The temptation to half-ass our fight against the coronavirus epidemic is already proving hard to resist.
This nationwide effort is just starting to hurt and has not yet shown any clear positive results against the epidemic. Infections and deaths in the U.S. are growing exponentially.
Yet already the president is floating a resurrection of the economy by Easter.
And the governor recently issued an executive order defining essential jobs, in case he needs to order a shutdown of normal business, that is absurdly broad. It includes among the businesses that would stay open in case of a statewide shutdown: Golf courses, painting, dry cleaners and fishing.
Fishing! In Arizona, if the governor shuts down the state to slow the spread of the virus, be assured that our fishing industry will keep on scooping the sand trout from the Santa Cruz so that its dry protein will continue to nourish Tucson bodies.
As seriously as our government officials appear to be taking this epidemic, some are still not taking it seriously enough, and they’re tempting the public with offers of backsliding, which will only make the long-term problems worse. Hong Kong tried loosening restrictions after a shutdown and immediately suffered a second wave of infection.
The justification is the economy, which is closely linked to politics, of course. As President Trump has taken to saying, “I don’t want the cure to be worse than the disease.”
That’s fine in concept, but the problem is many Americans are still not grasping the full threat of the disease, which has not yet arrived. Are 200,000 deaths acceptable? One million? Models have predicted up to 2.2 million deaths if we do nothing significant in response to the epidemic.
And if we let our health-care system become overwhelmed by coronavirus cases, how many other ailments will we allow to become fatal? Strokes, heart attacks, asthma attacks — when you’re rationing care, these too become part of the “disease” that must be counted against our economic losses. Doctors, nurses, health aides, retail workers, police officers and firefighters all start to fall away.
Trump’s argument also misses the fact that the epidemic and the economy cannot be disentangled, especially here.
In Southern Arizona we are highly dependent on people 65 and older, who make up about 20% of Pima County’s population — higher than the statewide proportion of about 17.5% and the U.S. proportion of 16%.
These retirees and snowbirds populate mobile-home parks, retirement villages and subdivisions, many of which were built to serve them. Our senior population supports gyms, restaurants, resorts, shops and, of course, medical clinics. They disproportionately serve as the volunteers who help our neediest residents and the core membership of many churches.
They are also, of course, highly vulnerable to the coronavirus. In China, about 50% of the known deaths from this novel coronavirus have been of people age 70 and over, though the vast majority of the cases have been among younger people. In Italy, the average age of people killed by the virus has been around 80.
If we ease off our social-distancing practices, rather than buckling down, and if we let the virus accelerate its spread, rather than slowing, our retiree population is at great risk. We don’t want them to die unnecessarily of this illness.
Their deaths would also hurt our economy.
The short-term economic outlook is poor, and that’s not going to change, whether we backslide and allow the epidemic to flourish, or we shut down the economy to slow down the spread of the disease. But if Congress, the state Legislature and the executive offices can focus on strengthening the safety net for people and businesses, then that will give us time to get a handle on the epidemic.
On Tuesday, for example, the governor ordered a 120-day delay of evictions of anyone quarantining due to the epidemic or suffering economic hardship as a result. This came after the decision by Pima County constables to stop conducting evictions as they awaited further coronavirus advice.
If during the next couple of weeks we can massively increase testing, we can get a better understanding of how bad things are and where the concerning clusters of cases are. Given more labor, we might even be able to isolate those carriers, treat them and trace their contacts, something that Pima County’s health department has given up as too labor intensive, now that the virus is spreading through the community.
“We’ve done so little contact tracing, and it’s ridiculous that’s not happening,” said Michael Worobey, an expert on viral epidemics at the University of Arizona who heads the ecology and evolutionary biology department. “If you’re not going to do both contact tracing and figuring out who is infected, and there aren’t kits for testing people, what you’re basically doing is allowing us to become the next Italy or the next New York.”
A solid shutdown also buys us time to manufacture and distribute personal protective equipment for frontline workers.
And a shutdown does not need to exempt construction workers or “personal hygiene services,” as the governor’s executive order does. Those exceptions are too broad and suggest a desire to backslide and allow social contact that should be prohibited if we’re to buy ourselves some time.
If we’re going to shut down, we need to really do it to give ourselves a chance to catch up with the epidemic and save the lives we can. The economy will recover, inevitably, but it will be a rougher ride if we backslide.
Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.
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