‘We overreacted,’ people will say. Don’t listen.
By ALEX LONG | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 18, 2020
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As I spent hours trying to figure out the most cost-efficient way to cancel flights, hotels and events scheduled for the next three weeks and commiserating with friends and colleagues who were doing the same, the word “overreacting,” or that notion, came up again and again in relation to the novel coronavirus. As in: “I would hate to lose all this money for nothing” or, “If there isn’t a spike in transmission in [insert any location here] I’ll regret not going” or, “I can’t help but feel we are overreacting here — I still have to live my life!”
President John F. Kennedy said in a State of the Union address that “the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” He was referring to recession-proofing measures, but the analogy serves to communicate the need for all preparation. What if, however, after this preparation to slow the advance of the pandemic, there is less spread and fewer deaths than were forecast? Does that mean it was for nothing? That it was an “overreaction”? Many Americans, burdened by sacrifices large and small, may be persuaded by cynics to see it that way. But what this scenario will really mean is that all the drastic measures, all the discomfort, actually worked. An absence of the worst would mean the presence of success.
To the everyday citizen, this is vexing, especially for those hurting from the overwhelming sacrifice forced on them. When extreme measures are taken, the public has come to expect extreme outcomes — or some overwhelming clarity that all the caution and controlled chaos was worth it.
On one hand, in a promising note, my private social media has been flooded by once epidemiologically illiterate people encouraging their friends and family to help flatten the curve. The curve here refers to a graph, provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depicting the effects of delaying an outbreak. Through measures such as social distancing, we have the chance to lower the number of cases and space out transmission to make it easier for our health care system to allocate the beds, medicine and other vital resources needed during a pandemic. My professional social media, too, has been flooded with talk of flattening the curve.
On the other hand, there has been a quiet undertone to the tweets and articles from the global health experts I follow and trust. That is: If this works — social distancing, dismissing students, suspending crowded events, compelling people not to travel, shutting bars and restaurants — people will say that public health officials, researchers and health care workers overreacted. What sometimes then follows these tweets are statements like “and that’s OK,” or something similarly complacent.
Let me, a nonpublic-health official, say that it is not OK.
Right now, the United States is in a scary place. A place that could be protected from the worst if we come together as a society and treat every personal interaction with more care than usual, if our collective effort flattens the curve. After the curve is flattened, however, and the worst projections fail to materialize, skeptics will characterize those canceled flights and suspended games as a result of a misguided algorithm or frantic scientists, and they will ascribe motives to the professionals we trust for their supposed misinformation, citing political gains or economic fluctuations. Public health analysts, workers and officials know this, and if they do everything right, no one will know the tragedy they were saved from — because it never happened. Or, to extend Kennedy’s analogy, it never rained — here at least.
We can shift the narrative and see the potential mitigation of caseloads as a unifying success rather than a nefarious miscalculation. That is work you and I can do; it should not be incumbent on the professionals to convince us.
So yes, socially distance yourself, work from home, help those most vulnerable in your community, pitch in to assist your friends and family who are in jobs that make it mind-bendingly difficult or impossible to telework, especially those with children barred from school. Find innovative ways to support small businesses who will be greatly affected by this crisis. If you are a business leader, education administrator or someone in a place of power, thoughtfully institute directives based on the science, human rights and needs of the people you lead. But also, when and if the time comes, don’t let the rhetoric about overreaction slide. It sows distrust in the systems that function on something so intangible as trust. For now, focus on flattening the curve. For later, focus on articulating what we can only hope will be the success of that effort.
Alex Long is a program associate in the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center and a junior policy fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy.