Coronavirus lessons: Fact and reason vs. paranoia and fear

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[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Politics.]

By William J. Bennett & Seth Leibsohn
Real Clear Politics

Given the most recent mortality rates and modeling, it appears that the death toll in America from coronavirus will end up looking a lot like the annual fatality numbers from the flu. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Washington state is now projecting 68,841 potential deaths in America. It is also estimating lower ranges than that. The flu season of 2017-2018 took 61,099 American lives. For this we have scared the hell out of the American people, shut down the economy, ended over 17 million jobs, taken trillions of dollars out of the economy, closed places of worship, and massively disrupted civic life as we know it. Some of our major public officials tell us, still, that there will be no returning to a status quo, that we will have to get used to a new normal. We strongly disagree with that mindset.

A panic and hysteria over a pandemic that does not look to be what so many frightened us into thinking has radically degraded this country. What should be the major lessons learned here? How did we go from an ethos of “Let’s Roll!” when America was hit by a major attack from outside forces two decades ago to “Let’s roll up in a ball”?

First, New York City is where the epidemic has struck the hardest. The media is centered in New York City. Although sensationalism is not new, something in the 21st century media landscape is: Reporting the news has been replaced with raising alarms, heightening political tensions, and funneling information through a strictly partisan lens. Lost is the notion that if something is too bad to be true — or too good to be true — it probably is not true. Conspiracy theories and extreme rhetoric have replaced fact and reason, as well as reasonableness. These dark impulses have been aided and abetted by a series of left-wing notions that have come to dominate our politics, giving us a new “paranoid style in American politics.”

In the 1970s, professor Paul Ehrlich, author of “The Population Bomb,” gained a huge following for predicting, incorrectly, that “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.” In the 1980s, we were scared into believing a nuclear winter would create a human and climatic catastrophe, killing over one billion people because of “a precipitous drop in the Earth’s temperatures and widespread failure of crops, leading to deadly famine.” In the 1990s up through Greta Thunberg’s “Person of the Year” designation, climate change (no longer a warming or a cooling, just “change”) presaged “no tomorrow,” while “entire ecosystems are collapsing.” We have seen much the same fright-inducing extreme rhetoric with our domestic politics.

Aided and abetted by its mainstream media enablers and ideological soulmates, the left has warped our political rhetoric to a point beyond reason, impeding our ability to make calm and rational assessments. President Trump, for example, is not wrong or too conservative — he’s an “existential threat to America” and “worse than Hitler,” and, of course, responsible for all the deaths from COVID-19. From the left’s social to political rhetoric of extremism and worst-case scenarios, we’ve been conditioned to hyperbolic exaggeration; we’ve been numbed into implausible raving.

Thus, when the virus came to our shores, Americans were primed enough to accept and cower in front of models of death telling us that two million of us would be killed. Now, after the damage was ignited by shutdowns and panic, the social destruction of this irresponsible fearmongering will take a long time to undo. Whipping the population into a frenzy and panic, is, as Abraham Lincoln warned us long ago, not healthy for the perpetuation of our political institutions.

Or any other institution. As part of our national affright, we engaged in a shuttering of our best forces of composition — such as churches, synagogues, schools — and our venues for physical exercise. Just at the time of their greatest needs, these services were ordered to be shut down. Thus, no surprise: over the course of the past six weeks, suicide hotline calls, alcohol abuse, and other instances of substance abuse and domestic violence have increased. More social destruction will ensue.

Lesson Two: Although houses of worship were closed this past weekend, the message of strength, courage, and “be not afraid” should be our first instincts as Americans.

Ronald Reagan popularized the notion of “Trust, but verify.” Americans need to use that approach with our own leaders, and with the “experts” who issue dire warnings. Even those who are well-meaning and highly credentialed are not omniscient. We should listen, but verify. Medical patients given a grim prognosis usually want a second opinion. We should want that as a polity, too.

Lesson Three: Disaggregate the data. If there is a vulnerable population — and there is here — encourage appropriate and reasonable measures. Resist zealous generalizations that lead to vast distributions of misery and hardship. The chances of a younger person and an older person acquiring this disease, much less dying from it, are not the same. And both are small. No doctor would treat a 40-year-old from Boise the same way he or she would treat an 80-year-old from Queens. Neither should our nation treat the body politic the same way.

Lesson Four: Understand there is public health, and there is public health. Does a virus that may take as many Americans as the seasonal flu require an upending of literally everything in our life, work, and recreational activity, affecting so much more of our other health, including mental health? Does it require a response that will lead to other deaths and diseases of despair from substance abuse and suicide ideation to domestic violence, all while curbing of our civic health and constitutional rights as well?

Lesson Five: Do not be impervious to good or hopeful news. Compare this virus’ numbers and prognoses to other numbers and prognoses we have taken for granted without even knowing it. When data reveals that there is a .007% chance of dying from this disease in America, report that. When evidence shows there may be extant medicines that can treat the virus, encourage rather than anathematize that.

If there is one over-arching lesson uniting all others, it is to remember our Lincoln. Early on, he asked, “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” He answered that if danger ever reaches our shores, “it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Ignoring these lessons will augur poorly for us in the near term and perhaps severely in our next crisis, setting precedents we may never be able to overcome.

William J. Bennett is the former secretary of education and director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy.

Seth Leibsohn is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and the host of “The Seth Leibsohn Show,” heard daily on 960am/KKNT in Phoenix, Ariz.

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Politics.]

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