The Virus Crisis: No Good Choices, Just Bad and Worse

What about the lives damaged or lost because of a policy to save other lives?

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

President Trump’s suggestions about getting some regions of the country back to work has provoked the usual hysterical hyperbole from the Trump-hating media. One assumes by now that squeals like Chuck Todd’s “blood on his hands” have become white noise for half the country, and so aren’t damaging Trump, whose handling of the virus 60% of Americans approve.

But beneath the usual partisan desperation and bitterness lies a common fallacy: That every political and social problem has a right solution known to “experts,” and only the willful ignorance and superstitions of “anti-science” conservatives prevents them from making the correct choice. The solution, as Barack Obama said, is “science-based policies” created by “experts.”

Take the policy of “self-quarantining” or extreme “social distancing,” which has shut down the American economy and put 3.8 million workers on unemployment. This policy gained traction when epidemiologist Neil Ferguson of Oxford said as many as 2.2 million Americans and 500,000 Britons would die because of the virus. In all fairness, he also said such an outcome was “unlikely.” But the sensationalist media, eager for bad news with which to tar the president, reported the number as though it were a scientific fact rather than an educated estimate thick with caveats. As U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has complained, the media are too eager to publicize estimates “based on worst-case scenarios.”

So the doomsaying media weren’t happy when Dr. Ferguson revised his estimate, saying England would face 20,000 dead, mostly the elderly who were near death from other conditions. As a result of that and other such predictions, we’re still stuck with a stalled economy that is worsening each day the social lockdown continues. As of now, it is very likely that we will end up in a recession, if not worse.

Experts are not going to save us from sloppy or malign reporting, nor from inadequate data. All their projections rely on data, and we don’t yet have reliable numbers to get a handle on how lethal the virus is. The media delight in broadcasting the number of dead, literally minute by minute, but seldom give us the number of those still infected or recovered.  And the number of sick or dead by itself isn’t even useful. For those numbers to be helpful, we also need to know how they compare per capita with other countries. Without that data, comparing the U.S. to Italy, for instance, is misleading.

More important, the mortality rate at this point can only be guessed since we don’t know how many people are infected but have no symptoms, or how many people were infected but recovered without going to a hospital. What is the value, then, of the dramatic projections broadcast daily?

Those numbers are difficult to get precise even for the seasonal flu, which hits us every year without a fraction of the hype and hysteria the coronavirus has caused.  Look at the statistics for the 2019-2020 flu season: illnesses, 38-54 million; medical visits, 18-26 million; hospitalizations, 400,000 to 730,000; and deaths, 24,000 to 62,000.

Those wide ranges bespeak a significant amount of uncertainty for something we’ve been living with for a century. Who knows how much precise data we lack for the coronavirus? But it’s certain to be many magnitudes greater than the flu. Our experts, then, are not going to be much help in deciding policy if the mortality rate is so uncertain. Another datum we should remember is that the vast majority of the dead are people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, most of whom have other diseases that they’re already dying from. The coronavirus just hastened that death. Yet those deaths are added to the coronavirus tally, thus making its mortality rate more frightening.

Given this uncertainty, the policy of extreme social distancing, basically remaining in your home with minimal contact with others, seems overkill. More important, the policy has damaged our economy significantly and impacted the lives of millions of workers, small business owners, and corporations that hire millions of people and whose plummeting stocks are owned by millions. We know that unemployment has negative impacts on people’s lives, including depression, spousal abuse, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse, along with the subsequent social and fiscal costs inflicted on every age group. These miseries are not as dramatic as the cost in lives for those with coronavirus, but they are no less real, and have a much greater and longer impact on those who survive.

So was shutting down businesses, schools, and jobs the “good” choice or the “bad” one? We won’t know for some months. Some critics point to Sweden, which did not impose a lockdown on businesses, schools, and other public spaces, yet its mortality rate is only slightly higher than ours. On the other hand, comparing a wildly diverse country of 330 million people with a more culturally and ethnically homogeneous one of 10 million raises a lot of complications that make the comparison less useful. Once more, we have to make decisions with less information than we would like.

The central problem with these decisions, though, is not just a lack of hard data, but an unrealistic expectation that whatever the solution, it should be as low-cost as possible, particularly in human lives. New York governor Andrew Cuomo preened that “This is about saving lives. If everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” But what about the lives damaged or lost because of a policy to save other lives? How do we make that calculation? There’s no “expert” who can do that. So too with the silly criticisms of Trump’s suggestions that we need to get the economy working again are choosing profits over human lives, and thus putting a price on human lives that is coldly factored into our decisions.

Coming from champions of at-will abortion, this bottled piety is shameless. We have made a woman’s “choice” to suit her convenience worth more than 46,000,000 human lives since Roe v. Wade. And in other ways we accept millions of lost lives as an acceptable price for getting some good we desire or need. In the U.S., 7400 people die every day, many from indulging bad habits like drinking and smoking, eating too much and exercising too little, abusing drugs, or just enjoying the convenience of driving cars.

These are 7400 dead humans every single day, most of whom are a tragedy primarily to their families and friends. The rest of us don’t even think about them. And many of those deaths could have been avoided. Yet we accept those deaths as the price not just of convenience or pleasure, but of freedom. A flawed human nature, driven by its passions and interests, and possessing free will, allows people to misuse their freedom and risk their own and others’ lives. Moreover, the sheer complexity and unpredictability of human nature and societies seldom allow for the “right” or “good” technocratic solution. The attempts in the last century of totalitarian societies to create “new men” who could avoid the exigencies of the human condition all led to even greater misery and suffering, and even more lost lives.

The political choices we face as citizens seldom come down to “good” or “bad” ones, but usually end up as “bad” or “worse.” And despite the confidence of our experts and the politicians who rely on them, we can’t be certain that we will get the results we hoped for. Expert knowledge obviously is critical, but so too are practical wisdom, moral intelligence, and common sense. But the most important thing is what Henry Kissinger wrote about in his memoirs. He was talking about foreign policy, but the wisdom applies to everything we flawed humans do: “A nation and its leaders much choose between moral certainty coupled with exorbitant risk, and the willingness to act on unprovable assumptions to deal with challenges when they are manageable,” action that “carries with it the burden that it can never be proved whether the sacrifices it demands are in fact necessary.”

A techno-political state that expects certainty of a policy’s correctness as certified by experts will create the sort of hysterical, politicized commentary we are living through today. And that’s a problem no “expert” or technocracy can solve.