Local Commentary

Editorial: ‘Social Distancing’

Yesterday, the World Health Organization reclassified the coronavirus epidemic as a pandemic, a technical yet important development. Given this, and warnings from the German Chancellor Angela Merkel that up to 70 percent of the population of her country may wind up becoming infected by the virus, the fact that there have been only 5,000 Americans tested for the virus at this point reflects an almost criminal negligence on the part of the Trump administration. As bad are efforts by the Trump administration to suppress the spread of accurate public information about it.

Developments are unfolding at a warp speed, and the one thing we can be certain of is that this as-yet-poorly understood virus will be continuing to infect and, in many cases, endanger and take the lives of exponentially growing numbers of people worldwide.

So far, the only hopeful sign of containing the pandemic comes from China, where drastic quarantine and “social distancing” policies have reportedly lowered the “effective reproductive rate,” the rate at which an individual infects others, radically. According to a study cited by Nicholas Christakis of Yale University, the reproductive rate has dropped from 3.8 per person to 0.32 as a result of the severe “social distancing” measures taken there. If the number drops below 1.0, the virus will not spread. Social distancing involves breaking potential chains of transmission by preventing infected people from coming in close contact with healthy ones.

While all the commentaries note the special circumstances that an authoritarian government like China represents, and its lack of concern for the discomfort millions of its citizens experience under severe quarantine conditions, the fact that such a dramatic drop in the “reproductive rate” has occurred so quickly constitutes at least a hope that the pandemic can be brought under control worldwide. So that makes it doubly troubling when someone like Trump’s head of the Department of Health and Human Services Alex Azar says on national TV that it is a matter of “individual choice” what the public response to the crisis should be.

This form of extreme nihilistic libertarianism that runs U.S. public policy making threatens to make the U.S. population among the most vulnerable to an uncontrolled spread of the virus in the world right now.

In this regard, we remain alarmed by the slow response of so many of our public officials, school authorities and governments in this region. Yes, reminders to wash hands, cough into elbows and stay home if sick help, but they do not include effective social distancing policies. So far, no student road trips, classes or public events have been cancelled, although there is planning underway behind the scenes.

There is a lot that can be done without having to mimic China, but it does require leadership. If nothing is coming from the White House, it is up to leaders at the state and local level to act.