Randy Alcorn

Clearly, no one knows enough yet about the COVID-19 virus or how it will behave to have the definitive answer to managing the pandemic.

Follow the science all you like, but much of it is still inconclusive, inconsistent and insufficient to inform a universal best-policy approach to confront the pandemic. The science changes almost daily.

And as for the “experts” dispensing various, advice, prognostications and, increasingly, admonitions, which ones do you listen to? Take your pick.

The knowledge vacuum is being filled with fear, anxiety and anger, which begets conspiracy theories and blame. And so, the COVID-19 pandemic has quickly become another battleground in America’s insane culture war between the nation’s two tribes of mutually antagonistic ideological idiots.

For these people, social distancing protocols and shuttering businesses have become a partisan political issue replete with whacknut conspiracy theories, perverse presidential politics and moralizing condemnations.

But, before anyone climbs on their moral high horse to condemn others as selfish and stupid for holding a position different from their own regarding the coronavirus controversy, let’s consider what we do know with reasonable certainty so far.

This virus is indeed a serious health threat and very transmissible, but not as contagious as some — the measles virus, for example.

It can kill, but for the vast majority of people — 80 percent or more — who get infected, the symptoms are mild or unnoticeable. These people recover in about two weeks.

The remaining 20 percent have more severe symptoms, but still most of them recover in three to six weeks. About 14 percent of those infected require hospitalization, and only a tiny fraction die.

While the mortality rate remains a slippery calculation, and the local clusters of fatalities, e.g. New York City and Northern Italy, are dramatically disconcerting, 97 percent to 99 percent of the population that gets infected is not going to die from COVID-19. Those most at risk are those whose advanced age or pre-existing physical ailments already have them near death’s doorstep.

What we do know for certain is that our species has existed with pathogenic microbes over its entire history. Occasionally they have killed massive numbers of us in a short time, but more often than not our immune system defeats the pathogens and protects the vast majority of us.

Obviously, with at least a 97 percent recovery rate, that holds true with the COVID-19 virus.

What we do know for certain is that suspending most economic and social activity has devastating consequences for tens of millions of people, some of whom will never fully recover from it. And while initially this approach was reasonable to buy time to learn more about the virus and scramble to make up for being ill-prepared and under-supplied to confront it, continuing a pervasive shuttering of society is not going to eradicate a virus that is so tiny tens of thousands of them can be found on the head of needle, and so insidiously contagious that taking a breath can infect a person.

Oh, but what about countries like Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand that employed strict social distancing measures and minimized or virtually halted the infections?

OK, let’s look at New Zealand. With a population of less than 5 million people living on two remote islands at the bottom of the world, New Zealand can more easily contain the contagion than can America, a vast country of 327 million people. And, because New Zealand’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, it can’t prohibit travel into the country indefinitely without suffering significant economic decline.

Meanwhile, the virus is still lurking in the world, so as soon as social distancing measures are relaxed, the infections return, as they have in South Korea and Germany.

In a globalized world of 8 billion people, social distancing protocols anywhere only slow the contagion, they can’t stop it. That is a reality that many wishful thinkers don’t want to confront. Only herd immunity or a vaccine can end the pandemic.

While a vaccine is certainly possible, it is not a given. Vaccines have never been found to inoculate against some viral diseases like HIV. And vaccines that do work have never been found quickly and then rapidly produced in needed quantities.

Ultimately, what ended the deadly 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was most likely herd immunity and possibly the virus mutating to a weaker form. Nothing but a vaccine and mass inoculation would have prevented that resolution then, or will it now.

So, given what we know, what is a reasonable way to proceed?

Reopen society and the economy with prudent safety measures of detection, tracing and targeted quarantining. Masks and social distancing make sense if a vaccine is imminent, but maybe not if natural herd immunity is our only option.

Some social distancing protocols then can become an individual choice. Those who like, especially those most at risk, can chose to mask up, stay at home and avoid close contact with others. Protective measures can be focused on those most at risk, seniors and those with serious health conditions.

Some say this is a selfish approach. Really? But who is being selfish?

People who have a sufficient and relatively secure stream of income to maintain their lifestyles, as do many retirees and those fortunate enough to keep their jobs working from home, can afford to support shuttering much of the economy or crippling it with unwieldly social distancing requirements.

Meanwhile, a significant portion of the population is being expected to sacrifice their livelihoods — already meager for many of them — and forego the opportunity to build a decent financial future, including retirement, so that the relatively few at highest risk from the virus can feel more secure.

Prolonged social distancing protocols will severely disrupt huge segments of daily life and undermine the economy. How do you have schools, medical clinics, restaurants, travel, sporting events, society itself, with everyone treating everyone else like lepers?

In a free society not everyone is going to agree on what is the best approach to this viral pandemic. Those who freely choose to indefinitely pursue staying at home, avoiding close contact, wearing masks and using gallons of disinfectant should not object to those who want to fully reopen the economy and who freely choose to exercise fewer personal precautions.

Neither is more or less correct, moral or selfish than the other.

— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at randyaalcorn@gmail.com, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.