It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where everyone is proven wrong about COVID-19. I mean, remember when wearing a mask in public was a totally pointless thing to do? I don’t think any of us should be surprised by how much we’ve gotten wrong about this virus. That kind of comes with the territory when you’re hastily studying a brand new disease and its country of origin (Are we allowed to say it was from China?) hasn’t exactly been transparent about what it knows or doesn’t know. Five years from now we will likely marvel (and maybe cringe) about how much we all got wrong.
I’ve been having a different thought lately though. What if we are all right? Not about everything, but specifically, what if we are all right about the needed response to the outbreak?
You have probably noticed if you’ve spent any time on social media that there is no shortage of opinions about what we should all be doing in response to the virus. I’ve contributed more than my share to the conversation as well. Some argue that the response is an abuse of power and a clear over-reaction. These people argue that the sooner we get back to normal, the better it will be for everyone. Other people argue the opposite. Keep the country shut down for as long as possible – maybe into next school year. It is irresponsible to open up the economy too soon. These people have argued that we need stricter controls over populations. These two groups have a really hard time understanding each other. Maybe it is because they are both right.
What accounts for the differences between the two groups? Part of it is personal. If you know someone who is sick or who has died, you likely favor stricter controls. Similarly, if you are an “at risk” person or know someone who is. But if you have lost your job or your business has closed, you are likely in the first group. Even a national crisis of this magnitude is experienced at a very personal level, and our response is directed by our personal experiences with it.
There’s another factor that we have to consider, and that’s the politics of each group. Progressives tend to favor stricter controls while conservatives are much more likely to believe this is all an overreaction. It’s easy to say that this is some sort of commentary on Trump’s Presidency. Liberals want to embarrass him and conservatives want to protect him. I think there’s a little of that going around on both sides, but this is bigger than Trump. Progressives generally tend to favor greater governmental regulation and control while conservatives generally tend to favor less. It’s not much of a surprise then that Democrat governors would clamp down sooner and stronger than Republican governors.
But focusing on partisan politics misses a more significant point. So much of our politics is driven by geography. It’s no secret that urban areas are centers for liberal politics while conservatives tend to live in less populated areas. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Cities have two things that require greater control and centralized regulation – diversity and density. These twin factors have always put cities at greater risk to threats both internal and external. When you have diverse populations living side-by-side in a very densely populated area, more control is needed. This is not the case in the relatively low-density, low-diversity areas of the countryside. Control exercised in rural areas just seems obtrusive.
This matters for how we understand the response to COVID-19. Because of the nature of cities, urban areas have experienced significantly more cases and deaths from the virus than rural areas. It’s only natural that when you combine this personal experience with their general political persuasion they would desire or even demand greater control. In Chicago, they have celebrated the city’s mayor who has clamped down harder than almost any other mayor even turning her into a meme. This would never happen in the country where she would almost certainly be vilified. Most people living in rural areas have very little first-hand experience with the disease other than the fact that they might have lost their job or small business or they are now suddenly having to home-school their kids. They watch the news and see reports from places like New York City, and they might have heard about one or two people who’ve gotten sick. But the disease still feels distant. When you combine this experience with their general political persuasion, it’s only natural that they would see the government’s response as overblown and unnecessary.
And I think they are both right.
The person living in the city is right to want more control. The nature of cities demands it. If you were living in a city like NYC where nearly 9000 people have died from this disease, my guess is that you would want more control as well. That is an objectively large and terrifying number. Certain policies are essential in cities.
But those might be the wrong policies in the country. The person living in the country is also right to think that the response is overblown and probably needs to be relaxed. Context, in politics and in pandemics, matters.
At this point, people in the “control” group say to people in the “relax” group, “You don’t want to become New York City do you?” Most people who live in the country would be appalled by the idea of becoming New York City on a normal day, but the awful experience of the virus in America’s hottest spot has become an important cautionary tale. It doesn’t seem too far fetched. If it happened in NYC, it could happen in your small community too. But do we know this? This argument treats populations across the country as basically the same, when we know that is not the case.
