We were slow to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. But would people have followed lockdown orders if they had come earlier?
The lead story in the New York Times today is a new study of Columbia University disease models that concludes that starting lockdowns and a social distance a week or two earlier could have saved many, many lives:
If the United States had started imposing social distance measures a week earlier than March, the coronavirus outbreak would have killed approximately 36,000 fewer people new estimates from Columbia University disease modelers.
And if the country had started shutting down cities and limiting social contact by March 1, two weeks earlier than most people stayed at home, the vast majority of the country’s deaths – about 83 percent – would have been avoided, estimated the researchers.
While some school districts already closed on March 13, most states closed their schools between March 16, which uses the Columbia study as the rough start date of our pandemic control measures, and March 23. State lockdowns entered into force from March 24 to April 7. Undoubtedly, the investigation is right that we would be in much better conditions if we had started locking on March 1. But it’s fair to wonder if that could have been realistically achieved. Imagine President Trump or Dr. Anthony Fauci had led the country on February 29 and had stated:
My fellow Americans, a new virus that first emerged in China, has now infected 68 people and killed one. We must immediately shut down all non-essential businesses and schools, postpone all non-life-threatening medical care, cancel all public events and gatherings, and stay indoors only for short periods of movement and groceries. We must be kept a meter away from everyone except our immediate families. These extraordinarily disruptive and strict measures will be maintained until further notice, although they will almost certainly create a level of unemployment comparable to the Great Depression. This is a huge burden, but if we wait another two weeks, we will witness the deaths of 100,000 Americans on Memorial Day.
Would Americans have voluntarily paid? Many of them would probably have done that, but a significant number of them would have thought the measures were a wild, paranoid overreaction.
The public may have been more receptive to a serious warning on March 8; the United States then had 541 cases and 22 deaths, and exponential growth began to show in the numbers and charts. But if a date was a turning point for the US coronavirus, it was March 11, when the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic, the NCAA announced plans to play the later-canceled fanless basketball tournament, the National Basketball Association the season has been suspended and the president has announced travel restrictions for visitors from Europe. And even with all that shocking news, across the country, people still collected in large groups of people in front of early Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations on the weekend of March 14 and 15.
Normalcy bias – the idea that tomorrow will be like today, because today was like yesterday – is an extremely powerful force in human psychology. For most Americans, the idea of a strict national seal until further notice in response to a virus was the stuff of sci-fi movies. SARS, H1N1, MERS, Ebola, Zika – we were warned about all those infectious disease threats, but most of them hardly affected our lives. There would always be skepticism that this was so bad and that drastic draconian precautions were needed.
That said, our government at all levels is expected to see these issues clearly, even if the public cannot. We spend a lot of money to inform policy makers as well as possible. President Trump’s management of this crisis has been pretty poor. To be long list of comments that downplay the potential danger, from “We pretty much closed it from China” to “The 15 [cases] within a few days, will be reduced to zero “to” It will disappear one day, it’s like a miracle “, were ridiculously naive and uninformed. Reports that he did not ignore or understand the warnings from the intelligence community are very disturbing.
And Trump was not alone. Arguably worse, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told his constituents that they should normally live their lives until March 11. On March 2, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo assured his state, “We have the best healthcare system in the world here in New York. So when you say what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it will get as bad as in other countries. “Virtually every elected official wanted to believe that the outbreak would not be so bad and that their government was well prepared to deal with it.
It is indisputable that most places are locked far too slowly. But those who want to fight pandemics with strict quarantines will always fight the nature of both communicable diseases and human psychology. Paradoxically, a virus is easiest to contain if it appears to be no threat; as the danger becomes clearer over time, the more difficult it is to stop spreading. Successful quarantines always seem like an exaggerated response, because the danger they were intended to prevent never manifests.
We can feel reassured by the idea that we can take the hard lessons from the early days of this virus into the future and try to apply them to the next pandemic. But there is a caveat: the ‘happier’ we are – the longer we go without a new deadly pandemic after it’s over – the more likely members of the public will forget those lessons and respond with the same nonchalance and skepticism who initially hailed this pandemic.