This pandemic is depressing and exhausting. A couple of recent headlines indicate the fatigue setting in. First: “After warnings to avoid travel, Denver Mayor Hancock flies to visit family for Thanksgiving.” Some people have even called for Hancock to resign over this, and I don’t blame them. And: “DUI fatalities are up despite fewer people on Colorado roads.” It’s been a long year. That’s no excuse to drink and drive, obviously.
Depressing too is Westword’s list of pandemic-driven restaurant closures. One casualty is particularly painful for my wife and me: the Rock Bottom at the Westminster Promenade. We’ve spent many hours there visiting with friends and family, celebrating events, and enjoying the beer made on site. This wasn’t just a restaurant to us; we had gotten to personally know several people who worked there. We shared family news and such. I worry about how the people who used to work there have fared.
Of course restaurant closures show just the tip of the iceberg of businesses damaged or destroyed by the pandemic. Some people have been financially devastated.
Nothing compares to the horror of the death graph. During the first wave, Colorado suffered a high of 40 Covid-related deaths on April 22. At this point, the “second wave” of the summer looks like a blip. June 5 was the last day for 15 or more deaths until October 20. From November 3–22, we had 20 or more deaths every day except two. Three days in that period show 35 or more deaths. (Note that it can take a few days for a death to register in these stats.)
Just looking at the graphs, it can be easy to momentarily forget that every number there represents a Coloradan losing their life. As of November 28, Colorado registered 2,977 “deaths among cases” and 2,521 “deaths due to Covid-19.” Thousands of Coloradans and their families have suffered immensely.
That most of the people who died were older or had other health problems hardly makes their deaths less tragic. Even if some of these people had only a year or two left anyway, people can get a lot of living done in a year. Consider how meaningful it can be to spend a year getting to know a grandchild, for example. On top of the loss of life, these Covid-related deaths can be physically traumatic and emotionally excruciating as people die in isolation without the comfort of friends and family at their bedside.
That epidemiologists warned back in the Spring of a likely surge in cases come Fall and Winter hardly makes the drawn-out pandemic easier to bear. People are just weary of it. I think it’s a good time to reflect on where we are.
Some people are caught up in a false debate over whether the virus or the government response caused our economic woes. Obviously the viral spread is the fundamental problem. If government had taken no action, the economy still would have suffered a terrible blow as cases, hospitalizations, and deaths rose and many people scaled back their economic activities and social interactions.
At the same time, the government response in many ways has been counterproductive. The economic restrictions have been shockingly arbitrary, favoring politically powerful businesses and interests at the expense of others, with far too little concern paid to the realities of viral spread.
And people have had to endure this governmental caprice in the face of shamefully hypocritical behavior by such political “leaders” as California governor Gavin Newsom, who attended a ritzy restaurant party, and Mayor Michael Hancock, who flew to be with his family just minutes after warning everyone else not to travel. When it comes to pandemic restrictions, some people are more equal than others.
Meanwhile, in various ways government has proactively hindered the response to the virus. Through a network of state and federal de facto price controls on essential items, government throttled the production of protective gear.
The FDA long held up rapid mass testing and continues to do so. In a November 17 release, the FDA announced that a home test requires a prescription, which makes mass home testing practically impossible. As I argued back in May, we had the testing technology to seriously dampen viral spread while restoring near-normal economic activity. Government forbade it.
The FDA also slowed development and release of a vaccine. By outlawing “human-challenge” vaccine trials, which involve intentionally infecting people who agree to participate, government delayed development of the vaccine. Then, when researchers managed to produce successful vaccines anyway, government slowed the rollout. As economist Alex Tabarrok Tweeted November 27, “Your daily reminder that 10,900 people have died from COVID in the United States since Pfizer applied for an [emergency use authorization] from the FDA.” The FDA doesn’t even intend to meet on the matter until December 10, then it will reach a decision weeks later. Meanwhile, the deaths keep piling up.
Certainly various government actors share much of the blame for the devastation this pandemic has caused. We can also talk about what more the government might have done, such as finance mass testing (as uncomfortable as such discussions will make some of my libertarian friends). Still, the root problem is the virus.
We must make our individual decisions in the context of the viral spread and the often-disastrous government responses to the pandemic. We can’t wish away the virus and we can’t wish in more competent government actors. I fear some people are making decisions out of fatigue and anger rather than by a cool weighing of costs and benefits.
Unlike some of my conservative friends (plus Mayor Hancock), my family is taking pandemic precautions very seriously. Unlike Representative-elect Lauren Boebert, we did not host a “turkey funeral” to excuse a large Thanksgiving gathering, for example. In part, I feel like I have to be more careful to compensate for some people being reckless. In part, because my family can isolate pretty easily—we socialize with each other and my wife and I work from home—we decided the risks of exposure both to ourselves and to others just aren’t worth it.
The basic problem with people who evaluate only the risks to themselves is that they can also act as carriers and infect others who are more vulnerable. This is a classic case of “external harms.” Sure, the Boulder college partiers and the like were at low risk of succumbing to the coronavirus, but they were fairly likely to transmit the virus to others and hence to indirectly kill people without even knowing it. I don’t want that weighing on my conscience.
Part of the dynamics here is that I personally knew someone who died, alone in the hospital, of Covid-19. And I know someone who survived the illness but who spent weeks on the couch.
Also, I personally know three doctors working with Covid patients. One of these doctors, a mother, has had to struggle with getting adequate protective gear and live with the fear of potentially bringing the infection home to her family. This has been an absolutely brutal year for the healthcare providers working with Covid patients. And if I can do anything to ease their burden, or at least not add to it, that’s important to me.
I realize that many people simply cannot work from home. And, especially for single people, isolation is psychologically traumatic and potentially even dangerous. So I’m definitely not saying that everyone should cut off all in-person social and economic engagements.
Rather, my point is that it makes sense to be relatively careful, within the context of the particulars of one’s situation. We decided in my family to batten down the hatches, eliminate the health risks to ourselves, and take ourselves out of the potential transmission loop. People who want to shame me for that are welcome to join Hancock in sucking rotten eggs.
This has been a long, trying year for all of us. For many thousands of our fellow Coloradans it has been a devastating year. As we head from Thanksgiving to Christmas, perhaps we can focus on showing gratitude toward the scientists, health workers, and businesses getting us through this pandemic. And maybe we can muster a little more patience. A light glimmers at the end of the tunnel.
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