OPINION | Beware of moralistic narratives of the lockdown debate

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SIMPLE-MINDED folk, incapable of understanding the subtleties of science and economics, need a clear narrative to guide them through the complexity of the national lockdown debate. Fortunately, the usual wise heads in the media have been here all along to provide an easily understood moral fable, complete with its own cast of villains and heroes.

If you say the lockdown has gone on too long, that you want to return to some possibility of ever having a livelihood again, you’re a science-denying troglodyte, an antisocial hedonist, who will crawl over the bodies of sick children and dying grandparents to get to that restaurant so you can fill your face from the all-you-can-eat barbecue. Or you’re a greedy, profit-before people capitalist, desperate to get your employees back into the workhouse so you can go back to exploiting them, with the added potential benefit that they might get sick and die.

If you support the continued lockdown, you’re an enlightened, science-following humanitarian. You can’t help it, but you just love people (well, some people) and want them to live. You put the interests of the vulnerable in society above things like nice dinners and vacations. You always listen respectfully to the experts.

The anti-lockdown people are the beer-soaked jerks partying on beaches in Florida. They’re the red hat-wearing, hairy-palmed bigots screaming obscenities through a glass door in Ohio. They’re the conspiracy theorists framing reasoned public health guidance as the latest sinister efforts by the “deep state” to control our minds.

The stay-the-course types are the hardworking (and still employed) officials in government and international organizations simply doing their altruistic duty. They’re the (still employed) teachers, putting the interests of their students above grubbier considerations like whether those students might ever get a job. They’re the (still employed, for now) all-knowing media commentators whose recently acquired expertise in epidemiology has been derived from Twitter and who are graciously willing to share it with the rest of us.

The narrative also applies — surprise! — to our political geography. The governors of Democratic states are devoted father and mother figures, shepherding their ignorant flocks with a mix of unchallengeable science and homespun wisdom. Governors of Republican states are (in some oddly bifurcated version I haven’t grasped yet) both half-wits who refuse to listen to medical experts and, at the same time, dastardly Machiavellian schemers, knowing that continued economic paralysis is going to doom them — and their patron, the quack-remedy-touting guy in the White House — at the polls. Open up the economy too soon, we’re told, and watch the hospitals fill and the bodies pile up, thanks to the mindless decisions of science-denying, heartless conservatives. Well, many states have indeed now opened up large parts of their economy. The results must be truly grim. Let’s check.

Georgia lifted its most stringent restrictions on May 1. How are they doing? Plague hospitals overwhelmed? Bodies piled up in the streets? Not quite. Preliminary data suggest that the number of new daily cases has halved since May 1. Average daily deaths dropped from 36 on May 1 to seven this week.

Ah, the narrative quickly pivots: But Georgia is a relatively sparsely populated state. What about Florida, a big populous place, a destination people flock to from all over, a viral stew of lethal scale — surely, absolute carnage down there? In Florida, daily deaths from the virus peaked on April 28. Since then the figure has declined by almost 50%.

The story is the same or similar in most of the states that have opened up. These governors didn’t just take a reckless gamble. Apparently they used science and data and economics too — who knew? They recognized that once the virus has passed its greatest lethality, the balance of risks shifts. The benefits of the shutdown look increasingly out of proportion to its costs.

It’s early days still. Perhaps the data will change. Perhaps the great reopening may yet falter as the virus returns. There are different circumstances in different states that may demand differing responses. But that’s the point, in a way. The truth is complicated; there’s so much about this virus we don’t know. Getting the balance between economic and health risks right is hard.

It’s not a simple moral story of Science versus Ignorance, of Right versus Wrong. But that wouldn’t really fit the narrative, would it?

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