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Pandemics Are Over When The Public Decides They’re Over

Authored by Ryan McMaken via The Mises Institute,

In Colorado, reported cases and hospitalizations of Covid-19 patients are at higher levels than ever before. And yet politicians are worried that if they issue new stay-at-home orders, the public won’t obey them. For instance the Denver Post last week reported Colorado Democrats admitted the public isn’t listening very closely anymore:

[State Senator Steve] Fenberg and many other state leaders are worried … about whether a stay-at-home order would even work this time around. People have grown accustomed to certain freedoms since the spring, and already there are some in the population resistant even to the least oppressive rules, such as wearing masks.

“They don’t want to have restrictive orders that people just entirely ignore,” Fenberg said. “Once you cross that line, that seriously, then it really starts to unravel, when people completely check out from following the orders.”

We’ll ignore the creepy framing of the issue around how citizens have lamentably “grown accustomed to certain freedoms” like being able to leave one’s home. But Fenberg is right to think the public is unlikely to be nearly as compliant this time around.

And what happens if Americans start acting as if there is no pandemic? Then, the pandemic is at a de facto end, even if “experts” insist that it is still a de jure reality.

Medical Pandemics vs. Social Pandemics

In other words, government agencies may issue declarations of when Pandemics end, but as noted in The New York Times last May,

pandemics typically have two types of endings: the medical, which occurs when the incidence and death rates plummet, and the social, when the epidemic of fear about the disease wanes.

“When people ask, ‘When will this end?,’ they are asking about the social ending,” said Dr Jeremy Greene, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins. In other words, an end can occur not because a disease has been vanquished but because people grow tired of panic mode and learn to live with a disease

This has happened before. During the 1957-1958 Asian flu pandemic, for example, the public took little notice of the fact the flu was especially virulent that year. It is now estimated that more than 100,000 died from the flu in the period, which would be the equivalent of 220,000 Americans today. Indeed, American continued to die from the Asian flu into the 1960 flu season and beyond. But as far as the public was concerned, there had been no pandemic that required staying home or closing schools.

Many Americans are apparently already moving in that direction now. According to a new report this month from Gallup, the percentage of Americans saying they are “very likely” to shelter in place has fallen from 67 percent in late March to 49 percent as of November 1. The percentage of respondents saying they are “very likely” or “somewhat unlikely” to adhere to stay-at-home orders has doubled from 15 percent to 33 percent. Notably, this trend has occurred in spite of more Americans in the survey also saying they think the virus situation is “getting worse.”

In other words, Americans don’t think the disease is about to go away, but less than half say it’s very likely they’ll be sitting at home.

At this point, it’s a fairly safe bet that even as more and more Americans conclude they can’t put their lives on hold indefinitely, government bureaucrats will continue to insist that the pandemic puts everyone at grave risk.

But the public and the technocrats often function on different schedules. After all, sitting at home for months or even years may work for childless, white-collar intellectuals and bureaucrats who can easily work from home and need not worry about the social and emotional development of children and others in their care. But many others are likely to view that model of daily life as thoroughly untenable.

Moreover, many currently unemployed Americans—who number in the millions—may conclude collecting unemployment checks indefinitely is not a satisfactory substitute for making a living the ordinary way.

Making Risk Assessments

All of this will go into calculating risk, and this is why the public’s recognized end to pandemics is often different than the “official” end. The public is made up of countless individuals who make their own risk assessments based on the available facts.

This also is why it’s impossible to declare with finality when “herd immunity” has been reached. As Michel Accad explained last month at mises.org:

while herd immunity may indeed be a real phenomenon that can take place under certain circumstances when populations are subjected to a contagious disease, it is important to recognize that herd immunity is not a concept that has any practical value for setting public health policy.

For one thing, there is no objective way to establish that herd immunity has been achieved, since a “stable” rate of new infection is a subjective notion. What is a stable or tolerable rate of infection for me may not be so for you.

Whether or not the presence of a disease presents an acceptable risk to “the public” depends on countless individual risk assessments.

With stay-at-home orders, on the other hand, government officials have taken it upon themselves to apply an arbitrary bureaucrat-enforced definition of acceptable risk. These officials insist they must have the power to force the public to retreat to their home until some central political authority has determined that the risk level has dropped to an acceptable level.

How Much Risk Are We Willing to Accept When Driving?

Governments have tried this in other contexts as well.

When it comes to highway safety, for instance, federal and state government agencies spent years trying to convince Americans that “55 saves lives” and that driving at slower speeds would save thousands of American lives per year.

This in itself was not an unreasonable goal, of course. Nowadays, more than 38,000 people die every year in crashes on US roadways. An additional 4.4 million are injured seriously enough to require medical attention, and auto accidents are the leading cause of death in the US for people aged 1–54.

A concerted effort to bring down highway deaths could save hundreds of thousands of lives over a single decade. Moreover, the act of driving on the highway—especially at high speeds—heightens the risk not only for one’s self but for other motorists as well. This means if Americans would consent to drive at slow speeds, wear helmets when driving, and refrain from driving for “non-essential” reasons, countless lives could be saved.

Yet, clearly, most Americans have long since concluded that maximizing safety on the highway isn’t worth the trouble, either to increase their own safety or the safety of others. Countless American drivers routinely drive at high speed. Some don’t even wear seat belts. Many people drive to the store or the movies when they could “be safe” by just staying at home. Yet these non-essential motorists continue to put others at risk in this manner.

Few Americans seem to regard this as a serious problem. Most everyone just accepts the risk of highway accidents as another part of life. 

The same thing, of course, has always occurred in the context of disease, and it is likely to occur in the context of Covid-19. As time goes on, more and more Americans will simply accept that the risk of catching various diseases as a part of life. This long ago occurred with the flu which still kills tens of thousands of Americans per year.

When this does finally happen with most of the public in regards to Covid-19, the pandemic will be de facto over, although may politicians and bureaucrats will no doubt disagree. 

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