An irony of the coronavirus debate is that the more successful lockdowns are in squelching the disease, the more vulnerable they will be to attack as unnecessary in the first place.
A growing chorus on the right is slamming the shutdowns as an overreaction and agitating to end them. A good example of the genre is an op-ed co-authored by former Education Secretary William Bennett and talk-radio host Seth Leibsohn. It is titled, tendentiously and not very accurately, “Coronavirus Lessons: Fact and Reason vs. Paranoia and Fear.”
They cite an estimate that the current outbreak will kill 68,000 Americans. Then, they note that about 60,000 people died of the flu in 2017-18. For this, they thunder, we’ve imposed huge economic and social costs on the country?
This is obviously a deeply flawed way of looking at it.
If we are going to have 60,000 deaths with people not leaving their homes for more than a month, the number of deaths obviously would have been higher — much higher — if everyone had gone about business as usual. We didn’t lock down the country to try to prevent 60,000 deaths; we locked down the country to limit deaths to 60,000 (or whatever the ultimate toll is).
By Bennett and Leibsohn’s logic, we could just as easily ask: Why did we adopt tough-on-crime policies when crime rates are at historic lows? Why did we work to find a treatment for HIV/AIDs when so many of the people with the disease now have normal life expectancies?
Of course, it was precisely the actions we took that caused those welcome outcomes.
Consider the perversity of their reasoning a different way. If we had shut down the country a month sooner and there had been, say, only 2,000 deaths, then on their terms they’d have an even stronger argument, i.e., “We did all this, and there were only a couple of thousand fatalities?”
In other words, the more effective a lockdown would have been, the more opposed Bennett and Leibsohn would be to it.
As for the flu comparison, it isn’t as telling as Bennett and Leibsohn believe. The 2017-18 season, with 60,000 flu-related deaths, was particularly bad. But the coronavirus might kill a similar number — with the country on lockdown.
In the 2011-12 season, 12,000 people died of the flu in the entire country. New York alone has eclipsed that in a little more than a month (again, while on lockdown). In 2018-19, there were 34,000 flu-related deaths in the U.S. We’ve already surpassed that number nationally (yet again, while on lockdown).
Why have people reacted so dramatically to this virus? Bennett and Leibsohn have a theory: “New York City is where the epidemic has struck the hardest. The media is centered in New York City.”
New York certainly gets disproportionate media attention, but it is also, as all of us had no hesitation recognizing on Sept. 11, 2001, part of America.
If the disease struck smaller heartland cities such as Omaha and Wichita, would Bennett and Leibsohn hope that the story got ignored?
Bennett and Leibsohn neglect the key fact that the economy began to shut down before there were widespread official orders. People voted with their feet because they were fearful of a highly transmissible, virulent disease. And they acted rationally. If everything had gone on as normal, the outbreak would have been worse, and we would have eventually had shutdowns anyway.
The most objectionable part of the Bennett and Leibsohn posture is its sneering attitude toward “frenzied, panicked” ordinary Americans who have sacrificed so much to protect their families and co-workers (and complete strangers).
By all means, let’s open up the economy as soon as we can, but it will require more careful thought than the most fervent critics of the shutdowns have demonstrated during the peak of this pandemic.