As the country entered into an election year, COVID-19 reared its head and became an unusual campaign issue. Exposed to extreme politization, facts were buried in an abundance of misinformation perpetuated by the invocation of “science.” With the overly polarized rhetoric of stump speeches mercifully behind us, it is time to return to the rigor and integrity in research that public policy deserves. Now that the polls have closed, let’s move on, dig into the facts, and, indeed, follow the science.
Upon the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 illness, little was known about it. Symptomatically, it was even difficult to tell whether or not one had the disease given that the list of symptoms seemed to expand continually. Despite what little information existed, there was no lack of self-proclaimed experts claiming the knowledge necessary to contain the disease. With the state's presumptive authority and dubious expertise, numerous state and local governments began imposing extreme measures to “flatten the curve” and maybe even eradicate COVID-19. Meanwhile, bona fide experts started preparing for the worst while also recognizing that our understanding of the disease was limited. As knowledge about the virus grows, we should take advantage of legitimate expertise to inform responsive public policies.
For example, consider the mandatory policies related to social distancing. Quarantines and lockdowns, limited gatherings in private homes and churches, universal mask mandates, and business closures are just some of the ways governments have attempted to contain COVID-19 through public policy. However, such policies are not necessarily following the science. In fact, tens of thousands of public health scientists and medical practitioners recently signed a declaration recognizing the significant, negative impact these policies have had on people’s health, safety, and welfare. The Great Barrington Declaration is authored by experts in epidemiology, immunology, and public health from places you may have heard of, like Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford. While condemning current lockdown policies, these epidemiologists advocate for a targeted approach to address the virus, a practice they call “Focused Protection.” This approach allows low-risk individuals to live their lives as usual, developing herd immunity while simultaneously protecting society's most vulnerable.
While such a focused approach may seem to be common sense, it has yet to be commonly implemented by state and local governments across the country. Instead, governments have pursued public policies that impose universal restrictions without due consideration for actual risk.
In the military, reliable intelligence is a critical component of reducing risk in engagement. It is valuable to know as much about the enemy as possible in order to minimize casualties and collateral damage. Knowledge reduces risk and increases the likelihood of victory. The same can be applied to the fight against COVID-19. Governments must be agile, willing to change their course of action as knowledge about the virus increases.
Over the last several months, our knowledge about the coronavirus has grown. Initial policies, arising from swift action, must now yield to better strategies that follow knowledge founded on reliable science. We now know of one crucial attribute of COVID-19 – it has an asymmetric fatality rate. That is, the virus is particularly dangerous for the aged and individuals with specific pre-existing adverse health conditions while the risk to life is almost nonexistent for the young. What’s more, we can identify who those people are.
With this knowledge, we can and must mount a more strategic defense that reduces numerous risk factors and increases the likelihood of a successful campaign. Specifically, we know how and where to allocate limited resources to defend against the disease. We can provide greater protection to those who need it most, shore up our weaknesses, and capitalize on our strengths. We can be focused, strategic, and targeted in reducing risk and defending against COVID-19.
Steve Trost, Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at Oklahoma State University, in a recent 1889 Institute publication, proposes such an approach. It is a sensible, targeted public policy that gives due deference to expert knowledge and that is founded on the science behind COVID-19. His proposal strikes a balance between liberty and safety. His recommendation will “aggressively shield the vulnerable” while allowing the more resilient to engage socially and economically. Under such a policy, those that need, or even want, protection get it. Those that would like to get back to life as usual are free to do so. The dichotomy between individual liberty and our health, safety, and welfare can be eliminated – we can achieve both. Specifically, “state, local, and governmental-institution policy-makers” need to create a framework for focused protection by taking specific actions, such as:
- Repealing all current, universally applied, social distancing mandates;
- Making N95 respirators (or their equivalents) available to all vulnerable individuals;
- Encouraging self-quarantine only for individuals manifesting symptoms;
- Establishing and enforcing policies that “protect vulnerable members of the population who rely upon non-family support, such as those in assisted living facilities”; and
- Facilitating innovation among community organizations to assist those who must be isolated.
As Trost notes in his research, “This approach simultaneously reduces the level of COVID health harm to the vulnerable and reduces the level of overall health and economic harm to the non-vulnerable.” He goes on to recognize that approaching COVID-19 by targeting known risks, we can begin “increasing the economic, mental, and spiritual well-being of all members of society.”
Every state and local government should take note. A population that is suffering economically, mentally, or spiritually is also a population at risk – risks that can be broader and less defined than COVID-19. Current policies are creating greater risk by forcing us to misallocate resources on multiple fronts, some of which exist unnecessarily. Combatting the virus in this way reduces our overall efficacy. Many people are suffering from a remedy that causes greater harm to low-risk populations than the disease itself. A balanced, thoughtful approach allows people to thrive while continuing to protect those who are most vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus.
Governments can simultaneously support and grow their economies and strategically allocate resources to better protect the vulnerable. Now is the time to repeal ineffective, universal policies that cause more harm than good and do more to protect those in harm’s way.
Brad Galbraith is the Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.