It is clear, and has been for some time, that the November elections, in whatever form they take, will turn on how voters grade the two parties — and candidates — in their performance in dealing with the COVID-19 global pandemic. As we are passing the initial expansion phase — in the standard 2020 medical parlance, now that the curve is flattening — managing the recovery phase will determine who wins.
A Little Pandemic History. America’s only true pandemic election was 1918, during the Spanish flu that killed 675,000 out of 104 million Americans. The CDC estimates that it infected 500 million and killed 50 million people, out of a global population of 1.5 billion. Putting those numbers in 2020 terms, rounded for ease of comparison, the world and U.S. population clock shows U.S. population at 330 million, out of a global number of 7.5 billion. Thus, in today’s population terms, at 100 million for 1918 and 330 million today, a Spanish flu would kill 2.2 million Americans, and would infect 2.5 billion and kill 250 million worldwide. As of May 5, COVID-19 has infected 3.7 million and killed 270,000 worldwide; CDC’s tally shows U.S. cases at 1.2 million, and deaths around 70,000.
Thus, in terms of per capita lethality, comparing current COVID-19 numbers to date to the Spanish flu’s toll, the 1918 pandemic generated nearly 700 times as many cases, and nearly 1,000 times as many fatalities.
CDC’s influenza history page offers further examples. U.S. population figures enable per capita comparison. The 1957 Asian flu pandemic killed 1.1 million globally, with 116,000 killed in the United States. With 170 million U.S. population in 1957, this is equivalent to 220,000 killed today. The 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic killed one million globally and 100,000 in the U.S. With 200 million U.S. population in 1968, this is equivalent to 165,000 killed today. Thus to date, on a per capita equivalent basis, relative to the current COVID-19 total, the 1957 Asian flu killed more than three times as many Americans, and the 1968 Hong Kong flu killed about 50 percent more.
For the years 2010–19, CDC numbers tally 337,000 deaths, about 37,000 annually. Adjusting for population increase makes for 38,000 annually. This makes COVID-19 already nearly twice as lethal as the national average for recent years.
One notable contrary view has infectious disease experts predicting that in a worst-case the COVID-19 pandemic could last 18 to 24 months.
These relative numbers suggest that we should place COVID-19 in perspective. It is a matter of great concern and merits serious attention to minimize its spread, but we should also avoid the kind of panic that seems evident in America today. In no small measure, public panic is being driven by a ghoulish obsession with COVID-19’s victim tally among mass media journalists and commentators, coupled with the intensifier of global internet social media. Public health officials have become media demigods, treated as oracles whose every declaration — even when given with caveats as to the limits of pandemic models — must be obeyed. Voters understandably trust American public health officials more than they do politicians, but in doing so they may undervalue the economic and health hazards of lockdown.
Lessons from Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 aftermath are instructive — albeit Katrina was a storm, not a pandemic. Perhaps most critical are the dangers of letting government monopolize civil society and thus crowd out the private sector, whose vitality is essential to recovery. From the Wall Street Journal:
A global pandemic is a different kind of catastrophe. This time, officials had more time to prepare, and people are stuck in their homes, not displaced from them. Covid-19 will leave buildings, though perhaps not businesses, intact.
Yet in both cases, government solutions are encroaching on private civil society with potentially devastating consequences. In post-Katrina New Orleans, city leaders championed eminent domain to take over communities badly damaged by floodwaters. Military police barred residents from entering neighborhoods deemed too dangerous. As government continued to occupy these areas — either literally or through policies that delayed the return of residents and businesses — the likelihood of a robust recovery dimmed.
This Katrina lesson is relevant today: Once government occupies civil society with top-down control, it will tend to overpolice and stay too long. Few officials want to risk lifting the lockdown orders, lest they face public scrutiny if something goes wrong. The result is systematic overcaution, which expands government control. [Emphasis added.]
Recent Presidencies. The Clinton and George W. Bush administrations created what became a major stockpile for rainy days. In 1998, Clinton had read a biowarfare novel and established a national pharmaceutical stockpile (NPS). Bush, after the 9/11 attacks, vastly increased the NPS, adding protective gear and medical devices, and renamed it Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). Having read John Barry’s The Great Influenza (2005), Bush pushed for more information sharing with international organizations, replaced chicken-egg vaccine development with the faster cell-based method, and established the first national/state planning structure to combat pandemics. As of 2006, the U.S. had a stockpile of masks that was used up in 2009. But Obama did not replenish stockpiles after Swine flu (2009) and MERS (2014). In 2015, the government estimated that a severe flu infecting 20 to 30 percent of the U.S. population would create a need for 1.7 billion N95 masks. Neither the Obama nor Trump administrations acted on this (nor, for that matter, did Congress).
Reflecting that history, on March 12, Dr. Fauci told a House Committee that the CDC was not prepared for a crisis of COVID-19’s magnitude:
The system does not — is not really geared to what we need right now — what you are asking for. That is a failing. It is a failing. Let’s admit it.… [T]he way the system was set up is that the public health component that Dr. Redfield was talking about was a system where you put it out there in the public, and a physician asks for it, and you get it. The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it — we’re not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes. But we’re not.