On April 2, the New York Times published a condescending piece shaming people in America’s midwest and southeast for not taking social distancing seriously. Along with the piece, they published this map that used cell phone data to show that “red-state” people were still travelling at alarming rates.
What the New York Times didn’t show you was this map.
People were still travelling because, well, they don’t live in New York City and going to Walmart involves getting in a car and driving a few miles down the road.
The New York Times also didn’t show this picture taken on the same day in New York City.
That’s more social interaction than I’ve had in over a month! The fact is that “social distancing” looks different depending on where you live. Context matters.
But let’s grant that the city where I live may become a “hot spot.” We’ve got to be willing to face this possibility. Will our experience in becoming a hot spot be the same as New York City? There’s good reason to think the answer is “no.” Consider this, in New York City, .1 percent of the population has died of COVID-19 resulting in a shocking number of close to 9000 deaths (as of 4.18). If Joplin, Missouri* had the same kind of outbreak in keeping with the worst outbreak in the United States, there would be somewhere between 50 and 60 deaths. This would be awful. In a town our size, there’s a good chance that I would have some sort of personal connection with some of these individuals. But ask yourself this question, If 50 people died in Joplin, Missouri would the national media care? I hate to be cynical, but unless there was an angle where the Republican governor of the state could be embarrassed, you likely wouldn’t see any national media camped out at Freeman Medical Center. The numbers just aren’t big enough.
This worst case scenario assumes, however, that a New York City outbreak is possible or even likely in places like Joplin, Missouri. The reality is that New York City outbreaks seem to be only possible in New York City.
|COVID deaths||Percent of total population||Population Density (per sq. mile)|
|New York City||8,893||.1||26,403|
I’m sure that eventually we will better learn the reasons why NYC has had such an awful experience with COVID-19, but based on the data it seems like a significant outlier. Some have argued that the reason why other states haven’t suffered as much is because they issued stay at home orders earlier than NYC. I’m not sure this is a good argument though. California issued their order on March 19 while New York was March 22. Illinois was March 21 and Texas not until April 2. You could argue that the virus didn’t make it to places like Texas or Illinois until well after it had come to New York. That’s a harder argument to make in regards to California. NYC proves the point that we are not a homogeneous country that will experience any emergency including a pandemic in the same way.
The governor of Oklahoma shared this chart last week in a press conference. One way to read this chart is to celebrate. “Look what we’ve done! We flattened the curve.” Another way to read this chart is to wonder how you could flatten a curve that never seemed to exist. Each one of the previous four projections were wrong. Was it because social distancing was effective beyond anyone’s imagination? Possible. Was it also because curve projections were flawed from the outset? Also possible.
This chart reflects the experience of a lot of people living in less populated areas including Joplin. We may yet experience a spike of cases, but our current reality is that we have nearly shut down two regional medical centers in town for several weeks as we wait for a surge that doesn’t seem to be happening. As of the end of this week, there was one confirmed COVID-19 case spread between the two hospitals. You can’t blame people who live in places like Joplin for growing frustrated and wondering if this was all a huge overreaction just like you can’t blame people who live in cities like New York City for wondering if we’ve gone far enough. You can see how both perspectives are correct, but only if you are sensitive to the unique experiences of both.
The national debate in the coming days will be about when and how to reopen the economy. Some will continue to insist that any date you give is too early. Others will insist that any date you give is too late. Both can be right depending on their context which is why I think it makes sense to allow localities to make those decisions that make sense for them.**
*Joplin is a city of around 50,000 people. I recognize that this isn’t exactly rural, and the experience of a town of 5,000 or 500 will be very different than that of Joplin.
**It’s not the main point of the post, but the logic of this argument is why the Electoral College is so essential to our democracy. People in less populated areas don’t want to have their lives dictated by what happens in urban areas because their contexts are so different from each other. What might be good for the city might not be good for the country.