So you think we should reopen the country?

The personal concern of “will I (or someone I love) become infected?” is not the scariest problem we have.

Coronavirus protests at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, April 18, 2020.
Coronavirus protests at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, April 18, 2020. © Ɱ / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

*(Updated April 23, 2020.)*

his past week, people protested stay-at-home orders in several states, often bolstered by bizarre tweets of encouragement from the President to violate recommendations he himself has made.

“The government, at all levels, has overstepped its authority in their request to ‘protect’ Americans from a virus,” Mary Burkett, a Republican candidate for Utah’s 2nd congressional district who participated in a demonstration in Washington County, Utah, said in a news release.

“The American citizen is perfectly capable of deciding how to best protect themselves,” she added.

Are you, though? Because it seems to me that you don’t even know what the real danger is.

If you’ve been thinking that stay-at-home orders, social distancing and mask requirements go too far in prioritizing safety over liberty, consider this:

The personal concern of “will I (or someone I love) become infected?” is not the scariest problem we have.

The scariest problem we have is that, if we allow the virus to spread without restraint, we will:

  1. Overwhelm local and regional healthcare systems with too many cases of COVID-19 too quickly;
  2. Burn out, infect and decimate our healthcare staff (highly skilled workers who are not easily or quickly replaced);
  3. Dangerously diminish everyone’s access to adequate medical attention for everything (broken legs, head injuries, cancer, you name it).

The scariest problem we have is not that some people will die of COVID (even though the deaths are heartbreaking).

The scariest problem we have, the one that looms on the opposing side of the “should we reopen the country” debate, is the collapse of our healthcare systems.

If you can think back to the national conversation in March (it seems like forever ago, I know), THIS was the primary fear. This is why we sought to “flatten the curve,” or slow down the rate of infection so that medical staff and facilities could keep up while still maintaining a high standard of care for other illnesses and injuries. This was the nightmare in Italy.

This was the reason that stay-at-home orders were proposed in the first place.

The fact that the majority of Americans remain untouched by COVID-wrought tragedy — so untouched, that going back to normal seems like a good idea — reveals just how much those stay-at-home orders have helped. To rebel against the very measures that are keeping devastation at bay would be stunningly unwise.

The Michigan Nurses Association issued a statement calling the recent protest in Lansing, Michigan, “irresponsible” and saying it “sends exactly the opposite message that nurses and healthcare professionals are trying to get across: we are begging people, please stay home.”

Nurses in Arizona were outright harassed by protestors at the Arizona state capitol on Monday, some of whom yelled, “You’re a virus,” and accused them of being crisis actors. Nurses peacefully counter-protesting in Denver, Colorado were honked at, yelled at, and told to “go to China.” The photojournalist who captured the scene in Denver later left the protest, saying, “I didn’t feel safe, healthwise,” because many protesters at the demonstration didn’t have masks on and weren’t practicing social distancing.

Our Constitutional rights do not end because there’s a pandemic. But we all have choices about how to exercise our rights at the moment. A majority of Americans oppose these protests, thankfully, because, to me, they seem about as patriotic as shoving your grandparents into traffic.

Every one of those protestors who packed together to yell into the windows of the Ohio statehouse, or who stood next to each other, yelling, on the capitol steps in Michigan, will be going to the grocery store, to the pharmacy, (to the ER), or to some other essential business sometime in the next few weeks, and because of their callous disregard for their own exposure, they are now all potential vectors for many other people’s illness — not just their own.

The idea that stay-at-home orders are there in order to ‘protect Americans from a virus,’ as Burkett put it, is viciously misleading. This is not about saving individual people from getting sick. People are going to get sick, and people will die. This is about saving our healthcare system from absolute disaster, and our national treasure of healthcare professionals from being crushed by a tsunami of illness that could have been prevented.

The stay-at-home orders are not the problem.

The problem is that people are stuck at home with no income, and no support from the same government that is asking them to stay home. Instead of being angry at staying home, consider getting angrier about the lack of support.

That one-time $1,200 stimulus check and the Payroll Protection Program loans for small business that seemed to evaporate as soon as the bill was signed, are simply not enough to get people through the duration of this. Other countries are doing a much better job of protecting people’s livelihoods and public health at the same time. This level of danger to our economy is not necessary — it’s being created by our government’s unwillingness, whether out of greed or incompetence or narrow-mindedness, to do what needs to be done to meet the needs of the present moment.

There are things that only government can do.

Instead of protesting stay-at-home orders, how about protesting the lack of widespread, easily accessible testing? How about protesting the federal government’s lackadaisical attitude toward contact-tracing? How about pressuring elected officials to put everything they have toward increasing hospital capacity?

Epidemiology experts have created a four-step checklist of what needs to be done in order to safely re-open states. The steps are clear, uncomplicated and obvious. In order to safely re-open the country, epidemiology experts say we need to massively increase testing, contact-tracing, and hospital capacity.

So when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced his plan to re-open some non-essential businesses in Georgia, the public response should have been…

Where are the tests?

Where are the new safety and contact-tracing protocols?

Where are the new N95 masks, ventilators, hospital beds and hospital resources?

In the absence of those things, the math and the models are clear: re-opening will inevitably lead to the same awful end that we sought to prevent by closing in the first place.

There are other things that only we can do.

COVID-19 infection spreads exponentially outward from a single person who is infected, who may have zero symptoms and no clue that they’re spreading it. That means you. That means your loved ones. It means me, too. We may be carrying it right now. So, what are we going to do about it?

There are two questions Americans need to come to grips with immediately:

  • Are we civic-minded enough to behave in a way that protects others and our healthcare system, even if it means that we sacrifice a little of our own personal liberty?
  • Are we large-minded enough to see that protecting others in lots of small ways now, actually protects us all in a few big ways, just a few short weeks down the road?

Much of our future for the rest of this year and the next depends on the behavior of individuals. It depends on us. If we truly want to get back to a semblance of normalcy, every single one of us must commit to the behavior changes necessary to make that possible, and #1 amongst them is:

  • Stay home or away from other people as much as you possibly can. Even if you can go out, it doesn’t mean you should. The virus does not care what your state government says. It doesn’t care if you live in a rural area, and it doesn’t care whether you’re going to church, the grocery store, or a funeral. It spreads through contact with other people.

Do not become a vector. Care enough, about your neighbors and local healthcare professionals, to not make this worse.

If you need evidence that this strategy will work, look to New Zealand.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took decisive action early — she closed the borders, enforced strict shelter-in-place orders, and deployed intensive contact-tracing and quarantine strategies.

More importantly, though… the people of New Zealand cooperated. They stayed at home.

So far, only 13 people have died, and the entire country had just five new cases on Tuesday. New Zealand is on-track to eliminate novel coronavirus from the island, not just flatten the curve.

The virus “doesn’t have superpowers,” said Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccine expert at the University of Auckland.

“Once transmission is stopped, it’s gone.”

You want this to be over? Then do what it takes.

To suggest that it’s only government that is preventing us from reopening the country is like saying that the only reason you don’t murder people is because it’s illegal. We have a moral imperative to behave responsibly right now, and to understand the real risk of trying to go back to normal too quickly and too soon.

Tap in to your resiliency. Demand that government do a better job of supporting people who have lost income and stability, so that we all have what we need to stay the course.

“We’re all in this together” has no meaning, unless we understand what’s at stake, and we’re willing to sacrifice to protect it.

A.M. Carter earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. She writes about philosophy, science, politics and current events.

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