As the United States begins to reopen its economy, personal factors will be vital in making individual decisions on how to cope with the new reality. I am writing about my own responses in the context of discussing what to consider when thinking through the realities confronting us.
The most reliable public voices have been those of medical experts. They originally hypothesized that a million Americans might die if no actions were taken. If our medical system was mobilized and vigorous preventive measures taken, the death toll might be less than 70,000. As of mid- May, we had passed 80,000 with a projected 150,000 deaths by mid-August.
Political babble about what a great job we have done in handling the covid-19 epidemic is belied by our death rate which is the world’s highest on a per capita basis. We also know that nations that took severe actions have had the lowest death rates. Among those nations are Greece and Cyprus. Sweden, which had almost no official sequestering, has a much higher death rate than any of its neighbors.
Opening up any economy automatically produces a higher rate of infections and death. The only unknown is if upticks will be modest or severe. Nations that had curtailed the pandemic such as South Korea and Singapore experienced a resurgence of COVID-19 when they reopened their economies. In the United States, regions with the strictest restrictions have plummeting infection and death rates while those rates are still rising in regions with few restrictions.
My wife and I are of advanced age. I have heart failure. Given our statistical vulnerability, we have stayed as sequestered as practical. We wear masks in public, scrub our hands as needed, and otherwise follow the protocols set by the Center for Disease Control.
We restrict grocery shopping to once a week and order as much as possible via the internet. We do not patronize retail outlets that do not provide adequate safety measures for their customers and workers. Medical appointments are by phone or internet. Even after medical options open, we will further delay postponed dental work and a cataract extraction until the stats show there is no major resurgence of the pandemic.
Some relief from the tensions of isolation has come from walking in parks and using curbside pick-up services for fast food. We also took part in a neighborhood gathering in which people sat six feet distant from one another but were able to interact in a congenial manner. We plan more such events.
We are fortunate in being able to mostly work at home, but we have been furloughed from part-time jobs at a library. We will not return to that employment until at least a month after the library reopens. Americans who have to go to a workplace and have other commitments obviously cannot be as strict as we are. What is imperative is that workers demand all safety measures possible in their workplaces. If ownership does not cooperate, employees have to take some kind of direct action to protect themselves. It may literally be a matter of life or death.
President Trump has been consistently wrong in his assessments of the nature of the disease. His stated desire to be a “cheerleader” mistakes entertainment for the actual game. Early on, he mused that the pandemic would be over by April. He advocated untested vaccines and treatments that proved to be dangerous. His misstatements on many aspects of the pandemic are so inaccurate or misleading that they have to be immediately corrected or reworked by his staff.
Rather than shaping a national response to the pandemic, Trump has promoted individual state responses. This lack of national leadership has turned reopening the economy into a slap-dash process. Some states have opted for immediately opening beaches, restaurants, and other public spaces. As of mid-May, infections in those states are rising rather than falling or even plateauing. Those in a rush to resume former patterns obviously risk being early birds who get a COVID-19 worm that infects them, those dearest to them, and their coworkers.
Our medical establishment is among the finest in the world. We would be wise to adhere to its advice even when it is not as optimistic as we would prefer. These experts believe we are still in the early phases of the pandemic. They emphasize that until there is a preventive vaccine, any return to ‘normal’ needs to be gradual, national, and regulated. The speed and nature of change should be guided by taking into account the evolving statistical data that records the impact of each new phase of reopening. This view can be summed up by an observation of Alexander Pope: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”