Responding to a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic requires staying focused on what could be done differently and better, rather than assigning blame for what turned out to have been mistaken.
That is the whole basis for science — developing a strong hypothesis, implementing it while watching for where it’s weak, and then making a new stronger proposal based on what was discovered in the attempt.
New Jersey and New York had the misfortune to be the earliest, biggest COVID-19 hotspot in America, so their elected officials and medical communities had to fight the virus with little specific understanding of how to reduce its spread or treat the illness it causes. That plus dense populations often in close quarters ensured high numbers of cases and deaths.
Much was learned that is benefiting the southern and western states where this initial wave of coronavirus now has spread and surged. The need to protect vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with underlying conditions is well understood. When to use ventilators, oxygen supplements and even how to position patients turned out to be different than pre-pandemic practices. All this will help reduce coronavirus mortality.
If those other states are paying sufficient attention, they’ll also see that simple, honest and transparent messaging more effectively encourages people to behave in ways that slow the spread of the virus.
There is still a lot of confusion in New Jersey over what the government is ordering, advising and enforcing. This is partly a product of four months (and counting) of “emergency” rule by Gov. Phil Murphy, whose daily pronouncements are complicated, changeable and incomplete.
The latest, for example, is two-week quarantines for travelers to New Jersey from (as of Tuesday) 22 states experiencing growing COVID case-loads (but still a fraction of New Jersey’s peak). That’s obviously not enforceable, so it’s an advisory — one made knowing that few will follow it. If the real purpose was to remind people that other places might now pose more risk of contagion than New Jersey and to act accordingly, saying that clearly would have been better.
Even the esteemed infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has learned the hard way that honesty and clarity work better. At the end of April he tweeted that masks were “not effective in preventing” COVID-19 in the general public, adding, “Seriously people — stop buying masks!” He wanted to prevent people from snapping up the virus-blocking N-95 masks that medical personnel needed and had trouble getting. Later it turned out the virus mainly spreads by droplets that can be reduced by people wearing regular cloth masks, so he strongly urged their use indoors and in close proximity. Some trust and effectiveness was lost.
For the rest of this year everyone will be figuring out how to live and work with a contagious virus that can only be slowed, not stopped. Mistakes will be made and much more will be learned.
Everyone has done a generally good job. Everyone is getting better at this. The goal of keeping health and economic destruction to reasonably tolerable levels looks doable.
There is no basis for trying to blame COVID deaths on governmental or health officials for decisions made with insufficient information and often under pressure and time constraints. The eventual coronavirus spread, development of vaccines, almost certain mutation of the virus and ultimate death rates and economic slump won’t be known or even reliably estimated for months, maybe years.
Officials are trying their best to balance the public’s conflicting desires for a little less disease and a little more normal life — completely legitimate but competing and even conflicting desires. Don’t blame them. Let them focus on doing their best in their challenging work.
And people shouldn’t blame themselves if their actions result in a less than optimal health or personal finance outcome in this historic global crisis. So much is beyond their control.
Let’s try see what could have been done better and resolve to do better going forward. Then look ahead for what else can be improved. The path out of the pandemic and economic slump is in that direction.