The argument over when to travel and how to strike the proper balance between saving lives and saving the economy in this era of COVID-19 misses a greater point: why do we, as Americans, accept such mediocrity from ourselves and from our government?
The United States is a proud beacon of freedom around the world. We formed a representative democracy in 1789 that continues to be a model for many nations. We fought two world wars and prevailed. We put a man on the moon and developed technology that has saved millions of lives.
So why has an invisible enemy so flummoxed us?
The Surface Level Debate
There’s a surface level debate over COVID-19. It goes something like this.
In one camp, are well-meaning souls who say that life must be valued over money or short-term liberty; that until we find a cure we cannot sacrifice lives to a virus that is far more deadly and invasive than the flu. They see social distancing and lockdown measures as the only viable way to halt the spread of the virus, which will avert even greater economic damage in due time. With so many unknowns about this virus, including no proven treatment (let alone cure), social distancing should be used to buy us time, so that we can understand and effectively address this virus.
In the other camp, are well-meaning souls who point out that the economic costs of lockdown are staggering. They note the unintended consequences including systemic unemployment, the collapse of markets and economic systems, and instability in the world. Furthermore, they point to the adverse mental health risks of depriving people of their livelihoods and the hidden costs of delaying elective procedures like physicals or MRIs which may uncover malignant issues that are preventable if acted upon in a timely fashion. And there are issues of liberty and personal responsibility. Can people not make their own informed judgements? Isn’t there risk in higher speed limits, yet society is willing to accept that risk because of the economic tradeoff in terms of increased productivity?
Now if the issue were that simple, I would tend to be more sympathetic to the latter argument, even while I dismiss the childish notion that COVID-19 is just like the flu.
But talk about a false choice….
Why should we tolerate needless death either rapidly or slowly? This isn’t a debate over speed limits, which themselves are not harmful, but of a pernicious virus that is an equal-opportunity killer.
To tackle this problem and truly restore confidence in a way that will jumpstart the economy, we need either rapid, accurate, wide-scale testing with an effective tracing protocol or a vaccine.
Now I’m certainly not a doctor, but vaccines generally take years—sometimes decades—to develop and properly test. The notion that a safe vaccine will be available for mass consumption by the end of the year strikes me as pure fantasy, though I certainly am hopeful that a breakthrough will come sooner rather than later.
But testing plus tracing is a viable avenue to opening up the economy quickly and ensuring the most vulnerable remain protected. Why have we accepted failure for so long?
My Experience: Testing Is Practically Impossible Now
Here in Los Angeles, all residents are offered free tests…in theory. I wanted to take advantage and get tested, so I scheduled an appointment. One was not available for several days, but I made one at Dodger Stadium, about 10 minutes from my office.
The appointment was at noon and I showed up on-time, only to find a line of cars literally five miles long, stretching around the stadium and surrounding neighborhood. Police officers directing traffic warned of a wait time of at least five hours.
The other day I went to see my doctor and found a big sign on the door that said “NO COVID-19 TESTS”.
Why not? How can the nation that has achieved so much, like the internet, genetic engineering, mobile phones, nuclear power, space flight, and supercomputers be unable…after several months…to develop a coherent national testing system?
And contact tracing goes hand in hand with testing. Emerging data suggests that COVID infections cluster (like many viruses). If a small number of people are responsible for a majority of the cases, an effective tracing system can quickly isolate those individuals and reduce community spread. New Zealand has done a great job in creating a contact tracing model for other governments to emulate. As an aside, recent data showing more asymptomatic patients shows why it makes sense to wear masks as a precautionary move.
The counterargument that the USA is just too big and t0o populous to do this is a defeatist attitude that I refuse to accept.
Imagine if tests were widespread, quick, and effective. Imagine if you took a test every time you entered the airport and knew minutes later if you were clear to fly. What peace of mind would come from knowing that everyone else around you had been tested. Forget the masks, gloves, and social distancing. You’d know that you were not contagious, just like everyone else around you. Boom. The economy starts flourishing again.
Imagine if we had a tracing system in place that was quickly able to retrace where patients had been, who they had interacted with, and therefore effectively cordon off potential infections from the wider community.
If the President and his staff can be checked on a daily basis, why not the rest of America? Why do we not call upon the White House, Speaker of the House, and Senate Majority Leader to craft a national solution? For those who see government as a problem rather than a solution, keep in mind that the United States…a national government…was formed to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare (see the Preamble to the Constitution). Is this not the clearest case of the federal government doing exactly what the Founders of the federal government intended it to do?
We do live in federal republic with many rights and duties reserved to the states. Still, the spectacle of states bidding against state for personal protective equipment simply made no sense. Are we one nation or not? The purchasing power of the federal government should have been leveraged to procure PPE for all 50 states, but it is not too late for a national testing and tracing system that will position us for a lasting economic rebound.
We need to demand more from our elected leaders. This is America. I’m so sick of the notion that we’ve done all we can, now let’s just re-open and allow COVID-19 death counts to spike once again. Let’s develop accurate testing and then produce it on a widespread basis. Let’s do it now.
I want to travel again. In fact, I desperately want to travel again. My import/export business has languished during the shutdown and I need to get back on the road, as my livelihood depends upon it. But I don’t want to unknowingly infect my wife, son, aging parents, or even the clerk at the grocery store. Even if I am willing to take the risk, why should I have to? We have the answer: it’s called testing and tracing. It should not be this hard and we should not just complacently see our response to COVID-19 as simply a tradeoff between life and money.