The Swedish Control Arm
In a real surprise, Sweden, of all places, is doing an experiment most countries would consider risky. Restaurants and schools are open. They have not taken the approach most of the world has taken to go to the extremes of social distancing. The question is whether social distancing works. The early data from the west coast and the anecdotal data of the viral toll taken in some cloistered Orthodox Jewish communities in New York and Israel suggest that social distancing is of benefit in curtailing the rate of infection and serious illness. Whether it will affect total cases will probably never be known. The fact is that with the limited testing done so far, the actual prevalence of the virus and incidence of covid-19 is still not known.
It is the left-center governmental leadership in Sweden helming this experiment being cheered on by the right everywhere else. It is mostly the conservative press (and the libertarians) who object to the severe restrictions being placed on Americans. Let’s face it. No one really knows what the right thing to do is so leadership in most places has favored the course that appears to save the most lives. But if those who were going to get sick would get sick regardless, this hit to the economy may not have been worth the price paid of countless unemployed and many businesses, especially those with under 500 employees, being shuttered.
By contrast, this piece from the same issue of the Wall Street Journal (April 10) questions whether or not even the strict lockdowns in the United States will really be enough to abate the illness and potential death to follow. It seems that leaders can’t win for losing. No matter what they do, someone is there to criticize. The posture taken by Andrew Cuomo seems to make the most sense to me. He constantly planned for the worst (except before the virus hit) and hoped for the best.
So this will be the critical post-mortem. Was Sweden significantly more harmed by the coronavirus than the rest of the world OR, did keeping a modicum of commerce going improve the standing of the Swedish people coming out the other end?
This virus has tested who we are as Americans, as civilized people, as humans.
The virus has demonstrated that the current leadership of the United States was ill prepared to handle a crisis like this one. It lacked sufficient data and it lacked sufficient reserves despite the many warnings that such a plague could be unleashed on us at any time—accidentally or purposefully. I am not at all sure we will ever know the truth about the origins of this novel coronavirus although the molecular biologists are doing a great job tracking its mutations as it travels around the world and maybe that science will allow tracking all the way back to the source some day. But we do know that while the president says no one could have imagined this, many in Washington and Hollywood did.
As a civilized people, I think we have done pretty well. First responders and medical personnel have done everything asked of them and more. Some have even died. Why a perfectly healthy seeming person can go from well to dead in a matter of days is very unclear but the next dissection will be along racial lines as people of color seem to be bearing a larger burden than others in this epidemic. Why? Is it socioeconomic? Is it due to a higher rate of pre-existing conditions like hypertension and diabetes? Or could there be a genetic component? The Surgeon General dismissed the latter, but as a scientist, I am unwilling to do so. This is definitely complicated and it is unlikely that one cause for this disparity will be found.
Finally, we humans have really been tested—some more than others. The front line providers and first-responders have shown yet again the capacity of people to do good in difficult circumstances. Everyone has had to adjust and the toll on our psyches is unfathomable and not even close to being known as it is going to be another series of debates as to when society really opens again. When will you be ready to go to the movies, a mall or a restaurant? Soon? I doubt it. I seriously doubt the president or scientists will get the last word here. The people will decide when they feel safe to go out again.
That brings us to my last concern. The election in November.
It is clear now barring some inconceivable event that the two contenders for the presidency will be Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. How is the campaign going to look? What about the conventions? And, most importantly, how about voting?
The federal government needs to start right now developing a plan for mail-in balloting and be prepared to implement it if the coronavirus does not go away as fast as predicted by the curves or if it comes back in October.
We have more than enough lead time. Get the paper ready. Let the U.S. government pay the postage.
We simply cannot afford to have our election undermined by this virus and there is no need for this. In theory this could all be done on the Internet, but hacking issues and the fact that many have no access to computers make mail the best option.
America, we can do this. Some states already do. Let’s get ready for this.