The media and Democratic establishments are in a frenzy of Schadenfreude over President Trump’s Covid diagnosis. Trump’s contracting the disease, they argue, discredits any coronavirus policy short of lockdowns and mandatory mask-wearing, outdoors as well as in. Trump is now “exhibit No. 1 for the failure of his leadership on coronavirus,” Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told the New York Times.
By contrast, former Vice President Joe Biden’s basement-bunker response has been vindicated, such commentators allege. Biden drove home his status as the country’s premiere symbol of safetyism on Friday by giving a masked and muffled speech in the vast outdoors of Grand Rapids. No one was within yards of him; Biden could not possibly have become infected or infected anyone else, since transmission in well-ventilated outdoor spaces is virtually nonexistent. Yet such displays of coronavirus virtue-signaling will now multiply exponentially, especially from masked television reporters speaking en plein air to a camera yards away.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni claims that Trump’s infection proves that the country has been lax in its coronavirus response. “It is time, at long last, to learn. To be smarter. To be safer. To be more responsible, to others as well as to ourselves,” he wrote on Saturday. “We cannot erase the mistakes made in America’s response to the coronavirus, but we can vow not to continue making them.”
“Be safer?” The United States has wiped out decades of hard-won prosperity by following the spirit-crushing injunction to “stay safe.” The lockdowns have destroyed the dreams of thousands of entrepreneurs and have put millions out of work, leaving cities like New York moribund ghost towns. The school closures are consigning millions of children worldwide to stunted lives due to delayed, if not now permanently deferred, acquisition of reading, writing, and socialization skills. Children are being inculcated into a culture of fear.
But in Frank Bruni’s world, Americans have been indifferent to risk and have insisted on plunging ahead with their ordinary lives in the face of it. Trump’s illness points out “another moral,” Bruni writes, “also obvious but apparently necessary to articulate: There is a real risk in being cavalier. The president is now the embodiment of that.”
The argument that Trump’s infection demonstrates anything about a proper coronavirus strategy entails a logical fallacy, however. It is neither a vindication nor a refutation of either man’s policy choices that Trump has gotten the coronavirus and Biden (so far) has not. Though Trump has not been entirely consistent in his position on lockdowns and social distancing, he has emphasized the need to reopen the economy and get people working again. Biden, on the other hand, has never stopped arguing that getting the virus under control through moratoria on ordinary human activity is the precondition to reopening the economy (even as he blames Trump for the unemployment caused by lockdowns). The fate of these two individuals tells us nothing about the overall wisdom of their respective positions, which must be evaluated in terms of larger populations and tradeoffs. Making policy based on Trump’s recent infection would, ironically, replicate his own oft-decried narcissism. And if Trump’s infection is determinative, why shouldn’t the death of someone who failed to get treatment for late-stage cancer during the medical shutdowns be determinative as well? The validity of any given policy choice that affects thousands must be judged based on averages, not individual cases.
We set highway speeding limits to maximize convenience at what we consider an acceptable risk to human life. It is statistically certain that every year, there will be tens of thousands of driving deaths. A considerable portion of those deaths could be averted by “following the science” of force and velocity and enforcing a speed limit of, say, 15 miles an hour. But we tolerate motor-vehicle deaths because we value driving 75 miles an hour on the highway, and up to 55 miles an hour in cities, more than we do saving those thousands of lives. When those deaths come—nearly 100 a day in 2019—we do not cancel the policy. Nor would it be logical to cancel a liberal highway speed because a legislator who voted for it died in a car accident.
We could reduce coronavirus transmission to zero by locking everyone in a separate cell until a vaccine was developed. There are some public-health experts who from the start appeared ready to implement such radical social distancing. The extent to which we veer from that maximal coronavirus protection policy depends on how we value its costs and the competing goods: forgone life-saving medical care and deaths of despair from unemployment and social isolation, on the one hand, and the ability to support one’s family through work and to build prosperity through entrepreneurship, on the other. The advocates of maximal lockdowns have rarely conceded such trade-offs, but they are ever-present.
It is not even clear that a more work-friendly policy would lead to more deaths. While the profile of the typical coronavirus decedent has been known for months—median age 80, suffering from co-morbidities that likely would have killed the person anyway—the exact path of transmission remains mysterious. There is no correlation globally between degree of lockdowns and coronavirus death rates. Countries such as Britain that imposed strict lockdowns have massively higher death rates than many countries, such as Japan, that mandated no lockdowns. Deaths and hospitalizations are going down in localities that were more commerce-friendly. There is still no uncontroverted evidence on mask-wearing. Thousands upon thousands of people who have assiduously worn masks have gotten the virus; thousands upon thousands who have not worn masks have not gotten it. Countries with extensive mask-wearing show no better results than several where people breathe free outdoors.
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