As an America desperate to stem the coronavirus outbreak put in place sweeping restrictions last week on every facet of public life, the University of Wyoming economist Linda Thunstrom asked what felt like a taboo question: “Are we overreacting?’’
It helped that Thunstrom was in her kitchen, drinking coffee with her husband, Jason Shogren, a fellow economist who studies how much Americans are willing to pay to reduce risk of threats like terrorism, food-borne illness and climate change.
Calculating the economic costs of curtailing social interaction compared with the lives saved, he agreed, might yield a useful metric for policymakers. The U.S. government routinely performs such analyses when assessing new regulations, with the “statistical value of life” currently pegged by one government agency at $9 million.
Still, Thunstrom asked, “Do we even want to look at that? Is it too callous?”
No one wants to be seen as prioritizing profit or, say, youth soccer over saving lives. But in recent days, a group of contrarian political leaders, ethicists and ordinary Americans have bridled at what they saw as a tendency to dismiss the complex trade-offs that the measures collectively known as “social distancing” entail.
Besides the financial ramifications of such policies, their concerns touch on how society’s most marginalized groups may fare and on the effect of government-enforced curfews on democratic ideals. Their questions about the current approach are distinct from those raised by some conservative activists who have suggested the virus is a politically inspired hoax, or no worse than the flu,
Even in the face of a mounting coronavirus death toll, and the widespread adoption of the social distancing approach, these critics say it is important to acknowledge all the consequences of decisions intended to mitigate the virus’s spread.
Some college students who were abruptly ushered off campus last week complain that they are more likely to infect higher-risk older adults at home than they were at college. Among the throngs who have been ordered to self-quarantine, some people question the purpose of isolating themselves if the virus is already circulating widely in their communities. Certain parents balk at the pressure from friends to withdraw their children from schools that are still open, or at what they see as groupthink that has prompted the cancellation of events that are still weeks or months away.
And how do you weigh the risk of an unknown number of deaths against the possibility that several hundred thousand students who depend on free lunch at school will go hungry? Or against other lives that may be lost in an economic contraction born of social isolation?
“We have to give due seriousness to this disease breaking out across the globe,” said Nicholas Evans, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who has criticized Harvard University for failing to put a comprehensive plan in place for financially disadvantaged students before announcing a move to online classes. “At the same time, we have to think about equity and the way the risks and benefits of measures we take are distributed.”
Until he reversed course on Sunday under mounting pressure, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City had suggested that there was a lack of evidence that closing the nation’s largest school district would significantly slow the virus’s spread.
What such a closure would do, he said before reversing himself, would be to force parents to stay home, including those who work in the hospitals that are expected to fill with coronavirus patients. While school districts in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere have shuttered, “we don’t model off anyone else,” the mayor said.
Of course, policies are changing by the day. Malcolm Campbell, a Davidson College biology professor, outfitted his undergraduates early last week in rubber gloves to discourage face-touching. “Still teaching labs and keeping students safe,” he tweeted.
But he was bidding those same students goodbye on Friday when Davidson, a liberal arts college in North Carolina, sent students home for an extended spring break.
To some extent, Campbell said, he understood the school’s choice as rational. About 45 million Americans have been infected by the flu this season, which typically peaks in February, and about 40,000 have died. For the coronavirus, health officials predict between two and six times as many infections, and between four and 40 times as many deaths, in the absence of social distancing or as-yet-nonexistent pharmaceutical interventions.
But Campbell said he had argued for Davidson to remain open, based on the relatively low risk the virus poses to college-age students, and the virtue of classes like his, which cannot be taught online.
It was hard to escape the conclusion that Davidson, like others, was influenced by social pressure, he said: “It’s like, if you don’t close, then you’re a heartless, cruel organization.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the recent plunge in value to their stock portfolios, some Silicon Valley figures have taken to social media to underscore the economic impact of social distancing.
“The fear is far worse than the virus,” tweeted Tim Draper, a venture capitalist, using the hashtags #corona #dustbowl, #food, #clothing and #shelter. “The governments have it wrong. Stay open for business.”
But America’s hashtag has become something akin to #hunkerdownathome, with a series of closings, suspensions, postponements by businesses and cultural institutions.
Disneyland — closed. The Metropolitan Opera — closed. Shuttered as well are research universities and day care centers, Broadway theaters, Apple stores, local libraries, ski resorts, March Madness and professional basketball, hockey, and baseball.
On Saturday, the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, banned restaurants and bars from providing food, and established a curfew requiring people to be in their homes between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. The next day the governor of Puerto Rico went even further, ordering nearly all businesses to close and imposing a 9 p.m. curfew.
Organizers of professional conferences, political fundraisers, book talks and shivas have sometimes been chastised in recent days for daring to even consider not canceling their events.
The scientists organizing a Genetics Society of America meeting scheduled for April 22 near Washington, D.C., tried to put off a decision on canceling the gathering until later this month. But the conference joined the list of shuttered professional meetings late last week after some members complained that the delay was creating bad optics for the group.
“People had this feeling, like, ‘Just do something,’” said Denise Montell, a geneticist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the society’s president, “‘because somebody needs to do something about this virus.’”
Of course, there is plenty of scientific backing for the benefits of social distancing in delaying transmission of the virus.
China’s quarantine measures, a recent paper concludes, helped it cut infections to a fewer than two dozen a day from more than 3,500 a day in late January. Restrictions on gatherings in western Washington state have been guided by a model suggesting that such measures could save 400 lives in the region by April 7.
Images that illustrate how slowing the transmission rate could avert a surge in cases that would overwhelm the health system — as they did in Italy — have circulated widely for several weeks under variations of the hashtag #FlattenTheCurve.
“Cancel everything,” concluded one political scientist, writing in The Atlantic. “Now.”
Amid the concerns out there that society may be overreacting are a chorus of calls for even bolder action.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that he favors a 14-day national shutdown to slow down coronavirus. “I think we should really be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting,” Fauci said.
But even the many experts who agree on social distancing as an effective remedy worry about some of the fallout. There are civil liberties concerns surrounding quarantines. There is economic hardship for hourly wage workers. Few have thought through how sick people staying in their homes would be cared for.
“We need to give the response to the virus our full attention,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But we’re following every rabbit that pops out of its hole, as opposed to trying to prioritize responses that have the most impact.’’
It may prove impossible to know whether the policies the country adopts were just enough, or more than necessary, to quell the spread of the virus.
That thought has occurred frequently to Rick Wright, an insurance broker in Redwood City who tested positive for the virus after being evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship to a military base in California last month.
He has never felt sick. But because his nose and throat swabs have continued to show evidence of the virus, he has remained in self-quarantine, alone at home, for 19 days after an eight-day stint alone in a San Francisco hospital. He and his wife, who has moved out and is staying with her sister, wave to each other through the window when she drops off food.
“Is it overkill?” he frequently asks himself.
He is not certain. But if he weren’t quarantined, he acknowledged that he might drop in on his elderly parents, who are at higher risk of suffering the effects of the coronavirus.
“We could look back at this time in four months and say, ‘We did the right thing’ — or we could say ‘That was silly,’” he said in an interview.
Then he added one more likely scenario: “Or we might never know.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.