The Administration’s Response: Mostly Solid. The assertion recently floating around that Trump received a confidential intel briefing on Jan. 27 and ignored evidence of how serious a threat it is absurd on its face: (a) Trump would’ve had every political interest in ramping up rapidly as a pandemic would threaten his reelection; and (b) Trump failing to disclose the briefing would have been followed by the briefing being leaked by Deep State. Trump surely would have called in top Democratic leaders, as soon as impeachment ended, to brief them.
Trump established a coronavirus task force on Jan. 27 and chaired its Jan. 29 meeting. Congress — besotted with pursuit of a hyper-partisan impeachment — tried to get the Republican Senate to call myriad witnesses that the Democratic House had declined to call last fall. Had that happened, the Senate could only take up substantive business after final verdict.
The president’s newly created “Operation Warp Speed” aims to produce a vaccine this year — 100 million doses by November, 200 million by December, 300 million by January. The effort will unite private companies, researchers, and the military. Asked by a top aide how much effort should be expended, Trump answered, “No limit. Whatever you can humanly do. We’re going to fast-track it like you’ve never seen before, if we come up with a vaccine.”
A signal success has been Trump’s “Air Bridge” program, which finds supplies and routes them to states — and, in some cases — other countries. Its speedy responses — a quality governments at no level are known for — have won praise from many state governors. Notably, California’s Gavin Newsom told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie: “I’m speaking candidly. I called the president and said we need more swabs for specimen so we can increase testing capacity. They were delivered the next day.” Trump explained at a recent briefing that rather than centrally stockpile medical supplies, in many cases they are sent directly to facilities that need them.
Lockdowns: Cure Worse Than the Disease? Already, some science experts are calling for ending lockdowns. A prominent scientist, Scott Atlas, a former chief of neurology at Stanford Medical Center, explains why science dictates easing lockdowns. Fatalities correlate overwhelmingly with age and underlying medical conditions. Second, critical elective surgeries have been suspended.
When states and hospitals abruptly stopped “nonessential” procedures and surgery, that didn’t mean unimportant care. Treatments for the most serious illnesses, including emergency care, were missed. Some estimate about half of cancer patients deferred chemotherapy. Approximately 80 percent of brain surgery cases were skipped. Perhaps half or more of acute stroke and heart-attack patients missed their only chances for early treatment, some dying and many now facing permanent disability. Transplants from living donors are down 85 percent from the same period last year.
And that doesn’t include the skipped cancer screenings, avoided childhood vaccinations, missed biopsies of now-undiscovered cancers numbering thousands per week — and countless other serious disorders left undiagnosed.
Finally, Atlas writes, total isolation delays the onset of collective “herd immunity.” Johns Hopkins estimates that 70 percent of the population must be exposed to a virus for such immunity to protect the population from future outbreaks. In his May 6 Senate testimony, Atlas said that the fatality rate for COVID-19 may be as low as 0.1 percent, comparable to flu season — versus estimates placing the death rate 10 to 40 times higher.
Lockdowns, as noted above, have been driven in part by media worst-case reporting. A notorious example are the upper-bound estimate from a March 26, 2020, study issued by the Imperial College of London COVID-19 Response Team. Its upper-bound estimate for the U.S., 2.2 million deaths, was an “unmitigated scenario” — that is, it assumed zero social distancing. Many press types — locked into making COVID-19 Trump’s Katrina — blithely ignored this substantial qualification, even when Drs. Fauci and Birx pointed this out at White House briefings.
A new study in Australia estimates that deaths from suicidal despair during lockdowns will rise 50 percent in 2020 and thus kill 10 times as many Aussies as does coronavirus. The website Worldometer, which keeps a running tally of numerous socioeconomic indicia, shows 374,000 suicides to date in 2020; this is more than 100,000 higher than the 270,000 figure shown to date on the Johns Hopkins COVID Case Tracker.
One notable contrary view has infectious disease experts predicting that in a worst-case scenario the COVID-19 pandemic could last 18 to 24 months. The group offers three curve scenarios: (a) a series of repetitive waves; (b) a small wave, then a big wave, then gradual disappearance — the pattern of the 1918–19 Spanish flu; and (c) a “slow burn” series of diminishing waves after the initial big wave. It leaves open which scenario COVID-19 will follow.
States: Let 50 Flowers Bloom — or Wilt. A bedrock constitutional issue arising out of widely varying responses in the states pits state discretion per federalism against the federal protection of fundamental freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Thus, while Florida’s GOP governor, Ron DeSantis, is opening Florida up and ending blanket lockdown, Michigan’s Democrat governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is vetoing legislation passed by the Republican Legislature, based upon her personal determination that her executive discretion trumps assertions of constitutional rights. Witmer, who has preserved abortion rights, calling them “life sustaining,” uses diktat to limit individual rights, so as to — in Judge Andrew Napolitano’s phrase, “treat us like children.” Growing protests signal that Americans will not tolerate extended lockdown.
California Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom has bowed to pressure and accelerated lifting of the Golden State’s lockdown. California’s fatality rate of 5.8 per 100,000 people, is dwarfed by the numbers for Massachusetts (59), let alone New York’s astronomical 127. The Justice Department is suing Virginia (Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam) for violating the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment, carrying out Attorney General William Barr’s recent warning that he would go after lockdown rules that violate the Bill of Rights. In a Texas town, a local bar opened in defiance of lockdown was raided by a SWAT team. More prominent was a Dallas owner who opened her salon. This story turned out better, as Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, sided with the proprietor, who had implemented social distancing rules. Abbott also revised his executive order to eliminate jail sentences for lockdown violations. Accordingly, the Texas Supreme Court ordered her release. Abbott defended his action, noting that the Dallas County defense attorney has said he will not arrest or prosecute people who steal items worth $750 or less.
In a lawsuit filed by a coalition of religious and secular groups against Minnesota Democrat Gov. Tim Walz, the brief filed by plaintiffs cites myriad odd juxtapositions of what is allowed to be open with what must be closed:
Worshipers across Minnesota have been prohibited from assembling to celebrate Easter and the Passover, while liquor stores have remained open. Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS are open, while local Hallmark stores are closed. Golf courses and bait shops are open, but indoor amusement facilities are shut. Nobody can legally get a haircut, but dogs may now be groomed. Businesses in Minnesota have been forced to carry rent obligations … without income.
For his part, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s overall performance — lionized by the media — has been disastrous. He was slow to lock down, waiting until New York City deaths topped 3,000. He overlooked NYC officials who were sending elderly COVID-19 patients to crowded nursing homes without proper separation, instead of to the hospital ship Trump had provisioned especially for NYC — leading to scores of avoidable deaths in the homes. And he got vastly more ventilators than New York ended up needing, eventually returning them to be sent elsewhere.
Recently, Cuomo said of nursing homes that protecting NYC residents is “not our [the State’s] job.” Just disclosed is that over 1,700 nursing home deaths have been added to New York state’s prior list, making at least 4,813 statewide nursing home deaths through May 5.
Meanwhile New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, whose city is America’s Ground Zero, gets a pass for having encouraged his constituents — even after social distancing became a national obsession — to socially mix: “If you love your neighborhood bar, go there now.” Since, he has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy re gatherings, without so much as a by-your-leave. Yet the New York Police Department is being pressured to arrest social-distance violators, which the department believes will ultimately undermine their ability to protect the city from violent predators.
The costs that the blasé de Blasio inflicted on America are huge, according to a recent compilation:
The thirteen New York City area counties of Queens, Kings, Bronx, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, New York, Hudson, Essex, Middlesex, Richmond, Bergen, and Union have 351,044 confirmed coronavirus cases, roughly 28 percent of the U.S.’s total of 1,244,119. These counties also account for 23,921 coronavirus deaths, roughly 32 percent of America’s total 74,844 deaths (these numbers are likely inflated due to the practice of funeral homes writing “COVID-19” on death certificates even without a confirmed coronavirus death).
If the New York City area does account for between 60 and 65 percent of coronavirus cases elsewhere across the U.S., that represents between 535,845 and 580,499 cases. That means only between 312,576 cases and 357,230 cases came from other entry points, including hotspots like Seattle, Wash., or Miami, Fla. In other words, only between 25 percent and 29 percent of all U.S. coronavirus cases originated from places other than the New York City area.
Notably, Gov. Cuomo may have offered the worst forecast of the year when, in his March 24 coronavirus briefing, he predicted, “Where New York is today, you will be in 3 to 4 weeks. We are your future. And what we do here, will chart the course for what we do in your city and in your community.” If so, the governor’s stunning May 7 disclosure that 66 percent of new hospitalized cases, at 100 hospitals surveyed, are people who were sheltering at home throws a curveball into the lockdown debate. (In second place were nursing homes, at 18 percent.)
It should be noted that Project Veritas interviewed NYC-area funeral directors and found that many believe the city is so overwhelmed by deaths that it marks coronavirus on many without forensically ascertaining the actual cause of death.
Gov. Cuomo’s latest idea is to tax COVID-19 volunteers. But wait, you say, volunteers are unpaid. Not a problem, explains Andrew M. Cuomo — call him AMC. Volunteers will pay New York State tax on their home-state earnings. (Memo to AOC: call your office; you have new competition, from AMC.)
Bottom Line. COVID-19 is giving America a crash course in comparing competing approaches to combatting a pathogen: trying to balance the impact of the pandemic versus the socioeconomic harm caused by a calamitous economic shutdown. The federal response to date has overall been impressive, far better than the performance (1:27) of its media critics, virtually all of whom downplayed COVID-19 at first, then turned around and sounded alarm bells as if they had said nothing before. And it has been more purposeful than Democratic leaders obsessed with taking down Trump.
A second article will examine specific COVID-19 election issues in detail: China, immigration, civil liberties, education, economy, innovation, media bias, and overall impact.
John C. Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (2nd ed. 2014).