Editorial: Country at key crossroads amid governors’ deadly dilemma

May 1, 2020
By Hugh Hallman and Seth Leibsohn

In discussing the role of laboratories and Covid-19 testing, we have forgotten one fundamental element of our governance: the state laboratories of our democracy and their role. James Madison teaches us that our government is “partly federal and partly national.” Forgetting this has confused too many of our elected officials.

Early on, many governors hoped the president would declare emergencies and shut down social and economic activity. Having the president act would relieve them of their federalist responsibilities to decide whether to impose hardships on their residents. The president refused to make those decisions and, properly, left them to the states and their local governments. Facing the decisions, and stuck in that dilemma — to close or not to close — many state and local leaders blamed the president for failing to act or not acting soon enough.

Recently, President Trump erred when he declared he would decide when state governments would lift restrictions on movement. His legal mistake was to ignore that ours is a republic based on a federalist system: States retain significant authority, especially when it comes to traditional police powers. His political mistake was in seeking to grab the authority from the many state governors and local officials demanding the power to decide our fate.

The president has since corrected his error, and now is promulgating only
“guidelines” for states. The power to decide when to reopen now squarely and rightly is on governors’ shoulders, and now they are starting to squirm.
As of April 29, the CDC tallied more than 57,500 U.S. deaths from Covid-19 on a base of just over 1 million confirmed cases. A case fatality rate of nearly 6% that is alarming, but not accurate. The actual spread of the coronavirus is much broader than the number of confirmed cases. The case count doesn’t include those with mild symptoms and are told to remain home, so they are never tested or counted among “confirmed” cases. In addition, confirmed cases currently can’t include the large portion of virus-infected people who are or were asymptomatic. But this is not the problem for state and local leaders.

While we have been in lockdown, other respiratory diseases that have been subject to the same protocols of hand-washing and social distancing have continued, but don’t seem to get any attention. In the same period in which over 50,000 Americans died from Covid-19 — since February 1 — the U.S. had more than 55,000 people die of pneumonia. We likely also will have as many as 62,000 deaths from the flu this season. All those people who died should count just as much, even if they are not part of the social and traditional media frenzy about this particular virus.

The dilemma is that during the same period, also according to the CDC, by staying home, we prevented the deaths of as many as 75,000 since Feb. 1. They didn’t fall off ladders at work or get hit by drunk drivers. They didn’t get into knife fights or slip in restaurant kitchens. Imagine, by staying in our homes for the next year, at this rate we might save almost 300,000 lives. So how, in good conscience, can any governor say it is okay to go back to life as we knew it? How can any elected leader ever allow our fellow Americans to engage in any life outside their homes?

Maybe we should remember that life is uncertain and that the only certain part of life is our mortality. We can turn our lives’ decisions over to government, or we can go back to our understanding that we may have to make our own choices on what risks to take. We don’t want to be careless with others’ lives, so keeping the medically vulnerable under wraps may make sense. But in deciding when to reopen our societies, we also should think of those we will lose because of the lockdowns. We need to consider those whose deaths will come from the degradation of unemployment and social isolation, alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, depression and suicide.

Too often in making public policy, we measure only what is easy or convenient, and make decisions only on that basis. So too with SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19, apparently. Yes, some people may continue to be at risk from Covid-19, but others are now increasingly at risk from the lockdowns. The decisions to open will not be rendered perfectly. Turns out, life — like democracy — isn’t perfect. And we should be grateful for, and can learn from, the diversity of experiments undertaken in the state laboratories of our republic.

This Editorial was originally published in the Phoenix Business Journal.