End the coronavirus war

We are not at war with the coronavirus.  It's a public health problem, not a conflict.  Historically, comparing domestic societal problems to war — e.g., drugs or poverty — has been counterproductive.  The war metaphor doesn't work as an analogy, or as moral guidance.  In the current case, treating this public health issue like a war may well prove disastrous if we continue to pursue warlike policies, such as isolation and the favoring of "necessary" industries over a generally healthy economy. 

We are facing a disease of modest morbidity and a low if uncertain mortality rate very probably somewhere between 0.10 and 2%, concentrated heavily among elderly and/or already unhealthy people.  In fact, we lack sufficient data to really know which end of the estimate is correct, though the likelihood is toward the lower side. 

Worse, in the current highly partisan political climate, even a public health issue breaks along party lines, with Democrats consistently seeing the crisis as more serious than Republicans, bolstered by heavily anti-Trump media coverage.  Had a Democratic president tried to tamp down concern as President Trump did in the run-up to the current situation, the media would have supported that effort.  In the event, Trump's attempts initial attempts to calm fears were heavily mocked.

Still, the driving force behind the draconian warlike measures being undertaken at the state and federal level is not public concern over the virus itself — which was initially modest — but rather that such actions are necessary to save the medical delivery system.  It will supposedly break unless we "flatten the curve." 

To not break the medical system we are now breaking the airlines, schools, restaurants, hotels, casinos, national and local sports, and the financial system, not to mention the national toilet paper supply.  We are going to war to flatten a curve. 

There are a lot of problems with wars.  Among the most common: They often involve significant overreactions, are driven by emotion, involve irrational behavior, cost a lot, and are morally dubious — and, perhaps most salient here, they are difficult to stop once started. 

It is worth keeping a public health problem like the coronavirus away from the ideations and rhetoric of war, yet here we are.  Already we are seeing serious governmental overreaction to the situation, driven largely by emotional and irrational behavior whipped up by the media, especially at the state and local levels.    

And although fighting the coronavirus ought not present serious warlike moral dilemmas — we can all agree that it's a disease and not good — we have them anyway, again stoked by the media.  Here the issue is generational.  Since the virus disproportionately affects the elderly, younger people are naturally less concerned. 

So send a reporter to Daytona during spring break and find a twenty-something to say something coarse and stupid — maybe the easiest job ever invented.  Then hype the heartless youngsters, throw in a worried older person hooked to an oxygen tank, and push the politicians to shut down some more businesses.

Public health, like most things, is all about compromise.  We could save many more lives than will be lost to the coronavirus simply by banning cigarettes, which, according to the CDC, cause 480,000 deaths per year, far beyond even worst-case scenarios for the coronavirus over a year-to-year span.  A smoking ban would be far less disruptive to society than the measures we have currently undertaken, would break only a single industry, and would free up a lot of hospital space. 

Likewise, we could raise the minimum driving age nationally to 21, save the lives of thousands of teens, and reduce injury and hospital visits by the tens of thousands. 

I'm not advocating either course — just pointing out the disconnect between existing public health problems (to include the ordinary flu) and the idea that we must go to a warlike status to arrest the coronavirus.

Perhaps the most significant problem with calling this a war is that wars are easy to start but difficult to end.  Some pontificators have compared the epidemic to World War II.  The comparison, though ridiculous, is attractive to some, since WWII was a necessary war with a clear and victorious end.  But the better comparison is to World War I.  That was an unnecessary war that continued senselessly because politicians could not bring themselves to back out without a victory.  Many more wars are like WWI than WWII. 

President Trump used the war analogy, pressed to this rhetorical extreme by hysterical media coverage and resulting political pressures, promising a quick victory.  A recent poll shows that most Americans support his actions so far, but that won't last. 

Trump, perhaps uniquely for a modern politician, can do this.  As a businessman, he routinely dropped marginal projects, took his losses, and moved on.  The federal and state efforts to "flatten the curve" may or may not be successful.  Regardless, before too long, Trump should declare "victory" over the coronavirus, end this "war," and let America get back to business.

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