“It is true, I might have resisted forcibly with more or less effect, might have run 'amok' against society, but I preferred that society should run 'amok' against me, it being the desperate party.”—Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
Here in New Jersey, the second hardest hit state by COVID-19, there seems to be a lot of civil disobedience going on. A lot of people are ready to come out in the open again. The roads are full of cars. People who haven't seen family or friends in many weeks are seeing them now. You can only keep people apart for so long. Sooner or later the dam bursts. Pennsylvania is undergoing a similar transformation. Many local officials are announcing that their towns and counties are coming out of lockdown despite state orders. Many businesses are opening up again in defiance of the governor and his henchmen.
Maybe those ruled possess more wisdom than their rulers. I say rulers, because that is what many governors have become. Their power is near absolute. When did you ever imagine that some day elected officials and state health bureaus would ban all church services, all businesses from operating except a chosen few, bar public gatherings, close public land, surveil our movements and order us to disperse with talking drones. I'm guessing you could never have imagined it until now. The list of grievances drawn up by the American colonies against King George in 1776 reads like a ledger of trivial complaints in comparison.
Nobel Prize-winning chemist and professor of structural biology at Stanford, Michael Levitt, has said “There is no doubt in my mind that when we come to look back on the damage done by lockdowns it will exceed any saving of lives by a huge factor.” Levitt has studied the data coming in from all around the world that indicates that the virus follows a consistent pattern of growth and decline that is independent of our attempts at intervention. He recommends the Swedish approach, which entails the most vulnerable isolating themselves, while the bulk of the population gets on with living and working. Sweden will very likely achieve herd immunity sometime this summer with 60-80 percent of their population infected. If you are skeptical of the Swedish experiment just wait a while. Viruses often come in waves. A second wave could ravage nations on Sweden's borders, while Sweden is spared the worst.
I don't know if he's right. At least one experiment in loosening the national shutdown seems, so far, to be vindicated. You may remember that three weeks ago Georgia was out ahead of the rest of the country in allowing businesses to reopen. At the time there was universal condemnation, even from the White House. Georgia was thought to be headed for disaster. They hadn't even bothered to wait for caseloads to decline. Despite all the dire predictions, Georgia has done very well. Governor Brian Kemp announced last week that the number of new cases requiring hospitalization was falling.
I know that most experts were wrong back in March. Their understandable ignorance led to the shutdown. There was so little reliable data available then. They were wrong about mortality rates. Back then it was assumed that there was a 4 percent or higher chance of dying if someone became infected. In fact, the chances of dying are low unless you are obese or suffer other co- morbidities. Antibody testing has revolutionized our understanding. Among the general population, the mortality rate (deaths per infection) appears to be far less than 1 percent. If you are healthy, your chances of dying are tiny, far less than 0.1 percent.
We've faced pandemics with similar lethality before. Like this one they've all been terrible, none were cataclysmic. Forget the Spanish flu, which carried away tens of millions. That flu arrived before the advent of modern medicine and antibiotics. More comparable viruses arrived here in 1968 and 1957. They are estimated to have cost around 100,000 American lives each. The current virus will soon match that death toll and will certainly exceed it, but keep in mind the population at nursing homes was only a fraction of what it is now, and nursing homes are kindling to the COVID-19 lit match. Nursing homes account for up to 40 percent of total deaths in some states. We're living longer. We're an older, frailer population.
Why haven't you heard about the pandemics of 1968 or 1957? It may be because, despite their lethality, no nation thought to close itself down until the virus had run its course or was reduced by vaccination. The world was a saner place back then. We've begun an unusual experiment; can a nation, can a planet, shut down this thoroughly for weeks or months and still survive? Can we invite depression and costly disruptions without lasting terrible consequences? I'll be interested to see.