Columns, Opinion

Social Science Weekly: The Great Coronavirus Social Experiment

I would like to make a prediction. I believe the coronavirus pandemic will be remembered not only for the obvious things, like the final fatality figures and net economic losses, but also for the many nation-wide social experiments it has forced us to run, in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

The first experiment is clear. Will we, the American public, listen to scientists when it matters — whatever the personal inconvenience? This one has been in progress for some time now. The medical community made itself very clear early on when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first began characterizing COVID-19 as a public health emergency. 

This didn’t stop President Donald Trump from taking every available opportunity to deny the urgency of the issue before abruptly changing his tone, preaching crisis and catastrophe moments later. And that’s putting it mildly. He did, after all, even go so far as to call it “the Democrat’s new hoax” at a political rally in South Carolina on Feb. 28.

Two weeks ago on Fox News, commentator Sean Hannity said, “The president’s trip to the CDC marks what has been the single most aggressive, and most thorough response, the quickest response, by any modern-day administration to any type of pandemic or virus outbreak, in this case the coronavirus … Anyways, the mob and the media Democrats, what do they do? They want to use the deadly virus as a political weapon against the president, seemingly rooting for this to be ‘Trump’s Katrina.’”

It is widely believed that Trump’s response was actually impressively prescient, timed perfectly to create just the counter necessary to stem the spread. Friends of mine sympathetic to Trump have even suggested that he should be praised for having the good sense to change his mind when it became imperative to do so. 

But, he only seemed to pivot once it became clear that it would be too embarrassing to continue doing otherwise. No one deserves credit for holding out until the last minute and then “changing their mind” when it took the entire medical community dragging them, kicking and screaming, rolling over a pile of broken glass and lemons, to get them there. 

Is this really an accomplishment worth boasting about?

Even if the federal response has left much to be desired, a great deal of the initial decisions were thankfully left in the hands of university presidents and other local leaders. This brings me to the scientific basis for school closures. I want to take a moment to praise Boston University’s President Robert Brown for living up to his title in a way that seems exceptional at the moment. 

The notion of flattening the curve is relevant here. The idea is, as you may have heard, to spread out the incidence of disease across a larger stretch of time in order to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system. For example, 100,000 cases in six months is easier to manage than the same number but within six days.

Nicholas Christakas is a professor of social and natural science at Yale University, where he directs the Human Nature Lab. He recently made an appearance on the “Making Sense” podcast, where neuroscientist and author Sam Harris interviewed him on the containment of infectious disease. 

 According to Christakas, “With school closures, we have to make a distinction between reactive and proactive school-closures. A reactive school closure is a school closure in which there is a case at the school … and everyone is alarmed and is quite eager and willing to close the school.” 

He added, “The problem is, by the time you do reactive school closures, many analyses show it doesn’t delay the overall epidemic very much. For example, an analysis of reactive school closures in the last influenza epidemic in Italy shows that a policy of reactive school closures reduced the epidemic by like 25% — which is good, but, not as good as you might want.” 

In a later interview with Yale Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom about the psychology of the pandemic and of organizing large-scale responses to large-scale threats, Harris made an insightful observation that I think sums it up nicely. 

He said, “The paradox here is that in order to do the thing that will actually work at every time point, that thing will seem unreasonable at that time point. The time you need to close the schools is when no one you know is sick yet. Precisely the moment where everyone is thinking ‘Oh, come on, no one we know is sick yet. We can’t close the schools!’” 

The irony, as Harris put it, is that the time to implement these measures is precisely when it seems as though they aren’t necessary. And the time when it is too late is when it finally starts to seem appropriate — though not strictly essential. 

What I hope I’ve clarified for you is that school closures, though no doubt strenuous and disappointing to many, are by no means an overreaction to or exaggeration of the problem. And BU managed to close proactively, following Christakas’ important distinction. Let’s not forget to thank the man in charge. And, while we’re at it, the fact that the occupant of the White House can only screw things up so far as it goes, and it only goes so far.

2 Comments

  1. Another Jonah classic well written. You were too kind to Trump, LOL. What a mess this Virus is. It scares me to death because of my age. Let’s hope we can survive it.

  2. Rhonda Franks

    Awesome piece Jonah!

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