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Lockdown Wars: Debating Pandemic Measures in a Failed State

If you thought COVID-19 wouldn't get political, think again.

If America has a fast forward button on it, someone should push it ahead to November. We won’t be done with the virus until we’re done with the election. Between prudence and overreaction lies politics.

We bleat about wanting decisions to be based on science, then we do the same dumb red-blue thing, even counting the corona dead differently (nothing left certain but taxes now) to make the numbers seem better or worse depending on shifty politics. Something that should not be about Trump at all is All About Trump.

It’s killing us. There is no other country in the world so driven by a politics so devoid of science. Other countries have good leaders, some not so good. But look at us. Our nation is held hostage to protests and counter-protests, lockdowns and open bowling alleys. There is no other nation where so many are convinced their leader is actively trying to kill them, even imagining he wants them to drink bleach.

The MSM portrays protesters against government restrictions as Trump death cultists who’d rather end up in an ICU than skip a haircut. Such flippancy insults the righteous anger over lost livelihoods. It is an echo of the things that lost 2016 for the Democrats. The people don’t want haircuts. They want to feed their families. They want thought-out targeted restrictions instead of politically driven overreaction and fearmongering. It’s about deep emotional waters, sense of self, a whole lot more than just how the economy will help Trump win or lose. Many also are concerned that their rights, including to assemble, to worship, and to protest, are being controlled by leaders they don’t trust while a media they abandoned years ago mocks them. Beachgoers in a red state are #FloridaMorons; in a blue state it’s #SurfsUp.

But they see this time the Brooklyn elites are going a step further, beyond the deplorable label, to wishing them to catch the virus, figuring the infection will teach them a lesson before they vote wrong again. Wishing death on people you disagree with.

Elsewhere, medical professionals say the protesters have no right to put others’ lives at risk, and think it’s more than OK to physically stop the rallies. That’s called “the heckler’s veto” by the Supreme Court and is not allowed under the First Amendment, whether you’re a hero ER nurse or an abortion protester blocking the door to a clinic. Stopping someone from protesting by shouting them down, driving a car into their crowd, or otherwise trying to interfere with them exercising their rights (including the right to hold a dumb opinion or one you disagree with) is disdainful and unconstitutional.

The medical professionals and their Muppet chorus of journalists sound like some soldiers who felt their sacrifice was made cheap by people who protested the war. Thank you for your service. It does not, however, allow you to choose which people can exercise their rights. When you choose to serve you serve those you don’t define as worthy as well as those you do. It’s bigger than you, doc.

People and governments always invoke the safety and security of the majority when they are taking away rights for “our own good,” just like the Patriot Act did. It’s an old playbook, joined in this century by our First Amendment nannies on social media, who electronically block efforts to organize. If you’re screeching about how rights don’t matter when lives are at stake, you’ve got company. The KKK used that argument to block black people from marching, claiming it was a safety issue. Yet California will no longer issue permits for anti-lockdown protests at any state properties, including the Capitol.

Agree? Just remember what you’re saying now about these redneck inbred gun nuts the next time someone claims a march permit can’t be issued in the interest of public safety to a group you support. It’s the same thing, rights are rights. Because you know what else can spread rapidly if “left unchecked?” Tyranny. Justice Louis Brandeis held free speech is not an abstract virtue but a key element of a democratic society. He ruled even speech likely to result in “violence or in destruction of property is not enough to justify its suppression.” In braver times when Americans challenged the safety vs. liberty argument, the Supreme Court consistently ruled in favor of free speech, reminding us democracy comes with risk. But that was another world ago, before we measured human worth in RTs.

There is science which should be informing decisions. But while claiming a small rally in Denver will cost lives, or Florida will kill people by opening its beaches, the same voices remain silent as NYC keeps its subway running 24/7. The public beach versus public transportation debate came as a new study showed that NYC’s “multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator—if not the principal transmission vehicle—of coronavirus infection,” seeding the virus throughout the city. Without a superspreader like the subway it can be contained locally. It is tragic when the virus rips through a nursing home or meatpacking plant (it is a virus after all, it will go viral), but all of those together barely touch a week’s body count in New York. Shut down mass transport.

We can put most people back to work with limited risk; the protesters are right. The virus kills a very specific patient. About half the dead are over age 65. Less than one percent of deaths are under age 44. Almost 94 percent of the dead in any age group had serious underlying medical issues (about half had hypertension and/or were obese, a third had lung problems). The death toll in NY/NJ under total lockdown: over 27,000. Death toll in much more densely populated Tokyo with “smart” lockdown: 98.

About 22 percent of New Yorkers already have the virus antibody and thus expected immunity. One logical implication of this—that large numbers already have or had the virus, and that it is harmless to them—is simply ignored. Quarantine/social distancing should be for those most vulnerable so we can stop wrecking all of society with cruder measures. Hospitals should separate patients by age. No need to keep kids from school, especially if that means isolating them inside a multigenerational household. Let them wear soggy paper masks to class, even tin foil on their heads, if it makes things easier. Online classes are lame and America doesn’t need a new generation dumber than the current one.

The New York-New Jersey area, with roughly half the dead for the entire nation, practices full-on social distancing while Georgia was one of the last states to implement a weaker stay-at-home policy. Yet as Georgia re-opens, the NY/NJ death count is over 27,000. Georgia is 892. NYC alone continues adding around 500 bodies to the pile every day, even with its bowling alleys closed.

We judge risk versus gain for every other cause of death. We wear condoms. We watch our diets. Time to do the same for the virus. As for lockdowns, we may not even be judging them accurately. Some 22 states have had fewer than 100 deaths. Only 15 states had total deaths for the entire duration of the crisis higher than NYC’s current 500 a day. The original goal of lockdowns, to buy time for the health care system (and most resources were never needed due to over-estimates of the viral impact), has passed. If the new goal is Virus Zero it will never come. If the real goal is to harm Trump we’ll have to put up with this without serious discussion until November.

A Stanford doctor nails it: “Strictly protect the known vulnerable, self-isolate the mildly sick and open most workplaces with some prudent large-group precautions. This would allow the essential socializing to generate immunity among those with minimal risk of serious consequence, while saving lives, preventing overcrowding of hospitals, and limiting the enormous harms compounded by continued total isolation.”

We are fretting and frittering away our national muscle watching TV about a bigamous tiger keeper. There are too many who want this isolation to continue indefinitely, a pathetic nation whose primary industries for its young people are camming and GoFundMe. Politics focuses on viral deaths, but the Reaper keeps a more accurate tally: deaths from despair, from hunger (two million new people became food insecure in NYC since the virus), financial losses (26 million Americans have filed for unemployment), mental health issues, and abuse (domestic murders during the viral months in NYC  outstripped the total from 2019). In some ultimate irony, parents are postponing standard childhood vaccinations for fear of bringing their kids to medical facilities.

It is the reaction to the pandemic that exhausts us, not the pandemic itself. So when someone claims it is Money vs. Life they miss the real answer: It’s both. It should not be taboo to discuss this.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.