Government Failures and Public Opinion

A preprint study By Columbia University researchers finds that if U.S. officials had imposed lockdowns one or two weeks earlier, they could have reduced the COVID-19 death toll by tens of thousands. On the homepage, Jim Geraghty notes that it would have been a heavy political lift to impose lockdowns on March 1 or March 8, as the public had not yet started to view the virus as dangerous and the number of confirmed cases remained low. But, he writes, “our government is expected to see these issues clearly at every level, even if the public cannot.”

Indeed. But I think the fact that the government doesn’t see and draw attention to the problem weakens the argument that public opinion would have thwarted the faster imposition of lockdowns. Two reasons come to mind. First, the failure of the test meant that the public did not have enough data to accurately perceive the threat. Like William Saletan points out on Twitter, a lack of testing disguised the real number of cases across the country. Would New Yorkers, who unknowingly sow the outbreaks across the country, have been susceptible to closures before March 1 if they had known there were already thousands of infections in their state? Second, elite signals on hard issues that require technical knowledge, such as pandemics, can have a huge impact on public opinion. But influential political figures systematically underestimate the threat until it was too late, ignore politically clumsy warnings and embrace questionable advice.

Public opinion could therefore have been different. Perhaps on March 1, most Americans did not know how dangerous the virus was (except Jim and Michael Brendan Dougherty). They might have known if we had better leadership — from New York, from the CDC, and from the White House.

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