Minnesota must recover from its pandemic of fear

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Star Tribune.

Minnesota has been in the grip of coronavirus hysteria for the last two months. We have submitted to unprecedented restrictions on our freedoms and stood by as our economy crashed, because politicians, experts and journalists have warned we face an end-of-the world scenario.

Gov. Tim Walz justified his first shutdown order with a mathematical model that predicted—horrifyingly—that 74,000 Minnesotans would die from COVID-19 without social distancing, and 50,000 even with the economic shutdown. A public health crisis remotely on that scale has not materialized. But an economic and social crisis has, and it is just beginning.

We have reached a critical moment. In his latest extension of the order, Walz decreed that our economic life will resume by unpredictable fits and starts, with no end-date for lifting the order in sight.

That is not good enough. We must insist on a detailed, transparent account of how—and whether—the executive branch, with its newly unchecked power, is fulfilling its duty to responsibly balance the risks from COVID-19 with the shutdown’s increasingly unbearable economic and social costs.

We will only get the truth if we demand it. But fear of two kinds is blocking accountability. The first is people’s fear of the virus. The second is government policy-makers’ fear of acknowledging that, by over-reacting, they have created a monster, a genie they don’t know how to put back in the bottle.

Today, an irrational panic seems to account for many Minnesotans’ tendency to defer unquestioningly to the government’s shutdown dictates. That panic springs from weeks of exposure to frenzied, overblown “body count” headlines, government briefings, and social media reports that claim we face a looming Armageddon.

The result has been a gross distortion of the threat’s real nature. For example, in a Harris poll, 57 percent of Millennials said they were afraid they would die of the virus. In fact, their risk of death is extremely low. The COVID-19 death rate for people ages 18-45 in New York City, the American epicenter of the pandemic, is only 0.01 percent. In Minnesota, the median age of coronavirus deaths is 83, with 99.24 percent of deaths involving nursing home residents or people with underlying medical conditions. Most people who contract the virus have relatively mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.

The fear on the part of politicians, which prevents a truthful accounting, is a different and more sinister matter.

Initially, Walz justified the shutdown as necessary to ensure hospitals got the ICU beds, ventilators and masks they need to prevent being overwhelmed by a COVID-19 surge. This laudable goal was achieved. But the expected surge did not materialize, and it became increasingly clear the danger is largely confined to a vulnerable population that can be protected without making every restaurant and small retailer in the state off-limits.

At the same time, the devastating—and foreseeable—costs of a one-size-fits-all economic shutdown began to become clear. More than 600,000 Minnesotans were thrown out of work, schools closed, our health system started to come apart, and countless business owners found bankruptcy staring them in the face. At the governor’s May 4 COVID-19 briefing, Liz Rammer, CEO of the industry association Hospitality Minnesota, stated that more than half her 2000 members—which include lodgings, restaurants, resorts and campgrounds—“face certain, permanent closure in the next two months on the current course.”

Our political leaders now find themselves trapped. They, along with the experts on whom they relied, have invested heavily in their narrative. There is little evidence they have carried out the kind of objective, data-based cost/benefit analysis that is indispensable to responsible crisis management. But having started down this road, they can’t change course without acknowledging that they have made a vast miscalculation.

Today, the shutdown appears to be a tactic in search of a strategy. The government has moved the goalposts. Now that we have enough ICU beds and ventilators, we are told testing and contact tracing are crucial before the economy can fully reopen. But this approach will not stop the virus, in part because of the high incidence of asymptomatic carriers. Until we have a vaccine or effective therapy, policies that prudently facilitate the development of herd immunity are the best way to counter the threat we face. Ironically, the shutdown is making that more difficult to achieve.

Minnesotans have been herded into a massive new regime of political control over the details of ordinary life. They have been pummeled by apocalyptic propaganda that urges them to comply. Those responsible include political leaders intent on extricating themselves from the disastrous steps they have taken, without acknowledging and reversing their mistakes, and a complicit media that refuses to criticize or ask hard questions.

We are giving up our rights with scarcely a whimper and no clear explanation of why government’s call to transform our way of life is justified. We must continue to take prudent precautions to minimize the virus’ impact and shift our focus to a diligent, targeted effort to protect the vulnerable. But the shutdown calamity must end.