A Surfeit of Caution

/

There is an esprit de corps that has developed surrounding our collective attempts to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Social media is awash with posts suggesting ways to connect, ways to nourish each other, ways to survive the isolation. There has been an outpouring of support for those on the frontlines — the medical professionals who at their own peril face this crisis directly. The call for “social distancing” has been heard from the highest offices to the lowliest tweet. 

We are so focused on how to live well and help one another within this new framework that I fear we fail to examine its structure, despite how hastily it was built.

We encounter within the discourse of the official response to the disease the oft-repeated edict that we must act with an “abundance of caution.” 

But such caution was not evident in regard to the orders which effectively shut down the economy — a cascade of hastily made decisions at various levels of government, contagious as the disease itself, that quickly emptied our streets and darkened our cafés without any accounting for the cost we will pay for turning out these lights.

I understand what drove those decisions, and in the first few days I also rode that wave of caution. 

We are empathetic creatures and the likely near-term loss of hundreds of thousands of lives seemed to demand these measures.  Even now I cannot say that I would have made a different decision had I been in a position of authority.  Yet with an unknown amount of time stretching before us, and with an imposed emptiness in which to reflect, I am less certain it was correct.

The decision to turn the economy off was made quickly, at executive levels.  This is understandable, as the democratic process moves too slowly to respond to a pandemic … It was however much simpler to give the order to shut down restaurants and schools than it will be to give the order to open them again.

I am beginning to wonder whether the social destruction we will witness over the coming months will dwarf the damage that the virus itself will do to human health. The loss of social capital, the destruction of businesses and organizations, the severing of relationships, the collective wealth of knowledge in groups that will cease to exist… none of this will be adequately repaired through monetary or fiscal policy, regardless the speed and degree to which it is deployed. We will spend at least a decade recovering from this damage, and we won’t arrive at the same place we departed.

We have collectively made a decision to shut down society in order to hopefully save hundreds of thousands of lives. The ramifications of that decision are not just loneliness, boredom, and isolation for some number of weeks. This decision will result in a global recession likely larger than any since the Great Depression. 

I have heard the charge that we cannot balance the economy against human lives in our decision making, but the health of the economy is about lives.

Poverty kills, homelessness kills, suicide kills.  In addition, our health care system does not operate independent of the economy.  By alleviating the short term stress upon it, by flattening the curve, we may in the end cause it to have reduced capacity and effectiveness over a longer period of time due to closures and reductions in staffing caused by the coming recession, and the negative health outcomes due to those reductions may well represent a cumulative net loss in terms of global health. 

We must therefore force this conversation to happen right now, at many levels of government and through all channels available to us and demand the development of criteria to permit a resumption of normalcy. 

We must begin immediately to engage around the question of when the shutdowns will end and how we will end them.  Waiting until the pandemic has passed would be akin to waiting for a war to end before planning how to transition the economy to a peacetime footing, a mistake we have made before. 

What’s more, the path of this disease is not well understood.  It will mutate, it will resurge, it is here to stay.  We must find a way to thrive in spite of it.

The decision to turn the economy off was made quickly, at executive levels.  This is understandable, as the democratic process moves too slowly to respond to a pandemic and relying upon debate and legislation would have been equivalent to having no response at all. 

It was however much simpler to give the order to shut down restaurants and schools than it will be to give the order to open them again.

We must therefore force this conversation to happen right now, at many levels of government and through all channels available to us and demand the development of criteria to permit a resumption of normalcy. 

Each week that we wait, a vital part of our communities will cease to exist.  We must consider the long-term costs, as difficult as it will be to weigh them against the near-term risk of the disease itself. Our abundance of caution will otherwise, when the flood subsides, leave a landscape unrecognizable to us.

Latest from Opinion

Shipping Containers

They’re just a big metal box, but they’ve revolutionized the transportation world in the last decades,