Guest columnist Michael Alterman: Greater balance needed in COVID-19 policy

  • Lee Douchkoff of Westhampton pauses at the closed entrance to Look Park in Florence on April 4. gazette file photo

Published: 8/10/2020 4:21:14 PM
Modified: 8/10/2020 4:20:59 PM

From the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Massachusetts, I have been deeply troubled by our community’s response.

COVID-19 presents us with a dilemma: Since passing germs from one person to another is an inescapable outcome of human interaction, any effort to slow the spread of the virus will inevitably cause significant social disruption. Our goal should be to balance a very difficult equation: minimizing illness and death from the virus while doing as little damage as possible to the economy and society.

But instead of facing up to this task with balance as our goal, the predominant response in our community has been to focus on stopping the spread of the virus to the exclusion of all other concerns.

“Public health, public health, public health,” as Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle was quoted in these pages on March 17. State and local governments have obliged with what should for the sake of accuracy be called social isolation policies — closures, stay-at-home orders, physical distancing, masks. When the costs of these policies have been acknowledged at all, it has been merely as regrettable but unavoidable consequences of the imperative to stop the virus. Only rarely, if ever, has the argument been made that we should consider accepting more illness and death in order to mitigate the costs of social isolation.

Resolving the dilemma this way, by pretending it doesn’t exist, gives us a sense of control and moral certainty in the midst of frightening and unpredictable circumstances. It allows us to feel that we are exercising virtue and compassion by putting on a mask, and in an uglier vein, to exercise judgment on those who refuse to do so, or who otherwise protest or dissent.

But the costs to the commonwealth and the country have been severe, and will only grow worse as time goes on.

Some of these costs have been immediate and plain for all to see: Record-breaking unemployment. Millions of small businesses hanging by a thread. The economy on the brink of another Great Depression.

Others will likely take years to manifest: Young people are being deprived of opportunities for learning and accomplishment which they will never get back. High school and college students, who are making the transition to adulthood, are especially likely to have their life prospects diminished as a result.

Still others are intangible, but no less real: We are social animals, and cannot just give up human interaction temporarily, like going on a diet. It is essential to our well-being, both individually and collectively, and we cannot do without it, or allow it to become as degraded as it has under social isolation policies, without suffering serious harm.

In short, we are tearing massive rents in the social fabric, without fully understanding the consequences, and with no realistic plan for dealing with them.

We all want to feel that we are acting with compassion, and those most obviously in need of our compassion right now are people suffering from or vulnerable to COVID-19. But true compassion must be balanced with wisdom and understanding. It must take a long view. And it must place the welfare of society as a whole above the needs, or in some situations, even the lives of individuals.

A more balanced approach would be to protect the elderly and the most vulnerable — for example, by continuing restricted access and regular testing at nursing homes, and providing paid leave to people at high risk — while letting the rest of society return to near-normal.

Policies requiring physical distancing and the wearing of masks should gradually be relaxed. These restrictions make it difficult for many small businesses to survive, and they degrade the quality of our interactions with each other.

Since they are at very low risk from COVID-19, young people should be welcomed back to school and to college with minimal restrictions, including extracurricular and social activities. I understand that we have been depriving students of their education in order to protect teachers, staff and family members, but young people should be asked to make this sacrifice only as a very last resort.

We can still take common sense measures like wearing masks in settings requiring close personal contact, and we can reverse course if a spike in cases threatens to overwhelm the health care system.

These are hard decisions to have to make. But if we continue to discount the cost of social isolation policies, we will pay a heavy price for it.

Michael Alterman is a chi gung teacher and aspiring homesteader living in Chesterfield.


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