Just two years ago the flu reared its ugly head, causing over 60,000 deaths and 810,000 hospitalizations across the U.S. In contrast, COVID-19 so far has caused roughly 55,000 deaths and roughly 95,000 hospitalizations. Given the severity of the 2017-2018 flu, one would have expected the country to shutter in fear the way it has for COVID-19, especially given that the last line of defense—a proven vaccine—was significantly stymied by this virus strain.
But, as we all know, fear and panic did not materialize for this particular flu. Life continued on as normal. Although occasionally mentioned in the press, the outbreak was essentially a non-issue and the public seemed almost uninterested. Instead of the COVID-19 government mandates creating massive unemployment and destroying trillions of dollars of wealth, the economy during this flu season boomed. Businesses prospered and the consumer was king as the interactive retail sector became red hot. The Dow continued its rise toward 30,000.
How could a people so uninterested in a virus that caused 60,000 deaths act so differently just two years later? On one hand, it was business as usual; and on the other, a panic-stricken hysteria.
One explanation is that human nature tends to be more fearful of the devil we don’t know compared to the devil we know. But even after the devil we supposedly knew, the flu, morphed into a much more deadly killer, there was still no panic. Another explanation is that COVID-19 initially looked to be more contagious and more lethal, but with new studies suggesting many more have had the virus than previously thought, more researchers have revised the COVID-19 death rate lower with some suggesting a mortality rate that might match that of the flu at 0.1 percent. And although COVID-19 is clearly more contagious, the majority of cases have shown minimal symptoms or have been asymptomatic. Social distancing has clearly been effective in reducing deaths, yet the fact is that both viruses have wreaked comparable havoc on the country. So, the question again: Why has the country reacted so dissimilarity?
Clearly, the incessant and nonstop media coverage has played a huge role in creating the divergent reaction. The media today is focused nonstop on COVID-19, completely opposite of the coverage during the 2017-2018 flu outbreak. Although the media deserves its share of criticism for this fearmongering, the American public must also share the blame because as a society we have continued to demand every bit of this coverage—and with a void of the usual distractions, from work to school to sports, we have become obsessed with the often bleak news coverage.
Our elected officials, the governors and mayors especially, have done their part to promote the excessive pandemic hype as well. The allure of being in the media spotlight to stoke public fear as a means to prove their own leader-like virility has only added to the national malaise. The tendency has been to find all sorts of new prohibitions and closures that work to fortify the tangible and psychological barriers to an economic restart. Fortunately, rebellion is now building to oppose this type of autocratic behavior and it cannot come too soon. Is there any doubt that the governors continuing to expand the lockdowns will be the first with their hands out looking for federal financial relief when they cannot balance their mandate-induced state budgets?
Some may posit that as a nation we underreacted to the flu of 2017-18 and that we should have adopted the same shutdown mandates that are in place today. But I don’t think so. My sense is that the consensus will grow that the massive economic cost of today’s shutdown has gone too far and that the cure will prove more harmful than the disease itself. We will learn that no country can shut down its economy without traumatic negative consequences.
The way forward is now to emulate Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who is leading the charge to open his state’s economy. Yes, let’s reopen wisely and with a plan for a gradual weaning of social distancing and the integration of more testing. Clearly, it is now time to replace government mandates with individual initiative, judgment and responsibility as a way for Americans to take back control of their lives. Instead of just surviving the virus, it is now time to beat the virus and to win the war.
Our country will have many questions to answer when this pandemic ends. Although much of the focus for the past month has been on government action and control, we are overdue to return to the traditional American culture of individualism. In his recent piece, “The age of coddling is over,” New York Times columnist David Brooks refers to the tide of “safetyism” that has crept into American society and has left us dangerously unprepared to handle a crisis like COVID-19. He writes that the culture of coddling, with roots starting with our parenting, has been a “disaster.”
“This overprotective impulse,” he adds, “doesn’t shelter people from fear: it makes them unprepared to deal with the fear that inevitably comes” and the coronavirus “is another reminder that hardship is woven into the warp and woof existence. Training a young person is training her or him to master hardship, to endure suffering and, by building something new from the wreckage, redeem it.”
The sooner our business and community leaders, our parents and teachers, and all of us take these ideas to heart, the more successful our nation will be to beat this pandemic as well as the next pandemics to follow.
Jim Ryan Jr. is president of Ryco Management LLC. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.