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Are we being stupid about COVID-19?

The answers to my question about our country’s response to COVID-19 are nearly uniform: “Of course, we are being stupid.” 

Like two plus two equals four, the truth is obvious. But even among those who have thought through this issue, basic scientific principles are being tossed aside. In their place is an orthodoxy that we have lacked a national strategy, we ignored the science and the ongoing tragedy from this diabolical disease was avoidable.

This orthodoxy is based on three errors that academics are taught to avoid: looking back selectively; making comparisons using faulty benchmarks; and failing to judge our behaviors against stated objectives.

Many who look back focus on the lack of a national policy of lockdowns. The consensus view does not focus on the early mistakes made by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) after New York City documented its first coronavirus case on March 1, more than a month after the well-publicized, deadly outbreak in Washington State. When cases increased to 33 on March 5, de Blasio told New Yorkers, “We’ll tell you the second we think you should change your behavior.” Cuomo on March 6 observed that “we have more people dying from the flu” than the coronavirus and that 80 percent of cases will “self-resolve.” Within weeks, our most important and connected city became the epicenter of the virus. My point is that looking back selectively to support a particular narrative about national policy while ignoring consequential local mistakes is not a scientific exercise. 

The second error is to make international comparisons with faulty benchmarks. The U.S. has higher numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita than most other countries. Is that because we have been stupid or that we are different? In contrast to China, which has no interstate commerce clause and restricts movements of its people, the U.S. guarantees interstate commerce and freedom of movement. As COVID-19 cases rose, various EU countries imposed restrictions on travel from other EU countries. Related, might it matter that the U.S. constitution grants individuals freedoms that other countries do not? Does it matter that our system of local, state and national government is designed to check the power of each level? To my knowledge, no one has controlled for such differences, yet the higher per-capita death rate is accepted as sufficient proof that we have behaved stupidly.

The third violation of basic principles is more profound. When evaluating any behavior, one needs to specify the relevant objectives. If reducing COVID-19 deaths is the only objective, then it follows that we should be yet more vigilant and more isolated. A single objective for a society is, however, a non-starter for serious analysis. The overwhelming fact is that COVID-19 made us much worse off on many dimensions. This would be true no matter what behaviors we chose, including more restrictions on our society. To judge our responses to COVID-19 requires accounting for how alternative approaches would affect COVID-19 outcomes as well as other effects on health, abusive behavior and human capital development.

Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker contributed greatly to economics by explaining that we have complicated objectives and that our behaviors result from how our preferences match up to the constraints we face. Observing that we do not maximize our safety, or any other single objective, would not, therefore, indicate that we are being stupid. Becker would, I’m quite sure, reject the orthodoxy that we are being stupid about COVID-19 in favor of a more thoughtful analysis and less rancor. 

The bottom line is that we should not presume that we are behaving non-optimally without careful analysis. We probably will never have sure answers because of uncertainties about the virus, including its effects on survivors and the effectiveness of potential treatments. 

Meanwhile, we should step back and look at our behavior more broadly. As the awful pandemic continues, we are making countless adjustments in how we interact, conduct business, work, entertain ourselves, worship, parent, learn, take care of our health, play sports and, to the extent possible, enjoy life. 

I find our collective accomplishments during the pandemic to be quite impressive. Instead of thinking less of ourselves, maybe we should give ourselves a break as we move forward.

Edward A. Snyder is the William S. Beinecke professor of Economics and Management at the Yale School of Management. 

Tags Andrew Cuomo Bill de Blasio coronavirus crisis coronavirus guidance coronavirus infection rate coronavirus lockdowns Coronavirus response COVID-19 COVID-19 death toll COVID-19 response Pandemic safety protocol social distancing guidelines

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