Washington's governor is not overreacting to COVID-19. Those who say we can’t overreact, however, are wrong. While we must certainly avoid underreacting, the goal must be to strike the right balance.
Few things unite Americans like having a common cause. When we do unite it is usually in response to bad people visiting great harm upon our nation – 9/11 for instance. COVID-19 is the latest attack upon America (and, of course, the world at large). Unlike aggressive military action, it is neither decisive nor surprising: It is creeping over our country day-by-day, and, yes, we had weeks’ worth of warning.
Yet the impact upon our society may be more devastating than any terrorist attack. Not necessarily in lives lost (though quite possible), but certainly in lives unhinged by fear and anxiety. And so it is concerning to see political divisions forming over the severity of this pandemic. Some are cavalier about the situation, comparing it to historic flu seasons. Others insist that it is not possible to overreact.
We could almost dismiss the cavalier crowd because the question is not only academic – we’re already in the thick of our response – but their approach is also scientifically unsound. Just last week Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified before Congress that COVID-19 “is ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu.”
The callous disregard, however, for ramped-up hygiene practices and social distancing hurts everyone. Employers be most aware – a lackadaisical approach by employees could land you in hotter waters, legally, than the threat posed by the virus. Communicate with employees more often during this crisis, and verify that they are conforming to your pandemic response plans.
To the camp that boasts, ‘We cannot overreact,’ we need only to look to history. Out of an abundance of caution, the Japanese government extended the Fukushima nuclear crisis evacuation far longer than necessary. We now know the evacuation itself led to more than 2,000 deaths, including 85 suicides. No one died, nor will they, from the nuclear accident itself.
The ripple effect that begins this week from closures of schools, restaurants and other businesses cannot be undone. At lesser intensity than Fukushima, but at a far greater scale, lives are being upended.
More than one million public school students are now homebound. Nearly half of those are on subsidized meal plans. About 15% receive special education services. Actions by non-profits and private businesses help– our local YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs quickly stepped into the gap to set up childcare centers throughout the Tri-Cities. As registrations fill up, some working parents will still be left without options.
A restaurant owner identified only as Dan called into KONA radio this week. He was angry and stressed. Like so many others, he’s being squeezed out of his livelihood and may not recover his business. His concern extends to his employees who also are at risk. The federal stimulus package has not yet been passed, and it may not provide the safety net Dan and his employees need.
Therein lies the danger of overreacting – lack of preparedness at the national level. If we were prepared with safety nets, overreaction would be less of a threat. A stimulus plan, along with other safety net guarantees – such as child care alternatives – should have been on the shelf and ready to go. But as the World Health Organization observed last summer, the United States was not fully prepared to handle a pandemic.
That’s why we must now act with greater precision in order to cause less harm than we prevent. We have to be cognizant of proportionality and unintended impacts.
Actions by government, such as allowing retail stores to remain open while forcing the closure of other businesses, must be guided by awareness of the ‘Dans’ and the families they support. And not just from an economic perspective. Fear and anxiety fuel depression. Stress does kill. There will be social-distancing casualties. If we overreact, those casualties can outweigh those lost by the COVID-19 disease.
And we can’t play this like politics. Too much is at stake. When establishing policy, we must always strive to achieve the right balance.