The Case for Getting Back to Work

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Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump’s instincts have been far superior to the mass of government health care professionals who, to varying degrees, seem to have either their own agenda, were ill-prepared, or were trapped in a bureaucratic mindset that prevented them from addressing the crisis. This matters because we are about to engage in a full-throated debate over when to re-open the U.S. economy. Here is the common-sense case for doing it at the end of April. 

First, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We are not engaged in a total lockdown right now, nor does that even appear to be possible. The necessities of modern economic life, including international and domestic travel and interstate commerce, don’t stop even during a pandemic. Americans abroad, even those from countries with the virus, such as China and Italy, will be traveling to the United States and traveling throughout the country. The president’s decision to close the border to foreigners from China, in late January, and later Europe, made a dramatic difference. Coupled with our national efforts at social distancing, they were not designed to end the spread of the virus outright, but to ensure that those who did contract the disease did not overwhelm the health care system. That approach seems to have worked, and whatever challenges we face over the next few weeks will be much easier to address because of it. 

Second, we now know enough to make judgments about the threat this new virus poses. Trump was criticized for early on comparing it to the seasonal flu, which takes between 12,000 and 60,000 American lives each year, most of whom are elderly people with compromised immune systems and other co-morbidities. Although the Wuhan strain is not the seasonal flu – it’s more contagious, for one thing – its lethality may not be substantially different than the flu. We don’t yet know, partly because China’s deception about what was going on in Wuhan led U.S. policymakers to treat this as a radically different disease lest they be caught completely flat-footed.

Third, as tragic as it is for families with loved ones cut down by this new coronavirus, we cannot make quarantines a permanent way of life in this country. We Americans don't just believe in life – we believe in the good life. Our forefathers fought and died for freedom. Free men and women will figure out how to deal with the problem of pandemic. Americans have families to raise, churches to attend, Little League games to play, businesses to run. We can and will take precautions to make sure we minimize the risk of catching the virus. Things as simple as masks, once downplayed as ineffective or counterproductive by our government experts, have proven effective in South Korea and Japan.

If every time a new pathogen emerges, we shut down the economy until we have a vaccine, as some are now proposing, there will not be much of a country left. We will have become hostages not only to tiny viruses but to anyone who would unleash them against us either unintentionally or intentionally.

If we are to remain the preeminent economic and military power on earth capable of defending freedom, we have to remain a wealthy nation. Every day that goes by with the country shut down, we are engaging in a radical experiment in social engineering, not to mention abrogation of the liberties guaranteed in the Constitution. We are redefining acceptable levels of national debt and government intervention in the national economy. Even in the fantasy world of central banking, where money is created out of thin air, there must be a limit. Can anyone doubt that the only reason we were able to engage in this unprecedented shutdown is that we had the economic and financial ability to do so? But we have compromised the health of the economy, put millions of Americans out of work, and destroyed businesses.

In the process, we have exposed a deep flaw in our national response system that must be addressed. Namely, the experts had it wrong, as they often do. The government’s medical professionals misunderstood the virus, misspoke about it in the media, and undercut the president. After initially being caught flat-footed, they overcorrected and caused panic and confusion while insisting that our only choice was a destructive economic shutdown. Once launched, there were no mechanisms to bring the public back from the brink of total lockdown lest it was thought that the president was favoring the economy over human life. In the future, there has to be a better system of testing and response that does not put our national leaders in this position.

Finally, given that lives are on the line, let us try remedies that might work. As in, we are at war and we are going to do our best. The powerful drug hydroxychloroquine, when used in combination with the antibiotic Azithromycin, seemed to arrest the virus in its early stages, according to doctors who tried the experimental treatments on a small scale in California and France. Although Dr. Anthony Fauci and the U.S. medical establishment are skeptical, President Trump’s impulse is to push forward with the therapeutic approach. If his instincts are proven right, history is very likely to record that this decision was as consequential as closing down flights from China. 

Meanwhile, the media has focused on the lack of ventilators as if this was some kind of cure. In reality, by the time a patient has to be intubated, the chance of survival is very low. Also, the abject failure of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to even produce a workable coronavirus test suggests its recommendations should be greeted with more than a little skepticism.

Donald Trump has rallied the nation during this shutdown. But there is still more to do, as more Americans will certainly die, and not only in the epicenters in New York, Detroit, and New Orleans. And, a reckoning with China is certainly in order when the crisis has passed. In the meantime, let us prepare the people of the country to restart the great engine of American commerce and innovation. Let them be part of the solution. It is, after all, their country.

Brian T. Kennedy is chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger: China, the president of the American Strategy Group, and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @BritravKennedy.

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