26 May 2020 21:56 IST

Covid-19 reveals, again, that our leaders don’t always know all

The next time govt officials issue a Covid diktat, pause and ask if their proposed actions make sense

The city of Las Vegas lies at the southern edge of Nevada’s vast desert. For over 100 years, people have flocked there to escape reality, and experience, for whatever brief time they are in the city, a world of fantasy. Win $100,000 at a blackjack table? Eat at buffets with 200+ items for under $10? Experience the pyramids, Venice, Paris, New York’s landscape, and an artificial volcano all during a leisurely stroll on the strip? Indulge in activities that you would never want to share with anyone else afterwards?

Las Vegas is a human-made miracle that relies on people mingling closely with each other. But if there’s one thing that Covid-19 regulations don’t permit, it is people’s close proximity to one another.

In America, the regulated social distance is 6 ft. In India and other densely-populated areas, it is 1 metre, nearly half this span. Shouldn’t it actually be the same everywhere? Or is the Covid strain in densely-populated nations half as dangerous?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) initially said that wearing masks is optional but not recommended. A few weeks later, it recommended the wearing of masks, but has still not made it mandatory, leaving it to localities to decide. In India, the wearing of masks is mandatory and violators can be punished. Of course it is safer if everyone wears masks, but is India inviting violators when the police aren't watching? Don't many Indians appear to be wearing masks, but really aren't (because the mask sits on the chin instead of covering the mouth and nose)?

Flip-flops and mis-steps

The CDC initially said that the virus transmits easily via contact with inanimate surfaces, like door handles and bus handrails. Transit systems, airlines, and small businesses invested billions of dollars to rigorously clean surfaces with disinfectant, several times a day. People at homes began to wash down groceries. Now the CDC says that the virus does not easily transmit via surfaces. What? The CDC admits it is still learning about the virus, so perhaps it is not so bad.

In New York, the city most impacted by the virus, the Javits Center, a huge convention site, was converted to a makeshift hospital. A Navy hospital ship, capable of handling 1,000 patients, pulled into the harbour. To free up even more hospital capacity, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order on March 25 to force nursing homes to accept Covid-19 patients.

How did each of these moves work out? Horribly! Out of the 140,000 hospital beds that Cuomo commissioned, the state ended up using only 20,000. The Javits Center hospital or the Navy ship was never used. So what was all the fuss about?

According to an Associated Press tally, more than 4,500 Covid-19 patients were sent to New York nursing homes under the governor’s executive order. But over 5,000 people in nursing homes — previously unaffected by Covid — died. “New York has 40 per cent more nursing homes residents than Florida, but 700 per cent more nursing home deaths,” CBS New York reported. How did Florida do so much better? Because its governor, Ron DeSantis, did the exact opposite, moving vulnerable people from nursing homes to hospitals where they could get better care.

Varying goals across regions

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer has extended stay at home orders through June 12, although Michigan’s hospital systems were never stressed. She confessed last week that “cases and deaths are both declining, but we’re not out of the woods yet.” This is a new standard, far more strict than the original goal of flattening the curve to reserve hospital beds for victims. So, what is her goal before she opens Michigan up? Zero deaths?

On April 19, Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp announced that he was re-opening the state to businesses when he too realised that infections were much lower than hospital capacity. The media and opposition politicians went berserk, predicting a rise in deaths. The Atlantic magazine was even more dramatic, accusing Kemp of committing “human sacrifice.” Writing in the New York Post, David Marcus said, “Nearly five weeks later, instead of the predicted spike in deaths, the number of cases of coronavirus and associated deaths declined.”

In Minnesota, the governor declared liquor stores as “essential services” that could remain open but classified churches and places of worship as non-essential, even though religious leaders had said that they would practice all CDC guidelines before safely re-opening. What was he thinking? After a hue and cry, and a threat from President Trump, the governor reneged and let churches re-open at 25 per cent occupancy.

