“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.”
With these three short tweets last week, President Donald Trump attempted to kick off the post-lockdown phase of America’s coronavirus crisis. It should be called: “American Russian roulette: The COVID-19 version.”
What Trump was saying with those tweets was: Everybody, just go back to work. From now on, each of us individually, and our society collectively, is going to play Russian roulette. We’re going to bet that we can spin through our daily lives — work, shopping, school, travel — without the coronavirus landing on us. And if it does, we’ll also bet that it won’t kill us.
More specifically: As a society, we will be betting that as large numbers of people stop sheltering in place, the number of people who will still get infected with COVID-19 and require hospitalisation will be less than the number of hospital beds, intensive care units, respirators, doctors, nurses and protective gear needed to take care of them.
Why testing, tracking and tracing are important
Because it is clear that millions of Americans are going to stop sheltering in place — their own president is now urging them to liberate themselves — before we have a proper testing, tracking and tracing system set up. Until we have a vaccine, that kind of system is the only path to dramatically lowering the risk of infection while partially opening society — while also protecting the elderly and infirm — as Germany has demonstrated.
And as individuals, every person will be playing Russian roulette every minute of every day: Do I get on this crowded bus to go to work or not? What if I get on the subway, and the person next to me is not wearing gloves and a mask? What if they sneeze? Do I get in the elevator at the office if there is another person on it? Do I go into the office lunchroom or not? Do I stop for a drink at this bar, where the stools are 6 feet apart, or that crowded one my friends chose? Do I use this toilet or that drinking fountain? Do I send my kid back to school or not? Do I stay in a hotel? Ride an aeroplane? Let the plumber in? Do I go to the doctor to check that strange lump or not?
What will be so cruel about this American version of Russian roulette is how unfair it will be. Some people will have no choice but to take the subway or the bus to work. Some people will have to send their kids back to school because they can’t afford to stay home from work. Some bosses will demand that their employees show up to reopen their workplace, but some of those employees may be afraid to come back. Do you fire them? Do they bring a lawsuit against you if you do, or do they go on Twitter and post a picture of how closely together you forced them to work — 6 inches apart, not 6 feet?
Every choice in dealing with this virus is fraught with huge trade-offs between saving lives and saving the economy that sustains lives.
This is the state of play when you have a president who one minute is responsibly issuing sober guidelines for when and how people should go back to work; and the next minute is telling states that they are responsible for getting the testing, tracking and tracing units that we need in place; and then, in the third minute, is inciting people on Twitter to “liberate” their workplaces, cities and beaches — even though none of the conditions are in place to do so safely.
“Liberate”? Think about the use of that word. We were not in jail! We were not doing something wrong! We were doing what our president, governor, mayor and national epidemic experts told us to do: behave responsibly and shelter in place to break the transmission of this virus.
Trump was cynically trying to curry favour with his base by implying that the Democratic governors, following his own national guidelines, were unfairly locking people up, depriving them of their livelihoods. Is there anything more irresponsible that this president could do, after weeks of complimenting the American people for how they pulled together and sacrificed to shelter in place — patriotically doing their part to bend the curve of this virus?
So, folks, forget about all those White House briefings. You don’t have to tune in another day. When the president is calling on governors to “let their people go” before comprehensive testing facilities are in place, he is basically saying that, until there is a vaccine, we are betting on herd immunity. Achieving herd immunity requires that more than two-thirds of a community be immune, a process that could involve many more deaths, if proper preparations are not in place.
That may work out for some places and people. It may not. I do not know. Every choice in dealing with this virus is fraught with huge trade-offs between saving lives and saving the economy that sustains lives. I just know three things:
First, this is the bet Trump is urging you to make in his “liberate” tweets — when he should be ordering out the National Guard and mobilising American industry to get testing everywhere.
Second, this bet will fall very unfairly and unevenly in our society when so little testing and tracing is in place.
The questions all entities need to ask
And third, if this is the future, every business, restaurant, hotel, theatre, sporting facility, factory, non-profit and government office needs to ask itself: What does my business look like when, on the best days, the responsible people coming to my door will be wearing a mask, gloves, distancing 6 feet apart and volunteering to have their temperature taken before they enter, and the irresponsible ones won’t be? How do I handle that? Whom do I serve? What kind of business will I really have? Because that will be our economy until we have a vaccine or have established herd immunity.
Bottom line, my fellow Americans: Your president is telling you that you’re on your own to make these decisions. And if this strategy works, you can be sure that he will take credit. And if it doesn’t, you can be sure that he will tweet that it was all Anthony Fauci’s idea.
— Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author.