Pandemic Priorities in the Face of Uncertainty

Last week, this space on this blog addressed concerns about overconfidence in judgments about the COVID pandemic, and intimated that some humility is in order, especially on the part of the experts doing the advising and opining.

Now turn the perspective around—humility is in order on the part of us non-experts, receiving and reacting to the experts’ advice.

At this writing, while precision is ever-elusive, it is clear that the number of infections is increasing at an accelerating rate in several states and localities across the United States.  How many of these infected people will require hospitalization, or will die, remains to be seen, but concerns are raised that hospital systems in some areas will be stressed—perhaps not to the degree that New York City or northern Italy saw earlier this year, we certainly hope not—but stressed nonetheless.

And there is a rush to apportion blame, especially to “the other side” of our current, apparently intractable political split.  But, again, humility is in order.

First, hindsight is 20-20, as the old saw goes, and it’s easy to find misjudgments among various public officials.  Some may prove to have been honest, some less so, but scapegoat-hunting seems of little use, except to try to win the next election.

Second, the public health officials have not been purposefully lying to us.  They have generally made their best efforts.  We might rightly take them to task for letting certain value judgments bleed into their scientific assessments.  But there remains much that we just don’t know. 

Third, wearing masks is not principally an issue of rights.  It’s a matter of prudence and neighborliness.  We should wear them in public.

Fourth, we can’t say exactly why the infection rate is increased.  More contact between people, sure.  But which ones?  That remains to be determined.  My local newspaper says today that in my county (San Diego County, CA), family parties of 10-20 people gathered in households appear to be the source of outbreaks.  And maybe gambling casinos. 

Fifth, what is really “essential?”  People need to be able to work and earn a living.  Perhaps we can grant them that, do everything we can to protect them and the rest of us in the process, and voluntarily limit exposures that really aren’t critical.  Some calls may be contentious, I know—should we limit hip replacements while folks can get their nails done, or buy marijuana of dubious medical need?  In a free society we don’t have a Platonic philosopher-king to walk us through that, but we might be willing to offer some tradeoffs and continue to try to help those who suffer loss because of it.

Sixth, we don’t know what outdoor group gatherings have or have not promoted spread.

Seventh, while there is merit from a civics standpoint in asserting that churches ought to be able to meet, there is also merit from a Christian citizens’ standpoint in bearing delays in meeting patiently, and laboring, as the hymn says, to “preach Christ, as love knows how, with witness true and virtuous life” (emphasis mine).

The above are only the opinions of your correspondent.  And the larger priority questions—of health care disparities, priorities of high-tech vs low-tech ethical issues, of different areas of medical care that are being “rationed” from time to time these days—are for future posts here.

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