Jonathan Chait wrote a piece for New York Magazine, titled “Zero COVID Risk is the Wrong Standard,” which identifies a significant flaw in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s approach to handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chait describes a phenomenon he calls “zeroism,” explained as "an inability to conceive of public-health measures in cost-benefit terms. The pandemic becomes an enemy that must be destroyed at all costs, and any compromise could lead to death and is therefore unacceptable.” He examines the point by looking at the attempts by teachers unions to deter school reopenings. But his warning also seems to fit Gov. Whitmer’s messaging about and goals for handling COVID-19.
From the very beginning of the pandemic, the governor justified her decisions as a response to the binary choice between life and death. She declared her March 16 order, closing restaurants, libraries, gyms, movie theaters and more, was “about saving lives.” In April, she banned golf, landscaping work and traveling to a second residence, again, “to save lives.” Later, she baked this message right into the title of her orders, calling, for instance, her second lockdown the “Pause to Save Lives.”
This is more than just a way to sell your policies on the public. Casting these decisions in simplistic, life-and-death terms shrouds the negative consequences these drastic actions can cause, such as impacts on mental health and livelihoods. It also provokes dissent and increases divisions within the public about these orders. One might ask: What sort of monster opposes a policy that literally saves people’s lives?
A related part of the problem is that the governor gives the impression that the state’s goal is to get to “COVID zero” — to eliminate the virus. Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Whitmer has repeatedly described her actions as warring against an unseen enemy, and that victory is when we “eradicate” COVID-19.
Here are some examples from the governor:
Aug. 5: “It has been said, we are at war with a virus. It’s important that we act like we’re in war, that we lock arms from a distance and all do what we need to win this war.”
Dec. 7: “This is all about protecting our families and front-line workers until we eradicate this virus once and for all."
Dec. 10: “We need to join forces so that we can eliminate COVID-19 in our communities and in order to save lives.”
Dec. 22: “As we continue working to distribute the safe and effective vaccine and eradicate COVID-19 once and for all, I will keep using every tool in my toolbox to protect our families and small businesses.”
Feb. 2: “So Michigan is making encouraging progress in eliminating this virus in communities across our state.”
Feb. 23: “We will continue to fight to eradicate #COVID19 entirely.”
March 2: “We must and we will, become the state that beat the damn virus.”
Why the governor sells such an unrealistic goal is a mystery, in keeping with many of her other policy decisions. In fact, even though she talks the “zeroism” game, her actions imply that eliminating COVID is not, in fact, the only priority, and trade-offs are necessary. For instance, the governor assumes that every restriction she puts in place reduces the spread of COVID. Logically speaking, any loosening of them must then necessarily do the opposite. So while Gov. Whitmer says the goal is to eliminate COVID, she approves policies that, according to her own logic, hinder that goal.
The misplaced goal of zeroism and its exaggerated rhetoric have real consequences. They distract attention from other public health concerns that need to be considered, such as the impacts of denying children in-person educational and social services, long-term unemployment and business closures. There are other, more difficult-to-measure effects, too, such as the impact on individuals from prolonged isolation, diminished socialization, the inability to confidently plan for the future and the constant attention that must be paid to the risks of disease and dying.
Responding to COVID-19 as if we are in a war that must be won at any costs may sound inspirational, but it’s a flawed strategy and may be more damaging to the general public health than a more measured and honest approach. Such an approach would openly acknowledge that there are no perfect solutions, only trade-offs, and that we will likely have to learn to live with the risks of COVID-19 for a long time.
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