Conservatives tend to be skeptical about the doom-and-gloom scenarios that are being presented as absolute certainties unless the country as a whole is essentially shut down for months. Many have called us “deniers” or accused us of valuing money over human life. But I believe that this skepticism is both eminently reasonable and will prove right in the long run.
Is it just me, asks a politically moderate friend, or is it mostly conservatives who are skeptical about the dangers involved in and the necessary precautions needed to contain the danger of the Wuhan corona virus? Why is that?
As one of the conservative friends he is probably thinking of, I’d like to answer him. I think he is right. Though there are some conservatives who do think that we are faced with an unparalleled medical crisis, and some liberals who are not, it is indeed more likely that conservatives are skeptical about the doom-and-gloom scenarios that are being presented as absolute certainties unless the country as a whole is essentially shut down for months. Many have expressed dismay about this skepticism, calling us “deniers” or simply accusing us of valuing money or our own comfort over human life. But this skepticism comes from a number of different reasons. While I think this skepticism, like any skepticism, can be taken too far absent other intellectual virtues, I think it is both eminently reasonable in the present case and will prove right in the long run.
Doubts about Apocalypses
It may seem odd to say that conservatives harbor skepticism about apocalyptic scenarios. Many of us are busy talking about the end of Western Civilization, or even civilization, quite often. One friend told me a couple years ago that her persistent fears about the collapse of civilization had eased once she had realized that it had collapsed already.
But we are also skeptical about claims that some particular future event will be the thing that ends it all. I grew up with the threat of nuclear war, acid rain, tainted Tylenol, the threat of cholesterol, and a whole host of strangely-garbed horsemen of the apocalypse. Over the years the number of scenarios being hawked by end-of-the-worlders has only grown larger. Just a list of the various doomsday situations over the last twenty years or so would fill a nice essay in itself. Y2K, anthrax, cell phone radiation, swine flu, bird flu, SARS, hormone replacements, transfats, and even net neutrality have been the proposed agents by which millions will soon die. Indeed, every potential snowfall is announced as “Snowmageddon” before it happens. Alongside of these apocalyptic horsepersons (to keep with our genderless times), we have a running theme of the Pale Rider of Atmospheric Carbon and its climate change scythe to fill in when there isn’t something new to threaten us with: the end of snowfalls! The end of the world in twelve years!
We conservatives are actually pretty certain of the fire next time. But the little boxes of matches being proposed are not impressive to us. Coronavirus will take many lives, for sure, but the media and government agencies setting their hair on fire do not inspire confidence in their predictive powers.
This particular apocalypse came wrapped in politics from first to last. It was seen as a continuation of the last three years of reporting by major outlets that was less about the truth than it was about OrangeManBad. We had just gotten off three years of phony claims about “Russian Collusion” and other alleged evils when this virus hit the news. To say that the coverage seemed more about Trump and less about the disease would be an understatement. While many media outlets such as the Washington Post and Vox actually began their coverage by saying the corona virus was not as bad as a flu and that President Trump’s ban on flights from China was “racist,” they soon pivoted to full-blown panic, or at least a pretense of it, when Mr. Trump took a more hopeful stance toward the disease. The pretense was not very convincing because it was too often conveyed with a delight that this might be “Trump’s Katrina” (as a number of journalists said) and thus the end of his presidency. They proceeded to pretend to outrage at the president’s reference to it as the “Chinese virus,” though they had used such epithets themselves. They engaged in every sort of absurd gotcha attempt possible and then used Chinese government talking points against our administration. Recently, media figures, who up until five minutes ago were upset that the President didn’t do enough White House press briefings and answer enough questions (often accusatory speeches) from reporters, are now demanding that those press briefing not be televised. This might have something to do with the President’s rising poll numbers and not any concern with the public’s right to know.
Indeed, the political reaction to the disease has been evident in the corona virus bill still trying to get by the House as I write. Democrats seemed to believe this was really an opportunity to shove in all sorts of progressive and liberal goodies into a bill aimed at relieving businesses and workers of the burdens of shutdowns, putting in all sorts of unrelated goo such as corporate board diversity mandates and wind and solar tax breaks. As South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn supposedly told his colleagues, “This is a tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision.” As I write, the Senate has passed a version of the bill by a vote of 96-0. But Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is still hesitating and making promises to get around to it later. If Republicans were in charge of the House, there would be an immediate cry about playing politics to the detriment of lives.
If the point of an apocalypse is simply to leverage upcoming elections and get legislation passed that would not see the light of day otherwise—and liberals and progressives are willing to postpone or delay emergency measures because of such concerns—conservatives are not going to take it as seriously.
