The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. — Franklin Delano Roosevelt, first presidential inaugural address, March 3, 1933
Eighty-seven years ago, an earlier president tried to calm fears in the United States by telling his fellow Americans that panic was only making the Great Depression worse.
A different-type of panic is now taking hold in this country — one spurred by a health crisis rather than a financial one — that not only have President Trump and other U.S. and state government leaders not been able to quell, but if anything they’ve made it worse.
The U.S. ban on most travel from Europe, which took effect Friday night, and the scattershot proposals of income tax breaks have affirmed a cascading series of other measures — adopted by public and private entities alike — that have amounted to an overreaction. It has closed down nearly all college and professional sports, emptied a growing number of classrooms, shuttered museums, canceled events large and small, interrupted supply lines and threatened to send the entire economy into a tailspin.
Supposedly this will keep the virus from spreading and buy time for the U.S. to catch up on testing those infected, so as to get a better handle on the scope and severity of the illness.
But at what cost? How many people will be put into financial stress — either because their hours have been cut or their jobs eliminated — to ward off a disease whose mortality rate may end up being no worse than the seasonal flu? Congress is working, as this is being written, on a plan to try to ameliorate some of that stress with such measures as government-paid sick leave, but with no idea of how to finance that benefit other than adding to the mounting deficit.
Even if these measures help for the next few weeks, what happens when coronavirus flares up again? Do we shut the country down repeatedly for the next year and encourage people to hole up in their homes until a vaccine is developed?
There has got to be a better response. And there is. It’s being practiced in South Korea, one of the countries most impacted other than China, where the coronavirus originated.
In South Korea, the response has been not to restrict people’s movement but to test like crazy and treat those who test positive. Testing for coronavirus there is free — an idea that Democrats in the U.S. Congress are also pushing — and convenient. They have even set up drive-through testing stations, where you can get your nose and throat swapped while sitting in your car. The results are texted to the person’s cellphone within hours — giving quick indication of who needs to be quarantined, who needs to be hospitalized, and who needs to keep going about their business as normal.
Within a matter of weeks, South Korea has created an extensive supply chain of test kits and a comprehensive network of round-the-clock laboratories to process the results. According to BBC News, nearly 20,000 people are being tested every day in South Korea, the highest per-capita testing rate in the world.
This “trace, test and treat” approach is working. So far, the coronavirus in South Korea has a mortality rate of eight-tenths of 1 percent — four to five times less than the current global average. Admittedly, the global average may be inflated because the rest of the world has not been as good at identifying those who have the illness but whose symptoms are minor.
Nevertheless, that nation is taking a methodical, scientific approach, rather than a haphazard one, in dealing with this health threat. In addition to saving lives, it’s helping to keep fear in check.