In March, politicians and experts argued that a lockdown was necessary to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases so our hospitals would not be overwhelmed. When cases peaked in April, with few exceptions, our nation’s hospitals weren’t even close to being overwhelmed. From April through early July, nationwide hospital occupancy never rose above 67%. Pennsylvania’s topped out at 72%. This may have been because the lockdown was successful. But even if that were the case, we still ended up with one-third of hospital beds remaining empty. We never saw the massive overwhelming of our health-care system that the gloomiest forecasts predicted.
As the need for curve flattening passed, politicians shifted the rationale for the lockdown to halting the transmission of the virus. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf extended Pennsylvania’s disaster emergency, claiming that “the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be of such magnitude or severity that emergency action is necessary.…” For evidence, he points to the almost 7,500 Pennsylvanians who have died over the past five months. But the lion’s share of those deaths occurred in April and May. In August, fewer than 500 Pennsylvanians died of COVID-19. While every death is a cause for concern, to put that number in perspective, 11,000 Pennsylvanians die in a typical month from non-COVID causes.
We are four months past achieving the lockdown’s original goal, yet in many states, the lockdown continues. As time passes, we are coming to know two things. First, the lockdown is far more expensive than politicians imagined. Already, one-third of small businesses in New York City have closed permanently. If the same is true across the rest of the country, we could end up losing 10 million small businesses. The unemployment rate is higher than at the peak of the Great Recession. Second, COVID-19 is less deadly to the general population than previously thought.
While the immediate threat of COVID-19 is significantly reduced, politicians are looking for excuses to maintain their control over people. This is clearer perhaps nowhere than in schools. Yet here, the nation’s colleges and universities might be leading the way back to normalcy, if only inadvertently.
Many American colleges and universities are conducting all classes remotely. Others, having a need to justify charging students for room and board, are implementing hybrid models wherein some students attend classes in person, while others participate remotely.
The hybrid model is largely virus-theater. Requiring students to wear masks and to maintain social distancing in public areas won’t mean much if students are taking the masks off in the privacy of their dorms, and paying the same heed to social distancing policies as they do to alcohol policies. And almost everywhere, bars are open and parties are happening.
What will colleges and universities do when inevitable COVID-19 outbreaks occur? They’ll send everyone home and go fully remote — which is what Temple University announced it’s doing Thursday, after trying the hybrid theater. In other words, the nation’s colleges and universities have become giant petri dishes for incubating COVID-19. When enough students are infected, universities will send them back whence they came, blanketing the country with freshly infected, but otherwise healthy, people. In turn, that will increase the likelihood of politicians keeping lockdowns in place.
But allowing college students to infect each other might not be the worst option — if it’s managed properly.
Fifteen- to 24-year-olds comprise less than two-tenths of 1% of U.S. COVID deaths. Meanwhile, 80% of COVID deaths have been among people 65 and older. The right answer might be to adopt a version of what Sweden did and protect our most vulnerable citizens while letting the rest catch the virus and develop immunities. Sweden didn’t lock down its people, nor shut down its economy, yet Sweden’s COVID fatality rate is the same as that of the United States.
This surely won’t sound right to politicians who are intent on “doing something.” But we should be keenly aware that no political actor or body can prevent all deaths, no matter how badly they might want to.
Eventually, there will be a vaccine. But when is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, we may end up with a workable interim solution by letting young, healthy people do all the things that young, healthy people do, while keeping them within the confines of their universities and away from the most vulnerable of our population.
Antony Davies (@AntonyDavies) is an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James R. Harrigan (@JamesRHarrigan) is the managing director of the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona. They host the weekly podcast, “Words & Numbers.”