It was a telling moment. As Democratic presidential aspirants bickered with one another on a South Carolina debate stage over the various small differences that concern primary voters, Mike Bloomberg pivoted, unprompted, to the global outbreak of the Coronavirus.
Not that he had anything particularly relevant to say on the subject. Bloomberg vaulted off the ongoing outbreak to pummel the president for downsizing the relevant sectors of the executive branch that might “figure out what the hell we should be doing.” Hardly reassuring.
It wasn’t Bloomberg but CBS moderator Gayle King who was the most interesting participant in this exchange. She promptly cut the former mayor off and scolded him for getting ahead of the program. Voters needed to be treated to yet another elucidation on the relative merits of Medicare-for-all before we turn to ancillary issues like the outbreak. It was a moment that encapsulated the disparity between how opinion-makers believe the public should think about the outbreak and how the public does think about it.
In the last several weeks, the disease known as COVID-19 has exploded out of its Chinese incubator and has spread across the globe. Unlike more severe outbreaks that captured headlines over the last two decades, this respiratory illness has a relatively low fatality rate and can produce mild or even no symptoms in the infected. It’s spread is, therefore, much harder to contain. The CDC’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Nancy Messonnier, warned yesterday that the virus, which has already infected at least 80,000 worldwide and claimed 3,000 lives, will come to the United States. “It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” she said. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.”
American markets are not waiting for the disease to spread beyond control in the U.S. before worrying. On Monday and Tuesday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average posted its worst percentage drop in nearly two years, and the ten-year treasury bond rate declined to a low point not seen since the summer of 2016. The American firms that are dependent on Chinese manufacturers are relying on dwindling surpluses as the supply chain in the People’s Republic has dried up with no signs of restarting soon. In hard-hit Italy, Milan—the nation’s economic center—has begun to shut down, threatening to transform this viral contagion into a financial contagion. And panicked selling has already transitioned into panicked buying. American hardware stores and retail outlets are increasingly sold out of protective facemasks and particulate respirators, and Amazon has taken steps to prevent price gouging on its website.
Harvard University epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch caused a stir this week when he predicted that between 40 and 70 percent of all mankind would contract COVID-19. With a fatality rate of even just one percent of sufferers, that would result in millions of deaths worldwide. But even if he’s overstating the scale of the threat, Lipsitch appears to share the CDC’s conclusion that this Coronavirus outbreak is no longer containable. As of this weekend, there were just 35 confirmed cases in America, but, as Lipsitch told the Atlantic’s James Hamblin, there could be hundreds of still undetected Coronavirus cases in the U.S. “That’s all it would take to seed the disease widely,” Hamblin noted.
Back in South Carolina, when it was finally the appropriate time to address the outbreak, the question that was asked was instructive as to what opinion-makers believed voters would like to see from lawmakers and government officials in this time of apprehension. “The question to you is this,” King said to Amy Klobuchar, “would you close the borders to Americans who have been exposed to the Coronavirus in order to prevent an outbreak here in this country?” Klobuchar declined to directly answer the question, but her refusal to reject the premise is revealing. Between doing nothing at all and shutting down the borders, there’s a universe of actions public officials could take to help curb the spread of COVID-19. But extreme measures are more congruent with an age of populist politics and deep mistrust in the competence of the nation’s expert classes.
As Hamblin noted, measures as draconian as locking down the nation’s borders are likely to be counterproductive if policymakers’ objective is the pursuit of therapies that can slow the spread of the disease. The manufacture, testing, and distribution of retroviral medications and potential vaccines are impaired if the firms and institutions tasked with that mission must overcome the logistical hurdles associated with broken supply chains. Such efforts also reduce the opportunities for international cooperation and information sharing, as well as the discovery, tracking, and monitoring of undetected infection cases.
Moreover, if Lipsitch’s analysis is right, such theatrical displays would do nothing to stop the spread of the disease in the U.S. After all, the U.S. restricted entry to all Chinese nationals on January 31, well before the virus eventually made its way to American shores. Such actions would, however, assuage those who see the establishment of emergency task forces and the appropriation of a few billion dollars for the National Institutes of Health and the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund as unsatisfying half measures. And it is an election year.
As National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty documented, an obnoxious trend has emerged among some political observers, who appear more comfortable condemning Western efforts to prevent Chinese transmission vectors from coming into contact with their populations than they are condemning the hidebound Chinese regime that is responsible for this outbreak. But taking offense over such displays of condescension doesn’t justify measures that would deepen the economic consequences of this outbreak. Trade and travel restrictions would only accentuate a simmering panic. But in the age of populist politics, emotionally satisfying policy may be preferable to efficacious policy.