How long is it justified to be under lockdown? The original stay-at-home order was justified. It was meant to keep hospitals’ resources below capacity and, without it, the number of hospitalizations and fatalities would have been much higher — it has saved many lives. But while there’s no question about having had to impose the lock-down, there’s also no question that, at some point, it must be lifted. The question is when.
The factors to consider are hospitals’ capacity to operate, death rate, and the social and economic implications of remaining under a prolonged lock-down. Our society does tolerate a certain number of deaths from other diseases, without any change of lifestyle, even when such changes could save many lives.
The stay-at-home order was meant to “flatten the curve” — to prevent a fast rate of infection that would cause the hospitals to be overwhelmed. The stay-at-home order was not meant to eliminate all COVID-19 infections. The stay-at-home order and social distancing precautions have been effective at flattening the curve and decreasing the number of infections. However, once the curve is flattened, and even though it means there will still be infections and deaths, the lock-down should be gradually lifted. The lock-down should only remain in effect until we get to a tolerable number of infections and deaths; a number that we as a society are willing to accept.
Every year, many die for different reasons and our society is willing to endure a certain death rate without any changes to our lifestyle. Between 2017 and 2018, 61,000 people died from influenza. Of course, coronavirus is not the flu, but logically, we could have saved thousands of people if we had had a similar stay-at-home order two years ago.
The best case scenario, if we want to eliminate most future infections, and if we ignore the implications of a long lock-down, would be to maintain the status quo until a vaccine is found, which is at least several more months if not another year away. Unfortunately, we cannot ignore the devastating implications from a long-term lock-down. People are losing their jobs, their houses and their livelihood. Hospitals are postponing “nonessential” tests, which might cause loss of life if, for example, cancer is not caught early enough. There are already many more cases of domestic violence, and people in isolation with mental health issues, whose conditions could severely deteriorate.
The poorer you are, the more likely you are to suffer the implications of this economic and social disaster. People would like to think they are helping the cause that they can “see” — to stop deaths from coronavirus, but forget about death and suffering that come from the side effects of those actions, such as unemployment, poverty, depression, loneliness, etc. We would like to think we aren’t choosing who will die and who will live, but the reality is that we are choosing. Similar to what Bastiat wrote in his famous essay in 1850 (“That which we see and that which we do not see”), we might only see those deaths that come as a result of our choices in the future and not as immediately as with the coronavirus.
Even posing the question of when to lift the lock-down causes a storm of antagonism. I asked this question on social media and got a strong negative response, even though discussions on the very same topic had appeared in publications such as the New York Times.
These times are unprecedented, but our inability to discuss hard questions maturely is not unprecedented; our ability in times of upheaval to calm down and have a logic-based discussion is quite low. For some people, this question is provocative or elicits no compassion. But there’s nothing provocative in thinking about this very real question about America’s future. And this column wasn’t written without compassion. Indeed, my compassion stretches beyond the sick and dying and reaches out further to the people who are already suffering and may even pay the ultimate price as a result of the lock-down. I am thinking about both groups and trying to find a reasonable trade-off based on the fact that our society is willing to accept a certain number of deaths in order to not change our lifestyle.
In the short term, we need to stay in lock-down, but in the longer term, we will have to make a lot of hard choices, and we’d better start thinking about them now.