Letting the coronavirus pandemic burn is a political choice

An aide might gently point out to the governor that this logic has some flaws: the satellite photos do track the spread of the fires, yes, but those fires are still burning. And unchecked fires will eventually spread out of empty areas and into more dangerous, more populated ones, destroying buildings and taking lives. Maybe you can’t entirely contain every fire right out of the gates, but years of experience have proved the importance of working quickly to contain them as much as possible to limit costs in dollars and people.

In this analogy, the rhetoric of the hypothetical governor may seem ludicrous, a straw man which bears no relationship to anything in reality. But perhaps you haven’t seen President Trump’s Twitter feed Monday.

This insistence that the coronavirus pandemic is a function of media bias follows comments from Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, in which he admitted what’s been obvious for some time: the administration planned to largely let the pandemic spread unchecked.

“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows said on CNN. “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas — ”

Host Jake Tapper interjected.

“Why aren’t we going to get control of the pandemic?” he asked.

“Because it is a contagious virus,” Meadows replied. “Just like the flu, it’s contagious.”

“Yes, but why not make efforts to contain it?” Tapper asked.

“Well,” Meadows said, “we are making efforts to contain it.”

If so, it’s not clear how that’s manifested. Trump himself has repeatedly advocated a policy of protecting the most vulnerable Americans while worrying less about those who are at lower risk, the functional equivalent in our introductory analogy of letting fires burn but positioning firemen with hoses outside important buildings. He’s embraced this strategy despite the fact that those at lower risk will still be vulnerable to long-term illness or, in rare circumstances, death. Despite the difficulty of maintaining normal cultural and economic life as waves of illness take people out of commission. And despite the administration’s existing failure at actually protecting those most at risk.

This “let it burn” strategy is one embraced by Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist plucked from Fox News over the summer to serve in the White House after he made arguments about fighting the virus that resonated with Trump. While it’s not the case that the White House sets policy for the country, it is the case that many places are following the White House’s lead on addressing the virus. For months, since mid-April, Trump’s message has been consistent: get back to normal first and worry about the virus second.

Since the summer, states which backed Trump in 2016 have driven most new cases and new deaths. We’re now in our third major surge in new cases, one which is again hitting red parts of the country more than blue ones, both overall and relative to population.

Controlled for population, the higher the number of new cases in a county, the bigger Trump’s margin of victory in 2016.

What’s critically important to remember here is that, despite Trump’s rhetoric, the number of cases is not some abstract data point to be considered in isolation, no more than the number of acres burned in a wildfire is disconnected from actual damage. The number of tests has increased, but so has the percentage of tests coming back positive. More alarmingly, the recent surge in cases has led to a parallel surge in hospitalizations. El Paso has instituted a curfew as its hospitals have filled. Hospitals in Idaho are strained. The effects of that extend beyond coronavirus cases: a filled intensive care unit bed is one that can’t be used for anyone in crisis such as someone injured in a car accident.

This was the point of the mantra of “flattening the curve”: reducing strain on our hospitals. Letting the virus run rampant means straining hospitals so that, even if covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, is more treatable than it was in the spring, overwhelming hospitals limits the ability to treat all patients effectively.

The pattern we’ve seen so far is that surges in cases precede increases in deaths by two weeks or so. The surge that’s underway now began at the beginning of the month. Deaths from the virus began increasing last week.

Part of the administration’s approach to the virus is that its spread is inevitable, as Meadows said to Tapper. This appears to be a political argument: Things are as bad as they are because there was nothing more that could have been done. If the administration were to have poured resources into stemming the spread of the virus starting in August or September, it would have likely made clear how ineffective its initial response was. By simply stating that where we are is where we inevitably would have been, no such contrast can be drawn.

Meadows’s claim is nonetheless ridiculous. There’s a difference between acknowledging the difficulty in controlling the spread and giving up on controlling the spread. Trump likes to point to a recent surge in the European Union as evidence that even places which had controlled the virus well are seeing new surges. And, to an extent, that’s true.

But consider Germany. It is seeing a current surge in cases. But since it effectively controlled the virus over the summer, its numbers, even controlling for population, have been much better than those of the United States.

A recent study from researchers at Columbia University estimated that if the United States had been as effective at controlling the virus as Germany had been, our death toll might currently be under 40,000, not well over 224,000. That’s a difference of 180,000 deaths.

“CNN, all they talk about, covid. Covid, covid, covid,” Trump complained at a rally in Ohio over the weekend. “If a plane goes down with 500 people, they don’t talk about it. All the talk because they’re trying to scare everybody.”

The last time a plane crashed killing 500 people was in 1985. But even if we scale Trump’s hyperbole back a bit, looking at a plane crash that killed 400 people — covid-19 is killing the equivalent of such a planeload every 12 hours at this point. If a plane carrying 400 people were crashing at noon and midnight every day, it seems safe to assume that both CNN would spend a lot of time covering airline safety and that the president of the United States would quickly intervene to figure out what was happening. At the very least, one assumes, there would be calls to ground flights in an effort to contain the risk.

It’s unlikely the president would say this, as he did about the virus shortly after his plane-crash analogy: “You have to lead your life, and you have to get out. You have to be vigilant. Be careful.”

We’ll never be able to stop all plane crashes, so just let them fly and we’ll try to give everyone a parachute. You can’t live in fear, after all. And if we suddenly start trying to prevent crashes, people might start thinking we could have done this all along.

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