A Real Problem—of Knowledge
Of course most conservatives I know got over the skepticism of the sensationalism and the politicization of the virus fairly quickly. That is, they do believe that the Wuhan Virus is indeed a real problem and a threat. True, a few still hold to the idea that this is a Deep State action to get rid of President Trump. I don’t think that holds up in the face of world-wide reports, from places friendly to our country and president to those that are not. The question, however, for almost all is not whether it is a problem, but what the extent of the problem is and what are the proper measures used to contain it.
Concerning the first, we do know that this particular virus seems to be deadly to a small portion of the population that contracts it. Much of the talk among friends who are desperately worried comes from an Imperial College London study that predicted that as many as 1.2 million Americans would die from this disease even with serious mitigations strategies, largely because that small portion of the population for whom it is dangerous would take up needed intensive care unit space and ventilators that are not very plentiful in many states. They assumed massive proportions of the population would contract the virus, thus the goal to “flatten the curve” of those getting it so that they would not overwhelm our hospital capacity. Many have looked at the study and concluded we will have 2 million deaths.
One of the talking points of those who took this worst-case scenario was that the growth in the disease would be “exponential” rather than arithmetic. Much was made of people being unable to understand exponential growth. Of course most people do understand exponential growth; it is often the basis of get-rich-quick schemes.
The difficulty is that such exponential growth relies on there always being more people to infect (or bring in to one’s pyramid scheme). But at a certain point, such exponential growth breaks down. First, many people don’t constantly come into contact with new people on a regular basis. They see many of the same people on their usual daily business of work and shopping. Second, some portion of the population has already contracted the virus previously and now are immune to it. Third, because of the early warnings about it, large portions of the population have modified their daily behavior in terms of personal contact, hygiene, and business practices.
Concerning the second point, we really don’t know who has contracted the virus already and come away unscathed because we haven’t tested enough of the population. My in-laws, who live in Snohomish County, Washington, where the first outbreak came in a nursing home, suspect that a January-February illness bearing many of the symptoms associated with the virus was indeed the virus. They don’t know with absolute certainty because their symptoms were rather mild. Many other people in different parts of the country think the same about their illnesses. No doubt not all of them are correct, but we simply do not know this. I know a family in which four of the five members are all being treated as if they have the illness but none have been tested because they are not in the high risk group; a friend who works at a local university tells me he knows at least ten other similar cases. There could be many, many more. If true, the percentage of the population that had it and did not die will be much larger than our current statistics have it (and the population available for infecting has decreased). Thus, even exponential growth might not yield the same death rates if the virus is not as deadly as has been maintained and people have been mitigating its spread in all sorts of ways.
Indeed, there have been a great many skeptics taking on these doomsday scenarios. Dr. John Ioannidas, professor of medicine, epidemiology, and biostatistics and also co-director of the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS) at Stanford University, has written a number of pieces warning about drastic measures taken based on bad information. Doctors Eran Bendavid and Jay Bhattacharya, colleagues at Stanford, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about a number of ways in which the modeling used by those making decisions might have mis-estimated the number of those who have already gotten the virus and those who could yet contract it by many orders of magnitude. A study by a team at Oxford University also concludes that a model indicating the UK is at a different place in the pandemic’s curve has a great deal of merit. It is not certain, but then again, neither is the Imperial College modeling.
The problem that those who are angry with our skepticism have to face is that they are relying on experts who don’t have all the data. Experts, however, don’t always agree.
Not only are these factors of knowledge in play, but U.S. businesses are hard at work on all sorts of projects to expand our medical capacity and treat the illness. G.M. and Ford are converting assembly lines to create more ventilators for the U.S. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are hard at work on a project to build ventilators from standard available medical equipment for a cost of about $500 per unit. Many clinical trials for vaccines have already begun both in the U.S. and abroad. If one of them works, we could have it available in a little over a year. Success has been found treating some patients who already have the virus with several different drugs already available for use with other drugs like malaria.
The difficulty with the “it’s exponential, stupid” crowd is that they are assuming not only that deaths will increase many times what they are now, but that they will stay that way. For those saying we will lose 2 million Americans over the next eighteen months, they have to assume that we will average nearly 3700 deaths per day every day during that time. Even 1.2 million would require 2200 deaths per day. I am certainly willing to believe that this virus might end up killing or contributing to the deaths of several times the number killed by our annual flu. But do the predictions seem reasonable given all that’s being done not only to change our behavior but also to solve the problem?
