If you ask friends from overseas what they think of America’s COVID-19 crisis, their most likely response will be to tell you it’s political.
They find it baffling, because to them, this is a public health crisis in which what matters is finding how to chart a course in a world of uncertain information. Most recently, for example, a study from Stanford found that the infection rate in one California County (Santa Clara) was 50 to 80 times higher than previously estimated—i.e., that for every case severe enough to be detected by normal testing, there were 50-80 more mild enough to have flown under the radar.
If that holds true on a larger scale, that is an enormous discovery, vastly affecting models of how the disease might spread in the next few months.
But in American corona-politics, it’s not clear what that will mean.
Everyone knows that the country is divided into two, roughly equal camps, neither willing to believe a word the other is saying, each thinking the other is bending the truth to suit its political purposes.
Dealing with that type of thing has never been my forte. My Ph.D. set me up to be a policy-wonk. My goal wasn’t to figure out which tribe would triumph in any situation (or how to make them win), but to find the optimum way to solve problems for the overall good.
Right now, we have two camps with two views on what to do about COVID-19.
One is worried about minimizing the public-health effects of the pandemic. That means extending social distancing, etc., as long as possible, in order to cut disease transmission to the utmost.
The other is concerned about the economy. People are suffering from things other than the illness, and if we extend the shutdown too long, there will come a point where it is hard to climb back out of it.
Each tends to demonize the other. But the reality is that both are right. It’s a trade-off, in which we have to determine not which camp is right, but how to balance their two concerns.
That is not the same thing as winning a partisan, fight. The sooner we, as a country, figure that out, the sooner we will find a true solution to this crisis.