One advantage of President Trump’s tendency to say exactly what he’s thinking, regardless of the consequence, is that sometimes he hits on an important point. He did that yesterday:
Trump on why businesses should reopen: "I'm viewing our great citizens of this country to a certain extent and to a large extent as warriors. They're warriors. We can't keep our country closed. We have to open our country … Will some people be badly affected? Yes." pic.twitter.com/hNXws4bwtd
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 5, 2020
There aren’t many politicians brave enough to make that admission: Re-opening the economy, in the absence of a vaccine, will lead to people dying who would otherwise have lived, because some increase in the number of cases is inevitable.
The problem for politicians, of course, is that when that happens, they’ll take the blame. Trump, in particular, because of the horrendously emotive nature of American politics, is an absolute cinch to be caught up in a media moment this autumn where some tearful voter challenges him at a debate that her mother died of Coronavirus last week “because you opened the economy up too soon”. And Irish politicians, or those in other countries, aren’t immune, either.
It’s a dream scenario for any opposition politician, too, because all they have to do is wait for a re-opening date to be announced, and then decide, whenever they need to, that the government “waited too long” or “moved too quickly” – whichever nets them the most votes.
Of course, people are going to die when we open up the economy again. The problem is that as a society, we have to engage in the relatively morbid exercise of deciding how many deaths is a price worth paying. On that subject, this might be the best comparison you’ll read:
“In a way the great debate over reopening is like the old debate over the speed limit. Set it high and you’ll have more fatal accidents; set it low and it’ll take people forever to get where they want to go. We accept a certain number of casualties in the name of expediting travel, just as we should accept a certain number of casualties in the name of restarting the economy. But we don’t accept any number of casualties. If, instead of the customary annual 35,000 deaths, America suddenly saw 350,000 deaths on the road this year, I guarantee that we’d all have a big rethink about auto safety. Is new tech in cars making driving less safe? Have we suddenly become worse, more distracted drivers for some reason? Do we need to lower the speed limit after all? “Debates” over speed limits are irrational in the sense that different people have different comfort levels with different death projections and there’s no clearly logical explanation as to why. I may be willing to accept 200,000 dead on the road whereas you may blanch after 100,000, and neither one of us would be able to persuasive justify why. It’s a gut thing.”
That’s exactly right. Tell people that re-opening will lead to an extra 50,000 deaths in Ireland this year and you’ll get an overwhelming “no”. Tell them that it will lead to an extra 500 deaths, and you’ll probably get a “let’s do it” from most people. But those 500 people are still people, and they’re still going to die, and their families are still going to suffer and miss them and mourn, so that you can go to the beach or the pub or whatever. We’re not strictly moral, or rational, creatures.
In that sense though, Trump is right to get out ahead of this. The question is not “will it ever be safe to re-open the country”. The question is “what number of deaths can we accept as the price”.
Remember, of course, that the whole point of lockdown was never to eliminate Coronavirus. The purpose of it was to reduce the peak of the disease to allow hospitals to cope, and not collapse from overcrowding. That’s probably something Governments should start reminding the public about, now.
If we’re waiting for the disease to go away, totally, we’ll stay in lockdown forever. If we want to get back to normal, people are going to die.
The public, mark my words, are going to choose the “let people die” option, because nobody ever thinks it will be me who will die. And the problem is that when it is me who dies, who’s to blame? Well, the Government, naturally.
There’s no winning this one, if you’re a politician. Honesty is the best approach. If they’re going to re-open, they need to be straight up about the cost.