How long are we going to stay shut down?
This is a question governments seem unable to ask, let alone answer. But they must. Millions are unemployed. Children are losing months of education and social development. The costs of the response to this pandemic are very real.
As much as politicians are first and foremost trying to limit deaths from the coronavirus, they must also plan for life after the coronavirus. In the midst of a public health crisis, politicians will privilege consult from health experts. But they must also listen to economists and sociologists.
Remember, the goal is to flatten the curve, not cure the virus. Flatten the curve means avoiding a situation — sadly, like in Italy and New York — where hospitals are so overrun with critical cases they are no longer able to adequately treat COVID-19 patients.
Short of tracking every positive COVID-19 patient — as South Korea attempted and largely accomplished — a shutdown is the simplest way to avoid that terrible situation. But it comes with a tremendous amount of sacrifice.
German public intellectual, Julian Nida-Rümelin, recently made the argument for a more nuanced approach to social distancing, one that would protect the most vulnerable and maximize the ability of the least vulnerable to continue functioning normally.
Currently, people 60 and over account for one-third of deaths from the novel coronavirus. If the government confined the most vulnerable to self-isolation, hospitals wouldn’t be overrun, because even though people under 60 can become critically ill from this disease, and even die, it happens in far fewer cases. In his scenario, most people would be able to work and children would attend school.
Of course, it’s too early for this. Because the virus did circulate freely for so long, the current period will see hospitals dealing with a high number of elderly patients, plus the smaller number of younger, critical patients. However, once a long enough period of social distancing has taken place, governments should and will have to consider how to reopen.
Is Nida-Rümelin’s suggestion viable? Even he isn’t certain, but he made the important point that the discussion must take place. Government leaders, unlike epidemiologists, don’t have the luxury of focusing a single area of concern.
Shana Goldberg may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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