As I recently lamented, the hard part of managing the COVID-19 pandemic lies in the easing of restrictions and lockdowns. We were originally told we had to “flatten the curve,” which makes for a nice catchy bit of motivation. As is inevitable with politics, however, the tough part of that line of reasoning – that flattening the curve is about spreading incidences of the disease across a longer time line, so that health care systems can better handle the flow – didn’t really register. Flattening the curve doesn’t itself mean a reduction of fatalities, although the measures taken certainly accomplish that as well.

We have, with massive economic harm, flattened the curve. Mission accomplished. Now, how do we move forward? The current situation is increasingly untenable – there’s only so much money the government can print up and give away, and without human productivity creating wealth, our lives will suffer in countless ways.

And, people will die from non-Coronavirus reasons.

An acquaintance of mine just passed away. His family informed our community that he didn’t pass from COVID-19, but because of the measures in place, he didn’t get the care he otherwise would have.

This is by no means unique. Cancer patients are delaying treatments, people with other illnesses are not seeking (or are being denied) medical care, routine health maintenance (ranging from dental care to diabetes) has slowed, waiting rooms at hospital emergency departments are empty, and first-responder emergency medicine is overloaded to the point of changing protocols.

In other words, the damage from the pandemic lockdown is not just economic. Lives are being shortened and lost.

This doesn’t mean I don’t agree with the lockdowns. If you’ve a choice between a hundred thousand lives and ten thousand lives, the calculus is obvious. But, the problem isn’t that clear, now, after the initial reactions. It’s hard to quantify the “other” lives harmed or lost by the lockdowns, and, harder than tallying COVID deaths (and some have asserted that there’s some padding of that figure at play).

The “clarity disparity” skews the political calculus. A politician that reopens an economy sooner rather than later will face criticism for a number of “preventable” COVID deaths, when armchair and self-styled epidemiological mathematicians project curves and calculated differences. He won’t, however, face as much criticism for the deaths caused or accelerated by the continued lockdown, simply because those are so much harder to quantify. The blame for the former will be far easier and more conspicuous than for the latter.

This also enables people to put their own biases, fears, and personal experiences into the political game. Someone who’s had more proximate contact with the disease, whether it be personal loss or simply living in a hot zone (with the attendant press hyper-antics: I’m looking at you, New York Post), is more apt to favor a longer lockdown than someone who lives in a place it hasn’t really hit. Someone who’s merely inconvenienced and/or suffering manageable financial impact (that includes many in the middle and upper-middle classes who can work from home) is more likely to favor a longer lockdown than someone who’s in a manufacturing or service industry, has lost his job, and is relying on food banks and other forms of aid to survive. Those people will respond differently to reopen vs lockdown decisions.

All this makes re-opening a political matter, not just one of best judgment and most rational analysis, even if this weren’t an election year. The upcoming election makes it all the more so, and as we get closer and the death toll increases, the finger-pointing will take over the headlines and political forums. The ease and conspicuousness of tallying COVID deaths benefits those who have most to gain by externalizing blame. That’ll include the governors of several blue states (the hardest hit, so far) and the party currently not in the White House.

Those who try to speak for non-COVID sufferers will be marked as heartless, greedy ghouls, of course, because we can’t have actual discussions about difficult matters any more without quick degeneration into name-calling. We are to blame for that degeneration, which I believe has been greatly exacerbated by the rise of social media (not that I blame Zuckerberg et al – they simply created a product, we are the ones using it as we do).

The prime counterweight to the conspicuous-blame pressure on decision makers is the fiscal impact of continued lockdown on their coffers. States can’t create money out of thin air, and the lockdowns are putting gaping holes in their finances. The powerful interests upon whom big-government states’ leaders rely aren’t going to be happy about taking haircuts no matter the reason, and they’re eventually going to bark. That reveals another blame game, of course, with governors demanding that the Feds do more for their states (even as they talk nasty about the guy whose job it is to respond to those demands). Already, NY’s governor is trotting out the “you’re not doing enough for us, given how much we pay in taxes). That’s an easy assertion, with nuance and deeper thought of no interest to most. So, conspicuous blame, again.

As I quoted last week, everything is politics, even human life. There’s no easy answer to unraveling the lockdown, but unraveling must happen, and over the course of a few months, not a few years. Just as the machine that is the US economy needed time to adjust to the influx of COVID patients, it’ll need time to spool up wealth creation again, and it’ll face, even after restrictions have been eased, the long-term prospect of altered individual behavior (it’s beyond doubt that social distancing is going to be the thing until a vaccine and herd immunity have knocked the virus down to relative insignificance, and that’s going to carry attendant long-lasting harm to the economy).

Unfortunately, making the decision to reopen comes with obvious peril, while the peril of keeping the lockdown in place is understood but more diffuse and much harder to tally in lives. This gives the finger-pointers an advantage. It’s certain that they’ll take it.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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