Illogic elsewhere

Last week, fully three months after travellers from Europe from deeply-infected countries like Italy and France poured into Britain, the island nation imposed a 14-day mandatory quarantine on arriving travellers, and heavy fines for those who break the rules. Curiously, the ban does not impact travellers from Ireland because of a treaty between the two countries. Seriously? Are we to believe that the virus obeys treaty agreements?

Former CNN producer Nick Rizzuto tweets that New York City is allowing people to hang out on the beaches, but not swim. California is allowing people to swim, but not hang out on the beaches. Both claim science is guiding their policies.

Liberals have been critical of the Trump administration’s plans to suspend processing immigrant applications for asylum along America’s southern border, arguing that is discriminatory. Yet liberal enclaves in New York’s Long Island and the beaches of Connecticut have set up strict policies to prevent even healthy New Yorkers from visiting there. This doesn’t constitute discrimination?

In India, Mr Modi’s late evening announcement to immediately enact his lockdown policy froze migrant movement. The government’s logic that migrants would have spread the disease back in their villages was suspect because these migrants had never been exposed to Covid-19 prior. With temperatures rising, and without any money to get on the meagre number of relief buses and trains, the BBC reports that migrants, with young children, have begun walking on highways to their destinations, hundreds of miles away. Many have died from hunger and exhaustion. How does this compute?

In the eyes of our leaders, loss of life from any other condition is perfectly acceptable, but Covid deaths have to be prevented at all costs because innocent people can die. In America, millions of healthcare workers have been laid off because hospitals refuse to treat non-Covid patients, and hospitals don't have the budgets to keep these workers employed any more. Meanwhile, thousands of people with other life-threatening conditions, such as cancer, heart-disease, and kidney disease, are deteriorating and even dying at home. Does this make sense?

Economic devastation

Meanwhile, what has been the economic result of all this craziness? Absolute devastation. Millions of livelihoods have been destroyed. More than 40 million people are unemployed in America, and unemployment reached 15 per cent this week. The rate was just 3.8 per cent two months ago.

Half of America’s commercial aeroplane fleet, 3,100 planes, have been taken out of service. Still, a report said that the average number of travellers on an American domestic flight was just 26. Nearly all airlines are at risk of going bankrupt. The big aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, have no new orders. There are so many used cars in the market that auto companies may have to dial back production plans. Hertz, the 100-year old iconic car rental brand, declared bankruptcy, as have iconic retailers such as Neiman Marcus, JC Penney and J Crew.

As America slowly re-opens, businesses are having trouble bringing back employees. The American government’s unemployment insurance checks are so generous, at nearly $1,000 a week, that many laid-off employees are finding that they can earn more money staying at home and are refusing to return to work even when their bosses are calling them back.

Some economists are predicting that it may take a decade for the global economy to return to pre-Covid levels. Many countries that were lifted out of poverty during the last two decades may return to shocking conditions of malnutrition and poor public health as the global economy digs itself out of this morass. Immigration will likely never resume to pre-Covid levels as nations set up bureaucratic walls to protect local economies — killing the dreams of millions who want to seek greener shores. For many governments, diaspora remittances are an important foreign exchange source and limited immigration opportunities will directly impact government finances.

Hasty decisions

Each of these outcomes is a result of hasty public policy decisions, often taken without due deliberation, to fight a pandemic that has unfortunately claimed 350,000 lives. But this number is not that different from the annual seasonal flu — a National Institutes of Health study estimated that an average of 389,000 respiratory deaths were associated with the influenza virus globally each year, corresponding to ~ 2 per cent of all annual respiratory deaths. Besides, Covid-19 still has largely only impacted people who are older than 65 or those with chronic preconditions. Any analogies to the world fighting World War III are totally overblown and irrelevant. Nearly 85 million died during World War II.

The simple question now is: Was all of this worth it? Some of it, yes, but all of it? I am not sure.

So, the next time you consume Covid-related news from government officials, do pause and question what they’re saying. Are their convictions justified? Do their proposed actions make sense? Could they be overreacting? They may have the best of intentions, but they could also be incompetent, may not have thought it through enough, or worse, even be dumb. If you have any doubts about this harsh assertion, go back and read this article again.

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