We will be in a fight against the coronavirus for months, if not years, and yet it is time to declare mission accomplished on one very important goal.
The lockdowns of much of the country were undertaken "to flatten the curve" and largely to prevent the hospital system from being overwhelmed. It was a near-run thing in New York and New Jersey, but the dykes held, thanks to the incredible sacrifices of front-line health care workers.
Now, the rhetoric around the shutdowns has shifted, and not very subtly — flattening the curve and saving the hospitals are “out,” and not allowing any additional cases to emerge is “in.”
It’s difficult to remember, but flattening the curve was never supposed to be about eradicating the disease. A piece by the progressive website Vox featured a widely circulated version of the flattening-the-curve graph and noted that shutdown measures “aren’t so much about preventing illness, but rather slowing down the rate at which people get sick.”
A viral Medium piece published in mid-March famously called the period of lockdowns to squelch the disease “the Hammer” and the subsequent period of living with it “the Dance.” The article didn’t deny the seriousness of the disease; if anything, it was alarmist. Yet, by the standards of the current debate, the piece is unacceptably lax.
"The time needed for the Hammer," it said, "is weeks, not months." After that, it predicted, "our lives will go back close to normal." And it contemplated living in a fuzzy realm of trade-offs between important goals — or, as it put it, "a dance of measures between getting our lives back on track and spreading the disease, one of the economy vs. health care."
Such an acknowledgment of the need to strike a balance between the economy and public health is now considered tantamount to murder.
It’s become a trope that pro-opening Republicans want to get people killed. A column in The New York Times was headlined, “How Republicans Became the Party of Death.” A Guardian piece opined, “'Trump is Killing His Own Supporters’ — Even White House Insiders Know It.”
But the curve has been flattened. As former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb notes, the time of doubling of cases nationally has increased to 25 days.
An analysis by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics shows most states below their peak cases. There are some states, for instance Minnesota, Virginia, Delaware, Iowa and Indiana, that are still around their peaks. But others like Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan and Oklahoma passed their peaks weeks ago.
Not too long ago, the Republican who supposedly most wanted to get people killed was Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. In announcing his re-opening plan, he recalled all the dire projections of what would befall Florida because he was supposedly late in issuing a stay-at-home order, effective April 3. Yet, Florida is coming out of this phase of the epidemic vastly better off than Louisiana, Massachusetts and New York. About 40% of its hospital beds have been available at any given time.
In retrospect, there was wisdom in Gov. DeSantis letting municipalities and counties take the initiative in a big, diverse state.
Besides which, people are capable of making their own decisions. They decided to stay at home before the state formally told them to. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the movements of people began declining in mid-March, well before the state-wide stay-at-home order.
The reverse is also true. If they are still afraid of the virus, people aren't going to return to normal whether their states are formally open or not.
In a better world, the lockdowns wouldn't have merely avoided the worst, but crushed the spread of the disease. That hasn't happened. We will be engaged in a Dance for some time, even if one faction in our national life only ever wants to wield a Hammer.
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.