Iwas happy to hear President Trump speak out against fear Monday. Panic has been the worst thing about our response to deadly COVID-19.
As he was preparing to leave the Walter Reed Medical Center after being treated for a COVID-19 infection, the president tweeted this: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”
Back at the White House, he put out a video message: “I learned so much about coronavirus. And one thing that’s for certain: Don’t let it dominate you. Don’t be afraid of it.”
Leaders Must Lead
For days, weeks and months before his infection, Mr. Trump carried on as president. He met with people. He debated. He addressed thousands of supporters. He announced a Supreme Court nomination.
Despite precautions, he joined millions of his fellow Americans in picking up a COVID-19 infection. After three days in the hospital, he returned to the White House, his symptoms evidently gone.
As he put it Monday night: “I stood out front, I led. Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger, but that’s ok. Now I’m better, and maybe I’m immune, I don’t know. But don’t let it dominate your lives. Get out there, be careful. We have the best medicines in the world.”
He is right about leaders. Leaders get out and lead at times of relative danger. They do not cower and lock themselves inside.
We too cannot hide if we want to live worthy lives.
The Panic Narrative
All this talk of rising above fear naturally infuriates those who are devoted to a panic narrative, some for reasons that I do not believe are entirely altruistic.
Panic has empowered politicians, to the point that they have been able to toss aside our constitutional rights. Panic has promoted clicks and advertising revenues for segments of the news media. Panic has enriched mammoth businesses such as Amazon while ruining their smaller competitors. And it may bring the party mostly out of power back into power.
Some politicians want the lockdowns to go on indefinitely.
But panic has done enormous and long-lasting damage to our society. It has destroyed small businesses that are the lifeblood of our economy. It has thrown millions out of work. It has prompted enormous government spending that will devalue the dollar and, thus, shrink our savings. It has separated people from their loved ones, mothers from children, grandparents from grandchildren.
It has blocked poor children, especially minorities, from getting an education. It has led people to delay medical care, something that will end up killing countless Americans. It has cruelly promoted loneliness and despair. We seem to have forgotten that human beings are social animals who crave love and interaction.
What Respiratory Viruses Do
And for what? Respiratory viruses do what respiratory viruses do. They spread, sowing death, until immunity blocks their spread, and they burn out. Humans cannot effectively stop them. The White House’s inability to prevent the president and others from becoming infected—despite constant testing and social distancing protocols—surely demonstrates that.
President Trump is hardly blameless, of course. He encouraged the radical and untested experiment of shutting down our society—causing immense harm—to try to slow the virus. This was initially justified as a way to protect the hospitals from being overrun. But, of course, the lockdowns dragged on long after that was no longer a dire risk.
Sweden, evidently run by rational people, chose not to lock down. It encouraged handwashing and social distancing, banning large gatherings. Initially, its high rate of death raised eyebrows (caused, in part, because it did not close down travel from infected areas). But now its hospital beds are empty, its businesses are alive, its people are enjoying restaurants and its subways are full of commuters wearing no masks. COVID-19 did far less harm to the Swedish people than it did to others.
Our Very Strange Year
It is hard to convey to people unaware of history how strange this year’s approach in much of the world has been.
In the past, when respiratory viruses hit, leaders (including in the medical field) saw it as their duty to stem panic and to encourage people to go on with their lives as much as possible.
This was true during the far more devastating Spanish Flu. When President Woodrow Wilson contracted the disease, he did not even tell the public.
It was true during the 1957-1958 Asian Flu, which would have killed 300,000 to 500,000 people in today’s America, given our demographics, epidemiologist and Brown medical professor Andrew Bostom estimates. Yet America did not panic or lock down. The 1968 Hong Kong Flu would have killed 265,000, conservatively, Dr. Bostom contends. It sent President Lyndon Johnson to the hospital for days. Yet America did not panic or lock down.
Pointing these facts out does not mean one has no sympathy for 200,000 who have reportedly died from COVID-19, most of them elderly with serious health problems.
The Appropriate Response
But fear and panic are not a compassionate response. Here is what is appropriate if we wish to do the least harm possible:
Focus on protecting the most vulnerable: the very old and those with serious health conditions. Urge such public health measures as washing hands and staying home when sick. Develop effective treatment for those infected. Develop, if possible, a safe vaccine.
Recognize that a respiratory illness is not our only health problem. Stop scaring people to the point they won’t seek treatment for other ailments because they are terrified they will get COVID-19.
Remember: None of us gets out of here alive. We can be partially protected from all sorts of risks by sealing ourselves in our basements. But at what cost?
That is why I was happy to see the president’s comments.
Don’t let COVID-19 dominate your life.