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Why the US should not reopen now — and why it is reopening anyway

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Like climate change and universal healthcare, the government’s coronavirus response is an issue that has massive repercussions and is becoming dangerously politicized with clouded facts, political finger-pointing and even denialism. As states begin to reopen, we should  understand the implications of doing so, as well as the political players that have been working hard to discredit expert advice to continue the stay-at-home orders.

For advocates of stay-at-home orders, the disparities between the infection curves of the U.S. and other countries are alarming. With different states implementing different measures, every state has a different curve. However, the overall U.S. curve is not following the declining trajectory of other hard-hit regions like Spain, Italy and even New York City.

Additionally, most states fall woefully below the testing benchmarks necessary to contain the outbreak. The absence of a national strategy and faulty CDC tests caused the United States to fall behind at the beginning of the pandemic. As states have started to reopen, experts warn that a lack of tests will lead to new waves of infection.

Although the majority of Americans support continuing self-isolation, unrest over stay-at-home orders is clearly growing, as evidenced by protests that have sprung up around the country. With over 20 million Americans having lost their jobs since the end of March, many want the economy to restart and, as a result, are questioning the rationale and legality of quarantine measures.

Critics of the lockdown (including President Donald Trump) falsely claim that COVID-19 death numbers are exaggerated, casting doubt on the appropriateness of universal quarantining. However, expert consensus is that the death toll due to the virus is undercounted, even when including probable deaths, and it could be tens of thousands deaths higher than what has been reported. Part of why the disease has been so deadly is because it makes death by other conditions, such as heart disease, more likely, and it also overloads the healthcare system, preventing other patients’ needs from being met.

Another point of contention is the extent and severity of the lockdown. When the coronavirus was first discovered, it was compared to the flu in terms of fatality rates and some symptoms. In reality, it is much more contagious, leading to more deaths even if the death rate is similar to that of the flu. In the 2018-19 flu season, the disease killed 34,000 people. Typically, the worst of the flu season lasts from late fall to early spring. This is roughly the same amount of time that the coronavirus outbreak has been occurring in the US, but the death toll of coronavirus is already 78,000, even as social distancing measures have effectively reduced transmission rates between people.

Of course, forcing everyone to stay at home raises the question, “Why not quarantine sick people only?” In a perfect world, we would only isolate sick people to contain the disease. Unfortunately, we do not know who is sick. People who don’t know they have the virus because they are asymptomatic or presymptomatic can still spread the virus. In a country like South Korea where contact tracing and adequate testing have contained the outbreak, people can go back to a semblance of normal life. Until the United States can successfully test enough people, ending quarantine is a short-sighted decision.

The current government-imposed lockdowns and South Korea’s method of contact tracing do raise the issue of civil rights, attention to which is essential for a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, the citizens of this democracy tend to be victims of political manipulation, even in times when science should be prioritized. Coronavirus misinformation campaigns achieve the same goal as climate change deniers: undermining scientific experts by casting doubt on their work.

Similar to the Russian interference of the 2016 election through social media, Twitter has proven to be a platform for accounts that spread disinformation about the coronavirus, especially for right-wing voices. A study titled “The COVID-19 ‘Infodemic’” found that conservative groups contributed 27% to disinformation activity on Twitter, as opposed to the 8% contributed by left-leaning groups.

To further undermine the threat of COVID-19, influential conservatives are organizing some of the anti-quarantine protests. Trump’s pick for the Federal Reserve Board Stephen Moore has advised the White House to reopen sooner and supported protesters in different states. Co-chair for the Trump campaign in Michigan Meshawn Maddock helped organize the state’s “Operation Gridlock” protest. Libertarian group FreedomWorks has been connecting local protesters and helping them set up websites to protest quarantine.

Misinformation and politicization surrounding this pandemic have been followed by the vast majority of states reopening without widespread testing, effective treatment and understanding of SARS-CoV-2. 

Yes, the decision to weigh lives against rights and quality of life is difficult, but until we have enough tests, we have no line of defense against this virus. No vaccine, no clinically proven drug that treats COVID-19. We don’t even know if getting it once confers immunity. It is not justifiable to re-open now because that next wave of cases and deaths will have been predictable and preventable.

In short, we need to stay inside.

I am not anti-economy or anti-civil rights. My dad isn’t working, and paying for Stanford isn’t cheap. I wish I weren’t living with my parents again as if I were in high school. I’m scared I won’t find a job after college. But lives are on the line. These numbers are not stock prices or inflation percentages. They represent human lives lost, and the tragedy and sorrow their families experience.

This is not the time nor issue for partisan politics. We all need to demand adequate support from our government. The Paycheck Protection Program ran out of funds in two weeks because the government didn’t offer enough money to effectively help businesses and the economy. That is unacceptable.

In November, we can vote, either at the polls or by mail. We can demand a better healthcare system that will be able to support everyone equally. We can demand economic reforms so that people are not living at the edge of financial collapse during non-pandemic times. COVID-19 will still be around by then, so we should think hard about how we want our next government leaders to act.

At some point, we will be able to safely go outside again. But doing so right now will only delay the process, costing more money and, most important, more lives. 

Contact Caroline Kim at ckim99 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Caroline is a junior majoring in Chemical Engineering and minoring in Modern Languages. Some of her hobbies include baking (vegan) banana bread, dancing and thinking about how to make scientific knowledge more accessible to society.