As the state, and indeed the nation, grind to a social halt in pursuit of a passive counter measure, a few thoughts on the developing Wuhan coronavirus pandemic:
1. A few missteps and mistakes aside, which in any case ought not to be unexpected in the course of confronting the unprecedented, the government at each level has responded well. It is a testament to the strength of the American system that the federalist principle by which the American people govern themselves is working as it ought to and working well under the circumstances.
For all the criticism President Trump receives, not all of it unearned, his response has been in line with what one would expect from any president, albeit punctuated with his unique mannerisms. The travel restrictions — initially placed on China, from where the contagion originated, and later extended to Europe — were absolutely appropriate. Since then the federal government has been largely doing what is within its purview, offering resources and technical guidance as required to the states, to whom the bulk of responsibility for dealing with the crisis rests.
The crisis highlights, in part, the importance of the states in responding to such events, which is as it should be. Governors, for the most part, are more in tune with the unique and individual needs of their states, and in most cases can act quicker and far more efficiently than their federal counterparts.
2. For his part, Gov. Polis’ response has been, in the main, admirable as well. He will, without doubt, receive some degree of criticism and second-guessing at some point for his decisions — for instance, to close all restaurants, bars, ski resorts, and gyms — but he has had little choice. Like the president, the responsibility for the state at such a time is his, and given the information he is privy to, he is virtually obliged to consider and plan for the worst-case scenario, which when dealing with infectious disease can be pretty bleak. It may develop that his were overreactions, but he alone is the one who must live with the consequences should he guess wrong.
3. There is no doubt as to the severity of the epidemiological threat posed by the virus, nor of the necessity of the measures currently being employed to counteract it. Yes, but it is nevertheless true that a balancing act is required, between overreaction and prudence, and that act becomes more delicate as time progresses. It is also true that civic and state political leaders are naturally susceptible to the urge to “do one better,” which if not recognized and checked can create a sort of perverse competition to “out-respond” other jurisdictions. The economic impacts of imposed social distancing are, and will be, dire. An economy is based on exchange and trade, and those are difficult to accommodate, even in this electronic age, if we are all sequestered in our living rooms. All will be impacted, the effects ranging from prolonged inconvenience to financial catastrophe. Those effects will be deeper and more persistent the longer this goes on.
For the time being the public, by and large, is understanding and cooperating, but the longer the most severe restrictions continue the shorter will be the public fuse, and some will rebel. Ours is a society built upon freedom of movement and assembly, with several generations now unaccustomed to sacrifice or inconvenience. It is a question of cost-benefit, and at what point does the equation shift?
4. In responding to the need and desire to soften the economic blow, reflexive actions should be resisted. Some demand-side relief is in order, but $1000, even $5,000 checks distributed en masse will not do much if there is nowhere to spend it while everyone is socially distancing at home. Supply-side options, like those being aggressively pursued in Great Britain — loan guarantees, tax holidays and the like — will help fundamentally viable businesses weather the crisis and are economically wiser strategies to stave off a crippling recession.
5. Politics, to a limited extent, has given way to the exigencies of the moment; but that won’t last, and such considerations will grow in importance as the crisis either persists or we begin to emerge from it. In Colorado, the chief political question revolves around the suspension of the legislative session. The state Supreme Court is taking up the issue of whether the 120 days constitutionally allotted is consecutive or if the clock can simply stop and restart at a later date. The outcome of that decision will have serious implications for the continuation of the Democratic majority’s legislative agenda. Either way, it is likely that pursuit of that agenda will give way to considerable prioritization, which will be the source of all manner of drama and political maneuvering upon recommencement.
It is far too early to predict how long this will last, or what the lasting impacts will be. The best thing we can do to recover from the outbreak is to stop it. In this, it is important to recognize that government has an important role, but a limited one. It won’t — God forbid — be tanks and bayonets keeping Americans apart from one another. The self-policing of a self-governing people will be of greater impact — the “little platoons” of civil society, to borrow Burke’s phrase. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once wrote: “It is now the moment when by common consent we pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return.” Right now, that is to stay home.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.