Last week Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, declared that the United States should push ahead to reopen the economy because “there are going to be deaths no matter what.” Christie compared the coronavirus crisis to World War I and World War II, when Americans sent young men abroad “knowing many of them would not come home alive.” As in 1918-1919 and the 1940s, he declared, “we have to stand up for the American way of life.”
Christie’s comments coincided with attempts by the Trump administration to distance itself from the murderous math of COVID-19 in the United States. At the end of April, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerIvanka Trump’s personal assistant tests positive for coronavirus FDA chief to self-quarantine after exposure to person with coronavirus 12 things to know for today about coronavirus MORE, who, as Bess Levin points out, “has spent a lifetime failing upward,” declared “We’re on the other side of the medical aspect of this and I think we’ve achieved all of the different milestones that are needed, so the federal government rose to the challenge and this is a great success story.” A few days ago, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFauci to enter ‘modified quarantine’: report CDC director will self-quarantine after contact with COVID-19 positive case Trump says US will purchase billion in agricultural products from farmers MORE confirmed that the Coronavirus Task Force would be wrapping up its work at the end of the month, then changed his mind, all the while emphasizing that the administration was moving on to implement Phase One of its guidelines for reopening the economy.
Along with the president’s encouragement of protesters seeking to “liberate” their (blue) states, these statements present a false choice: reopen the economy right now, or — as Christie claimed — stay “locked in our own houses for another year,” a recommendation no one has made. And Christie implied, falsely, that the number of fatalities in the United States is fixed and inevitable.
In World War I and World War II, the United States did not send its soldiers into battle without protective gear and weapons. Moreover, military strategy was — or should have been — designed to minimize casualties. What’s done is done, of course, but we must not lose sight of the impact of the failure of the United States — despite dire warnings from public health officials — to prepare for the pandemic.
The United States and South Korea reported their first cases of COVID-19 on the same day, Jan. 20, 2020. During the early stages of an outbreak, epidemiologists have found, an infected person passes the virus to 2-3 other people. The spread accelerates when, as with the coronavirus, asymptomatic individuals are infectious. During the month of February, while President Trump claimed “when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done,” South Korea conducted 80,000 tests; the United States conducted fewer than 1,000. South Korea quarantined individuals who tested positive, tracked down people with whom they had had contact, and quarantined them as well. As a result, South Korea has experienced five deaths for every 1 million of its citizens, while the United States has 237 (a number that is certain to grow). Other countries that tested, quarantined, contact traced, mandated social distancing and kept all but essential workers at home early in the pandemic also avoided the murderous math: Germany has had 90 fatalities per 1 million in its population; Japan 4; Australia 4; Taiwan 0.3. With robust testing and contact tracing in place, these countries are now opening up their economies.
And now, despite projections that fatalities are likely to spike, perhaps to 135,000 by August, as stay-at-home mandates are lifted and some states permit hair salons, restaurants, gymnasiums, and retail outlets to open — in violation of the administration’s own guidelines, and in the absence of robust testing (conducted randomly to identify “hotspots” as well as on those who present symptoms) and contact tracing capacity — Chris Christie, President Trump, and Mr. Kushner insist that we have to get the economy open very soon.
Every American wants the economy to reopen. Every American embraces “the American way of life.” With good reason, however, the vast majority of Americans are more concerned about opening up too quickly than they are about a more cautious approach, informed by public health realities and recommendations.
Let’s put a sock in the crude and callous calculations and the false choices.
We need to balance two vitally important priorities — and learn from the experiences of other countries who are getting it right.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.