Epidemiologists are asking the public to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus infections by observing “social distancing.” It’s unclear how long we’ll have to do that — particularly absent a vaccine — and that’s both a bummer and a drag on the economy, as people miss out on human connections and businesses get shuttered en masse. But it seems like a bit less of a bummer when you put into plain language what “flattening the curve” by “social distancing” means: STAY THE FUCK HOME SO PEOPLE DON’T HAVE TO DIE IN THE STREET BECAUSE HOSPITALS GET TOO FLOODED WITH SICK PEOPLE TO HELP THEM.
In that light, dealing with even a lot of economic and personal pain seems worth it, especially with an estimated 2.2 million American lives at stake.
Except, maybe, if you’re President Trump and the jesters who sing for him on Fox News.
The president all-caps tweeted on Sunday night, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!” And CNN’s Nick Valencia reported that Trump is “laying groundwork to ease restrictions” and the CDC is looking for a way for businesses to reopen in the beginning of April.
Trump likely got this astoundingly boneheaded idea from his pals over at Fox News. Political commentator Steve Hilton said on the channel Sunday evening, “You know, that famous phrase, ‘The cure is worse than the disease?’ That is exactly the territory we are hurtling towards. You think it is just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people.”
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The message isn’t just coming from talking heads. Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said this of reopening the economy: “We’ll have to try to do that [because] economic cost to individuals is just too great,” he told Fox News anchor Ed Henry.
“But the president is right,” Kudlow said, falsely. “The cure can’t be worse than the disease, and we’re gonna have to make some difficult tradeoffs. I’m not disposed — I don’t want to get ahead of the story.”
It’s not wrong that this is real economic pain, and it’s not wrong that economic pain has health consequences for individuals. But the wondrous thing of living in the world’s richest country — especially a country that, at present, can borrow money at near-zero interest rates — is that we can spend to blunt the economic damage. What we can’t do, no matter how much we spend, is bring people back to life.
Trump, who uses the Dow and other signs of economic growth as a pillar of his re-election messaging, seems to be seeing it differently, basically arguing that the economy matters more than the people it’s supposed to provide for.
And recommending Americans go about business as usual would certainly prove needlessly fatal to thousands upon thousands of people and bring the economy to a halt anyway. Hospitals will be overwhelmed and will run out of ventilators and personal protective equipment, which they are already running low on. As one model by The New York Times shows, without social distancing, we could have as many as 9.4 million people simultaneously infected at the peak, and there is no way hospitals can accommodate even a fraction of that number, meaning hundreds of thousands would die without access to treatment.
Trump sycophant Sen. Lindsey Graham has even distanced himself from the president’s position in a tweet, writing, “Try running an economy with major hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses forced to stop treating some because they can’t help all, and every moment of gut-wrenching medical chaos being played out in our living rooms, on TV, on social media, and shown all around the world. There is no functioning economy unless we control the virus.”
Even more disconcerting, one of the only bright spots in this administration has been Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci has spoken truth to power and directly contradicted the president’s statements about coronavirus, but his competence may cost him. Trump has begun to freeze Fauci out, openly saying he “disagrees” with him on things like whether malaria drugs could be effective against coronavirus. Fauci even joked in a recent interview, “To my knowledge, I haven’t been fired.”
The problem with social distancing in the age of the 24-hour news cycle is that it takes time to prove effective. Italy is only now seeing the results of their social-distancing efforts. The number of coronavirus deaths there slowed for the second day in a row on Monday, two weeks after the prime minister put the entire country in quarantine on March 9th.
But Trump, who has bragged about the stock market his entire presidency, measures success in dollars, not lives saved. If he gets his way, America is doomed to see many of its citizens die needlessly. Trump is not the leader the country needs right now.