Uncertain Knowledge versus Certain Facts
I don’t think so. Even Neil Ferguson, the lead author of the Imperial College study has recently revised his own calculations about the UK from 500,000 deaths down to 20,000 or fewer. I wonder what he says about the US now? Yet calculations like these that are driving the shut-downs of “non-essential” businesses in many states. The governor of my state, Minnesota, yesterday announced a stay-at-home executive order that will last until April 10. At the time Governor Walz announced this shut-down, there was precisely one death in our state and 287 confirmed cases. (The day after Worldometer tells me we have added a second death.) Yet the calculations justifying keeping so many businesses shuttered are that almost two-and-a-half million more Minnesotans will contract the virus, resulting in sixty thousand in-patients at Minnesota hospitals simply for this virus. A friend who thinks that the governor’s decision was at least reasonable defends it on the basis that with uncertain knowledge, it is best to plan based on the worst-case assumption. I might be tempted to agree with this claim if there weren’t all of the other things mentioned before.
Conservatives who doubt the wisdom of such measures that have economic destruction attached to them are regularly accused of malice and valuing money over life. Yet we do have figures for those who are out of work. The week that ended on March 21 saw a record 3.283 million people filing for unemployment. While some of these jobs will come back when businesses are allowed to reopen, many small businesses will be closed for good. The resulting economic destruction will have many health effects from the postponing of treatments to despair-induced behaviors not limited to substance abuse and suicides. Besides all these factors, the longer the shut-downs continue, the more we might look forward to people violating them—especially if the numbers of deaths are not anywhere near the catastrophic predictions of the wonks. This is a threat to public order.
Conservatives don’t doubt, of course, that shelter-in-place orders might be necessary in certain places. Seventy percent of the deaths thus far have come from six coastal states with large city populations and lots of travel: New York (whose deaths are about a third of the U.S.’s as a whole), Washington, California, New Jersey, Georgia, and Louisiana. The incidents there should give pause to those who want everyone to be densely packed and only have mass transportation and reusable bags for their shopping. But the continued insistence that places where the number of flu or automobile accident deaths continue to dwarf the number of deaths related to the virus must continue to shutter their economies is going to be met with increasing agitation.
I find that many of the people insisting that the risks are too great to keep open “non-essential” businesses or allow people to leave their homes often have salary-based employment and work capable of being done at home. True, the economic consequences of these shut-downs will affect their investments, but they won’t stop their paychecks immediately. Based on these people’s certainties, however, a great many blue-collar workers whose lives are not simply a matter of adjusting their stock portfolios or making sure the wi-fi at home allows them to keep consulting, are going to be struggling to survive. Those who regularly talk about the poor who don’t have enough savings to last more than a week are strangely quiet now.
Conservative skepticism about the wisdom of this approach is not a “conspiracy theory” and not a callousness about life, but a wisdom about making decisions based on risks and uncertainties. We do know that we will have many deaths. We will probably need to keep social distancing for the near future. We will have to change how we operate many businesses. We will, sadly, have to forego not only large-group events among the healthy but possibly asymptomatic but also in-person visits to those who are most at-risk. The elderly and those with health disorders that make them vulnerable will have to deal with more loneliness and isolation. That is one of the sad aspects of this crisis.
But it is better that we have to keep some part of the population isolated and keep social distancing until further knowledge is available than that we keep the whole country shut down and isolated and cause untold economic damage that will itself have health repercussions. We have options for allowing businesses to go on with some new regulations about how to keep both workers and customers safe. Tennessee has smartly decided to go that route. We can continue to ban large group meetings for a while. What we cannot do is to continue to make drastic decisions that affect the lives of millions of people on the basis of worst-case scenarios that do not factor in either our lack of knowledge about where in the curve we are or the mitigation being done by changes of habits or the different kinds of living arrangements in different locales or the strides taken by states, the medical establishment, and businesses to mitigate the crisis if the numbers of significantly ill do shoot up.
Conservative skepticism has its limits, but in this pandemic they have not been reached.
This essay first appeared here in March 2020.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 For the study, see here: “Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID- 19 mortality and healthcare demand.”
 For one, see here: John P.A. Ioannidis, “A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data,” Stat, March 17, 2020.
 Eran Bendavid and Jay Beatacharya, “Is the Coronavirus as Deadly as They Say?” The Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2020.
 Andrew Mark Miller, “Imperial College scientist who predicted 500k coronavirus deaths in UK adjusts to 20k or fewer,” Washington Examiner, March 26, 2020.
 “Gov. Bill Lee Signs Executive Order Mandating Alternative Business Models for Restaurants and Gyms, Lifts Alcohol Regulations,” Office of Governor Bill Lee, March 22, 2020.
The featured image is courtesy of Unsplash.