How about we wait to have the discussion of how many deaths are acceptable among which sorts of people — elders? asthmatics? — until after we have taken common-sense measures to prevent the preventable. Such as, a ramped-up national testing and tracing system that would allow Americans to make legitimate personal-risk assessments and reduce the chance of new outbreaks as they return to work and to their amusements. People need to work — but they also need to know they won’t carry the virus home.
It’s called informed consent. And right now, we don’t have it. None of us. Only about 1 percent of Americans have been tested as we approach reopening.
The shutdown cure might be “worse than the disease,” the White House has suggested. The financial stress could produce collateral deaths, by suicide and drug and alcohol poisoning, termed by the White House and its surrogates as “deaths of despair.” It was on such ground that Dr. Oz argued on Fox that “the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3 percent in terms of total mortality” and so it “might be a trade-off some folks would consider.” Similarly, Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy said it was worth the risk of returning football players to campus because “they have the ability to fight this virus off” and the school needs to “run money through the state of Oklahoma.” Then there was Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who simply suggested seniors should be willing to give up their lives for the economy and “for keeping the America that America loves.”
Now, this is putting a cart of dead bodies ahead of the horse. Why should citizenry be urged to sacrificially rush back into potentially infectious situations — which in sports means clustering in close quarters such as locker rooms, weight rooms, dormitories and cafeterias — without adequate information from testing and enough protective equipment? If fighting the coronavirus is a war, as President Trump has said, then returning to work without a coherent system to isolate and reduce new outbreaks is like sending soldiers into battle without decent weaponry or even a compass.
“Just run out there with no bullets or vests or helmets or maps, for the good of your country.”
What is this, World War I?
The crudity of the White House’s response to the virus resembles nothing so much as that lousy war — rudimentary, unskilled, disorganized waste with needless carnage, led by a vain martinet kaiser with extravagant hair who never set foot in a trench. “He does nothing,” New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) charged Friday. “He walks at the head of a parade.”
The medical community and bipartisan policy experts are unanimous that broad national testing, both for the virus itself and for antibodies, is vital to avoiding devastating second and third waves. But the Trump administration continues to balk, apparently because it doesn’t want the political responsibility of a tough project that requires massive resourcing and coordination. Instead, Trump is pushing for piecemeal re-openings and is including sports leaders in his discussions because “we have to get our sports back” and he’s tired of baseball reruns. You want to talk about death by despair? How about having to do this all over again next year?
A white paper from Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics on covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, contends that failing to invest in national testing “would go down as one of the most extreme examples in history of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.” A similar argument from the Center for American Progress states, “There is no conflict between aggressive public health measures that save lives and economic growth.” A study of the 1918 flu pandemic showed cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively had faster economic growth after the pandemic than those that didn’t.
A road map to reopening co-written for the American Enterprise Institute by Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration chair, recommends a national viral surveillance effort of 750,000 tests daily. Gottlieb pointed out that carriers may be at their most infectious before they even show signs of illness, making testing a critical component to keeping workplaces uninfected and thus open. Von Miller, a linebacker with the Denver Broncos, has no idea how he got the virus after taking every precaution and limiting his interactions.
If we aren’t going to use social distancing as our main method of preventing outbreaks, we need “better data to identify areas of spread and the rate of exposure and immunity in the population,” Gottlieb writes. The current decentralization and “unequal implementation” of measures across the country aren’t getting that done.
What nobody recommends is the fragmented thought emanating from the White House, the constant verbal switchbacks and head fakes on whether testing is even necessary, accompanied by contortions of blustering, kaiser-like speech — if you had to drink every time he said “strong” or “powerful,” you would be in a heap on the floor — that’s nothing more than a coverup for confusion.
Sports commissioners, team owners, coaches and players have a potentially powerful role to play in this situation. They can show us how it’s done. First, leagues and teams should use their tremendous wherewithal and spend whatever it takes to institute rapid, same-day diagnostic tests for their employees to make their workplaces models for safe return. There are portable, rapid-testing systems for purchase that could be used to make it safe to practice and play games without spectators. Second, they should do whatever they can to support mass testing in their communities, including aiding small but essential businesses that can’t afford the testing systems, such as grocery stores.
There is something deeply suspect about this rush toward sacrificial death for the sake of American dollars, this framing of margin calls as worth dying over. There is a middle course: to use our collective might and spend our capital on coordinated preventatives. The “death by despair” argument is just a rationale by people so panicked by the prospect of destroyed wealth that they can’t stop to think and make a plan.