. I recall that my first journal entry was on the subject of Unknowable. I could have guessed it then that we would be arriving to the place where we are today – Unbelievable.
From Unknowable, I noted:
Throughout the entire time to this moment as I type, the word “unknowable” is first in mind. It is what makes this a great moment in the history of our world, it is what reminds us we are mortals, it informs us that our hatreds and prejudices need to be set aside to focus on a more important mission. It should continually remind us to be humble.
And I made this prediction:
We are moving into uncharted seas. This is an exciting time to live – if you are granted such a privilege. We will see COVID-19 central to our lives for months to come. By August we will know if we can move forward as before, or incrementally adapt to the risks we learn more about.
How we stand on COVID-19 depends on what we believe to be true. I will exclude for this discussion the fringe element that claims that COVID-19 is a left-wing conspiracy. I exclude them not because I do not find merit in what they are espousing, but because the vast majority of us admittedly harbor our own doubts. The line between sound policy and mass hysteria is thin indeed.
What is believable – and what should be driving public policy on COVID-19, is hospital capacity. People who end up in the intensive care units are there for one reason – they are nearing death. It is more than just a simple bed count. It is also a substitutionary effect, where medical emergencies that are considered “normal” are suddenly being bumped by COVID-19 sufferers. In other words, what we would normally expect to be provided to people with medical emergencies is suddenly unavailable. That, ultimately, should drive public policy. That is a real number. It is believable.
But beyond that, anything goes. What is an “acceptable” death rate? I get this spooky sense that we rattle off the day’s deaths like it is baseball scores. We have enough numbers to know that COVID-19 death rates are quite small and compare to that of other influenza outbreaks. According to the WHO, at the time of this writing, about 760,000 people globally have died from COVID-19, or 3.5% of those who have contracted the virus. In the U.S., the death rate has been slightly less at 3.1%. Even so, it is a rather morbid off-handedness that people say, “And most of the deaths have been attributed to people in high-risk categories such as those with heart conditions, diabetes or old age.” Hmm – I nicely fit into one of the categories – comforting, isn’t it?
In contrast, I suffered through the Hong Kong Flu in 1968. I still remember vividly that experience. I got sick the night after I ate lasagna at a cafeteria. For the next two days I experienced a vicious fever and diarrhea, and for the next two weeks I was barely strong enough to go to school. And, worse yet, for the next five years I did not eat lasagna! One to four million people may have died from that flu outbreak, more than have yet to perish from COVID-19. No lockdowns. No masks.
So what do we find “believable?” I have previously cited the WHO, and most of us by now know that the WHO is seriously discredited by its prejudicial treatment of Taiwan and its compromised reporting of the outbreak in January. Our own CDC has struggled to protect its reputation. As I stated above, are the numbers really that bad? For most of the country, no. Is COVID-19 really all that different than any other flu? As regards its effects on the general population – no. Are all the protective measures necessary? That’s a hard one to answer.
Maybe the operative word is “necessary.”
When I see a government official or political pundit talking on the TV telling us how we need to respond to COVID-19, I see someone who gets a paycheck every two weeks and has a health care plan. When I see the protesters, I see a lot of people who have no paycheck, no health plan, are about to lose their businesses or have lost their business, or about to be kicked out of their apartments and homes. In other words, what is “believable” is weighed against what is “necessary.”
Personally, I am quite fortunate to be gainfully employed with a health plan. I will be retiring soon. So I find what the experts are saying to be believable. Objectively, the facts are based on science. But does my personal opinion on “believability” trump another persons need to work for a living? Or does our paranoia mandate we close down churches and schools, without accounting for those who are most vulnerable in our society in the realest sense – everyday unemployment, every day having to live in fear of losing your home, dealing with the impossibility of having to work as a single parent while government policy requires that your child remain at home part of the week?
At last glance, that sort of vulnerability accounts for at least 11% of our community, roughly three times what it was last year or about 1,000 adults. The city has had 217 cases and one death. Is our response to COVID-19 worth the loss of employment for a 1,000 people? Is “one death” a measure of our over-reaction, or the result of prudent measures to protect the lives of dozens of people who may have otherwise contracted the disease and perished?
To be fair, Juneau’s unemployment problem is directly related to the sudden absence of the tourism industry. What has vanished are the presence of 1.5 million visitors that descended down the ramps of docked cruise ships. No doubt, packing people on a cruise ship was proven to be a formula for disaster. Cruise ship companies canceled the cruises before the season started. That was prudent because the consequences are clear – they are believable. In a similar vein, we have exercised caution when people are put in a “cruise ship scenario,” being packed into large groups in tight spaces. It is an uncontrollable situation that has been statistically proven to increase the likelihood of outbreaks and the subsequent stress on medical facilities. It is such a scenario that most profoundly affected the sports industry. Yet what remains is what touches our lives daily – those gray areas where we need to each evaluate the risks and act accordingly. Should our kids return to school? Sure – but does it have to be my kid? We need government policy that allows flexibility.
Three years from now we can hopefully look back at this time and determine what is “believable.” We will long debate whether the numbers were better or worse based on how we responded to the outbreak. In the end, what I find believable is transcended by belief: that my response should be based on what benefits others, not myself.
By Eric Niewoehner
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