The two infectious diseases spreading across America

The two infectious diseases spreading across America

My op-ed in The Hill. We must have a reasonable discussion about opening society. This means the toxic public discourse must be stopped.

The massive number of unemployment applications in March – more than 10 million – was a stark reminder to policymakers that an indefinite pause on the economy is not an option. At a certain point, in the near future, Americans have to start working again and spending money. The debate over when and how this will happen will be fierce.

The primary challenge will not be setting the policy itself but avoiding the temptation to take political potshots at those who imperfectly try. Such restraint requires discipline, grace, and a willingness to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, such qualities have been severely lacking in our media and politics.

There is a reasonable way to discuss balancing our health concerns with the reopening of society. How and when will we move from a risk containment strategy of shelter-in-place orders to a more sustainable risk management strategy? Do we really believe we can contain all risk indefinitely? At what cost? At what point will local authorities feel comfortable with the level of preparedness in their public health system – sufficient testing, ventilators, and hospital capacity – and allow a safe return to work? Shouldn’t there be reasonable timelines for our citizens, given that the entire purpose of lockdowns is to slow the spread and allow the health system to catch up to the pandemic? What metrics are we using assess preparedness? Given what we know about the most vulnerable populations and the nature of the virus, which restrictions will remain in place for a longer time and for whom?

Such questions will, and should, be answered differently by each state, city, and town. An indefinite federally imposed national lockdown is just as foolish as an immediate federal reopening. But these questions need to be asked— and answered— in good faith.

Sadly, the simple task of giving each other the space to have this discussion has proven elusive.

Tragic news has become political ammunition. As the United States surpassed other nations in total coronavirus cases (likely due to more testing and our nation’s vast size), high-profile figures like Hillary Clinton jumped to the chance to blame the president, as she snidely wrote on Twitter, “He did promise ‘America First.’”

Over-the-top, bad faith accusations are repeated breathlessly as uncontested fact by prominent journalists. A recent NBC News column asserted that President Trump is “putting the health of the stock market over that of millions of Americans.” Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin hyperbolically stated that “many of these deaths will be the minimum price we pay for Trump’s utter incompetence and willful blindness.”

Even expressing optimism about potential treatments such as chloroquine is off-limits, as major media outlets (here and here) went as far as to blame President Trump for a man’s death after he ingested chloroquine phosphate, confusing the substance for the anti-malarial drug touted by Trump. The media stunningly left out that the man actually ingested fishbowl cleaner.

These bad faith takes are the new normal in politics, but they have no place in a global crisis. This rhetoric destroys our ability to have the difficult conversations needed to properly address the pandemic.

Going forward, it will be easy to claim moral righteousness by insisting on indefinite lockdowns in order to save lives. But such suggestions are also unrealistic and ignore the lives being ruined by an economic freefall. Many will sanctimoniously ask “how many lives is it worth to save some jobs?” This is a terribly disingenuous, bad-faith question, presuming that anyone concerned about American’s livelihoods – itself a public health concern – is somehow a heartless robot.

There will be strong temptation to moralize breathlessly how a given decision caused harm or death. These accusations will be impossible to counter because the counterfactual is impossible to prove. The accusers will know this but will partake in the political opportunism anyway. Resisting this blame game requires an understanding that everyone is doing the best they can. These are extraordinary circumstances, and we are all making judgements with limited information.

As coronavirus spreads through our cities and towns, we must address the contagion spreading through our public discourse. Fierce debate should be expected, but we must engage in it without the partisan, petty finger pointing that has infected our country.

No leader, from a small-town mayor to the president, wishes harm upon our country. Examples of American grit and resilience have been prolific. Companies are stepping up to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators. Doctors are coming out of retirement. Congress injected over $2 trillion into the economy to keep it from collapse.

Everyone wants America to succeed. If we start from that common understanding, we might avail ourselves of the tools to beat this pandemic together.