The all-out war on COVID-19 was a full-fledged frontal attack. Close down the economy, something that has never in history been done before. The result: a Stress Pandemic. While the so-called curve of COVID-19 is flattening, which our leading care experts assured us was essential, there has been no flattening in the curve of the shutdown-created stress.
Little was known about this new coronavirus when it began its worldwide blitzkrieg. It was quickly thought to be serious. Quickly labelled a pandemic. The early projection of its potential damage; i.e., 2 million American deaths, a fatality rate of 4% to 5%, never materialized. Was it dramatically overstated? Or did our apocalyptic defensive blunt the attack? It is easy to criticize an overreaction, but little was known about this pathogen. To err on the side of caution was, obviously, far better than to err on the side of recklessness.
There was no choice. Expert projections had to be taken seriously, although it does cause one to rethink the term “expert.” War was declared on COVID-19. A team of medical experts was assembled. Decades of their lives dedicated to public health. Fine public servants. Health care lifers. These men and women predicted that we were headed for a health disaster, a pandemic, the likes of which this nation hadn’t seen since 1918. The cure? Isolate. Educate. Communicate. It was decided to bring to this virus war something never deliberately attempted in history, I suspect. Scuttle our own economy. Shutting down the economy does far more than isolate, educate, and communicate. It dictates. It dictates how every citizen should live every hour, every day.
When the shut-down-the-economy decision was made, no close-down-the-economy expert was consulted. There are none. No Ph.D. candidate ever wrote a thesis on what would happen to a country, to a culture, to a government that inflicted this kind of wound on itself. It was then beyond one’s wildest imagination.
The economy is incredibly complex. Resources are being allocated continuously. Big decisions. Small decisions. All based on intelligence, experience, success, failure, trial-and-error — all of it infused with local knowledge and global best-practices in the service of having supply meet our demands. Needs, pleasures, expectations all fulfilled instantly, as if by magic. Never before has this complex human activity been purposely put on hold, even for a day.
Had we known then what is now screaming at us today, we might have conducted this COVID-19 war quite differently. Massive unemployment. An unprecedented 30 million U.S. workers. Businesses ordered to shut down. What business ever began with a plan for what would happen if it had no sales? Many will never reopen. Overnight. Wealth destruction. 401Ks. Retirement plans. Government-inspired fear, with the media happily along for the ride. Draconian and sudden changes in how we live every hour of every day.
The result proved far more infectious than the new coronavirus, one that in the end will claim more victims than COVID-19 itself. This is the Stress Pandemic.
Families cooped up in small houses and apartments for weeks on end. Alcohol consumption is up dramatically. Domestic abuse. Child abuse. Accidents. Overdoses. Studies have shown a clear relationship between suicide and increases in unemployment. And on and on and on.
While the Stress Pandemic will last long after we have dealt with COVID-19 and much of the damage has been done, the carnage can be mitigated. The cure? Jobs. Reopen businesses. Rebuild prosperity. This is an opportunity for our elected officials, our political leaders to show that they can lead, that they can exercise good judgment, that they have imagination. And a number are doing just that. By being cautious. By showing respect for their voters, their citizens.
But for many, caution was thrown to the wind. The mayor of Champaign, Ill., asked the city council to give him the power to confiscate property. Confiscate property to attack a virus? The governor of Michigan forbade the citizens of her state from travelling from their houses to their vacation homes, from taking their boats out. Are the highways and lakes of their beautiful lake-filled state so overrun with virus that it can infiltrate a car or a boat as it speeds along? What does prohibiting the citizens of Michigan from purchasing seeds, directing what aisle in the store they can walk down, say about her judgment? All rather clear statements as to what her administration thinks the role of government is, of how competent they think the citizens of Michigan are.
New York’s governor is facing the most serious virus outbreak in the country. A study tried to compare the impact of natural disasters we have had here in the United States to the impact of the shutdown. It concluded that the New York metropolitan area had experienced the equivalent of eight Hurricane Sandys. New York City has suffered some 19,000deaths. New York City population, 8.5 million. Upstate population, 11 million. At last count, Upstate had experienced about 6,000 deaths, about 144,000 cases. If anything, we have learned that one size does not fit all. Why should 11 million Upstate New Yorkers (they have no subways) be required to endure the same pervasive regulation needed in New York City?
Meanwhile, police in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere have been caught on video roughing up and arresting citizens for not wearing masks or for the crime of taking their children to public parks. A Dallas judge sentenced a suburban mom to spend Mother’s Day in jail for defying orders to close her hair salon. An appellate court freed her after a day behind bars, but the irony was head-shaking: Although Shelley Luther (pictured above) says she had practiced social distancing in her salon, she was sent to a jail beset by COVID-19 infections.
What did all this overreaction, this lack of respect for citizens, this fear-laden leadership produce beyond its prime goal of attacking COVID-19? Unfortunately, a far more infectious, a far more lethal pandemic than COVID-19 — the Stress Pandemic.
Stress is a pervasive, insidious, long lasting destroyer of the immune system. It fertilizes every disease. It infects not just those with health issues. It creates health problems. A federal emergency hotline for people with emotional distress registered a 1,000%+ increase in calls in April. Talkspace, an online therapy company, reported a 65% jump in calls since February. Clear and unfortunate evidence of stress on steroids.
There is no miracle drug for the Stress Pandemic. No vaccine. Only one thing can be done to soften the blow. Open the economy as quickly as is practical. Show respect for the public. Media, political leaders, quit being fearmongers. Instead, exhibit a confidence that comes from knowing that the U.S. is an extraordinary country, that we have citizens who are better judges of how to live their lives than you are.
Mr. and Mrs. Political Leader, this appeal is not meant to diminish the danger of COVID-19, or the importance of taking it seriously. It’s an appeal to direct additional energy to the dangerous disruption that shutting the economy has forced on the entire economy, the entire population.
Mr. and Mrs. Political Leader, continue to educate. Continue to guide. Continue to communicate. Continue to improve the provision of medical services. But your dictating, your shutting down the economy, your lack of respect for voters, has produced a potentially more devastating pandemic than COVID-19 itself. Get out of the way. It is not a sign of weakness to recognize that the government does not have all of the answers. No one does. Open the economy as quickly as prudently possible.
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