Wednesday, April 15, 2020

How to Save a Life (COVID-19 Edition)

On Tuesday evening, Republican Senator John N. Kennedy of Louisiana went on Fox News to advocate in favor of reopening the economy very soon, despite the fact that the coronavirus continues to spread nationwide (including in his own state, where over 21,000 cases have been diagnosed and more than 1,000 people have died from it).  But ending stay-at-home orders and quickly reopening the economy is something President Trump wants; and his supporters in congress are going on friendly talk shows to agree with him and say it's a great idea. I'm not surprised by that: as a professor of Political Communication, I fully expect politicians to go on a friendly program to agree with the president of their party. But it was what Mr. Kennedy said that was somewhat jarring to me.

He first asserted that the stay-at-home orders (which were only ordered in some-- not all states) had not worked, because they had not stopped the spread of the virus. And while acknowledging that those states with stay-at-home orders probably slowed the spread, he still said these orders were not worth continuing, given the cost to the economy. And then he said, "When we end the shutdown, the virus is going to spread faster. That’s just a fact. And the American people understand that."

So, in other words, reopening the economy and sending people back to work (as well as telling them that it's okay to once again go to public events) may lead to more cases of the virus, and that, potentially, may lead to more deaths. But evidently, that's a small price to pay, because it's time to get the economy moving again.

Except it's not. And it should never have come to such a drastic choice. Please don't get me wrong: like many Americans, I am tired of being stuck at home.  And I know so many people, including some of my students (and their parents) who are out of work, struggling to pay bills, desperate for some income.  But consider what else is happening: all over the country, doctors and nurses and first responders are exhausted, personal protective equipment is still in short supply in many places, nursing homes and hospitals are understaffed as caregivers come down with the virus, and there is still no national policy-- it varies on a state-by-state basis how much social distancing or staying away from crowds is taking place.

In short, this crisis is far from over; and for the senator to be okay about the virus spreading again, as long as the economy is humming, seems like a very tone-deaf response.  Yes, social distancing is annoying and frustrating, but the states where it is being done have seen the amount of new cases diminish. The senator is wrong to say this policy hasn't made a difference. I only wish that ALL states had agreed to do it.    

And at the risk of seeming partisan, it's worth remembering that several months ago, the president stated that anyone who wanted a coronavirus test could get one. That wasn't true then, and it's not true now. Many good newspapers are doing commendable work talking about what is actually happening, and the sad reality is only 1% of Americans have been able to get tested. Thus, we still don't know who is carrying it. And as the virus spreads to smaller towns with fewer resources, local hospitals will become overwhelmed, making a bad situation even worse.

The answer is not to prematurely end the current quarantine. The answer is not to tell everyone that things are fine now. And the answer is not to make claims that are demonstrably false on partisan talk shows, just to make the president happy. Until there is a vaccine (by all accounts, at least a year away); until there is a reliable medicine (no, studies of hydroxychloroquine in Europe did NOT show amazing success: one study even had to be stopped because people were dying); and until we have a sane national policy for addressing a pandemic like this one--including helping small businesses to get through it... the one effective way to prevent the further spread of the virus is to continue staying home. I don't like it, but it's necessary, in order to save more lives. It's a shame that certain politicians no longer treat public health as their first priority.