November 3rd came and passed. And we didn’t stop talking about Covid. On the contrary, the next wave is here. And we’re all about to be reminded that little has materially changed for the good in terms of our capacity to contain the virus in America.
If there were a worse time to have a global pandemic hit than during the Spring of an election year while we had a luxury brand corporation running our government, I’m not sure I can think of one. Call it bad luck. Or call it consequences. But it’s likely that at any other time our civic leaders would have had more confidence in their political power to take effective actions that may have prepared us more effectively for Covid.
Last night North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, now in charge of a state in which one out of every twelve of his constituents has had a Covid diagnosis, finally issued a mask mandate. I’m not sure he does that before the election was decided. Now, after the outbreak, he’s got movement. North Dakota, by the way, has 25 ICU beds staffed in the state; 12 per U.S. Senator. This lack of preparation seems willful. But maybe now, with the incentive for denialism lifted, we can actually start to talk about what it’s going to take to address this problem.
To be clear, denialism isn’t the only problematic behavior we’ve seen since March. The work from home class, who changed their profile pics and twitter handles to “stay the fuck home” weren’t much help either. The sorts of full scale lock downs we endured in April and May aren’t sustainable. And we should expect that any movement to try that route again this winter will be met with the sort of resistance that will render them ineffective. There has to be effort to establish an intelligent plan. The absolutes of denialism or lockdown aren’t options.
Hindsight is 20/20 of course. And the risks to moralizing about the aspects of Covid too quickly are substantial. Public trust in civic leadership is extremely low right now. And information early in crisis is always scarce. We’ve jumped to many wrong conclusions. But we’ve got quite a bit of water under the bridge by now. And we know some things. Hindsight was actually pretty clear by June. But we’ve gotten bogged down in politics. No more though.
So what might right look like?
First, there’s a few mental patterns that are helpful. It’s important to understand the Covid problem for what it is. It’s a problem of risk management. As with all risk management problems, aggregate risk is most important. I’ve seen too many memes about how Target can be open but churches can’t and how that’s wrong. Or how the virus must go to sleep at 10 PM because that’s when there’s a curfew. Managing risk problems requires an understanding that the goal is never zero risk. The goal is to remove risk from the environment where it can be removed. And limit it where it can’t. Which means we make trade off decisions about what we’ll be able to do and what we won’t. When people switch the discussion to comparative risk, it’s a tell that they’ve not run much, at scale, that involves risk.
Another thing I’ve found helpful is to ground myself by watching organizations who’s outcomes are tied to a tangible, observable outcome, and not politics. How did Major League Baseball get an effective and entertaining season done? Massive testing, limitations on crowds, limitations on travel, expanded rosters, an entire contingency workforce and severe penalties for violations. Look at what large corporations with actual workforces are doing. Denialism? Lockdowns? No. These groups don’t have the luxury of bullshit. This is one of the reasons schools in many places haven’t been able to open. Because the burden of actually delivering an in person school experience is a real thing. And the planning and resources required to do it were substantial but tragically tied to the politics of labor unions and bureaucracy. And so the actual planning never happened. Find the producers who are producing. And see what they have to do to get through this. It will tell you a lot about what’s real and what isn’t.
Lastly, now that a vaccine appears to be imminent and may have a positive impact on our ability to contain the virus as early as this spring, we should be MORE careful than ever, not less. And more generous with government support and relief efforts, not less. Economist Tyler Cowen makes this argument well. The cost of denying ourselves opportunities is far less when the expiration of that denial is near. And the cost to getting sick and killing other people when we may have avoided it by buckling down for four months with an end in sight, is simply too high.
We know quite a bit about what spreads the virus and what doesn’t now; much more than when the first wave hit. And so it should be easier for us to target the right behaviors and activities to apply measures and restrictions to. And we should feel confident that we have the resources to address an issue with more, not less resources now that it has a likely and finite end.
So limit large gatherings. Eliminate large indoor gatherings and activities. Wear a mask in public. Impose travel restrictions. Massively expand testing capabilities to get things like schools and businesses running. Increase hospital capacity. And dump as much aid and stimulus into small business owners and employees as you can. This is NOT lockdown. These are reasonable limitations. We’re on the home stretch. We’re about to go over the beaches in Normandy. And it’s time to kill this thing, not linger on in perpetuity without conviction watching our society atrophy out from under us while we wait for the magic vaccine, or the election, to make it go away.
The election is over. A tough and deadly winter is on the horizon. And it’s going to be a hell of a fight. But we’ve got a clear shot to win this thing. We’ve just got to take advantage of the opportunity to get our heads on straight now that the craze of election politics is behind us.