Are our leaders doing right by us?
Three reasons why leaders need to be concerned about the extraordinary actions taken
In a time of unimaginable restrictions on personal freedoms and choices, the degree of compliance by the vast majority of citizens is remarkable. Few doubt the seriousness of what the world faces, and aside from a small number of irresponsible citizens, every effort is being made to “flatten the curve.”
This suggests that there remains a high degree of trust and confidence in our leaders, our health community, our experts speaking out on this and the unrelenting news reports. How long will this last? When will the patience and support for the draconian measures begin to be questioned and the undercurrent of resistance evident now turn into a cascade of protest?
Officials making the decisions to issue guidelines and mandates need to be very aware that it is very possible to take a measure too far. If too many see an action by leaders as unjustified by the facts, rebellion will begin to build. What will serve as the trigger for this change in social contract and compliance? Three things could contribute significantly to a growing restlessness that will erupt into more serious opposition: stupid laws, lack of context of the numbers, and corruption of power.
Edmund Burke made a lot of quotable statements. This one may apply today: “The essence of tyranny is the enforcement of stupid laws.” He was an Irish member of the English parliament during the Revolutionary War. He saw the harmful effects — for England — of the enforcement of stupid laws, such as the Stamp Act. Americans still detest tyranny, and mostly do not see the “laws” apply to flattening the curve as stupid. But, stories are repeated about a lone paddle boarder being arrested by police. I live in a private golf community and have been so grateful that our course remained open as our club closed all facilities and services but considered the course to be an extension of the members’s backyards. I observed everyone without exception was being very safe, practicing social distancing, and touching nothing their hands hadn’t touched before. But, then the club was required to enforce no walking, no golfing, no carts on the course with threats of imprisonment by Riverside County officials. This action will do absolutely nothing to protect health or flatten the curve, but will harm the mental and physical health of the mostly older course members.
I recognize that most reading this will think, oh dear, those old golf course members can’t play golf, and recall an old Saturday Night sketch with the comment: “It must be so haaard for you!” But that misses the point. I saw a message from an older gentleman in England who reported that they could walk one mile but if they went any further they faced going to jail. “Coppers” as he called them were everywhere, stopping people sitting on a park benches alone and interrogating them as to why they were there.
Confusion reigns when leaders instruct us to stay inside, but go out to walk your dog and go get groceries, go get some good exercise and then when their citizens do that and do it safely they threaten them with imprisonment. Tyranny is the enforcement of stupid laws. Perhaps most do not see these examples as stupid. Good. Then they will not be led to rebel against tyranny, but the danger is there that many will react to measures like this and the social contract will disappear and with it the legitimacy of our leaders.
The second reason is context. I deeply respect and admire many of our leaders and no one more than Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health and his associate, Dr. Anthony Fauci. I hope they both receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom once we have run through talk show hosts. So, if they say all these measures are warranted, I believe them. But some questions nag, and my concern is primarily about how the numbers are presented and the lack of context. For example, we have not seen as far as I know a comparison of the total deaths attributed to Covid-19 to the expected deaths globally at the same time. I did a quick calculation and found in 2015 57 million out of a global population of about 7.7 billion died. That means that roughly 14.5 million people were expected to die in the first quarter of 2020. I don’t know how many actually died globally, but by April 1 about 50,000 deaths had been attributed to the new coronavirus. That is .00345 of the total. It’s a pretty small number. But, in reality it is likely far smaller than that.
In my work as a semi-retired crisis communication consultant, I have been working with some facilities, including a long term care facility, that has experienced Covid-19 among its residents. An elderly husband and wife were the first to be tested positive, both have recovered. Two residents that had been admitted to hospice care because of expected near term passing were found to be positive for the virus. To date, one has passed and the other is likely to pass soon. Since they tested positive, even after hospice care, both are included in the numbers of virus victims. But, they most certainly did not die from the illness, even though they died with it. I have seen an estimate from UK from medical professionals that about two thirds of those who are listed as having died from coronavirus actually died with it, not from it. The difference is pretty significant. Israeli figures show that the average age of those who have died is almost 80 years. Another interesting note comes from this long term care facility. They requested the health department test all residents and staff. No staff tested positive but a small number of residents did. None exhibited symptoms. They were not ill but tested positive. We assume with the now one million plus who have confirmed Covid-19 that these are ill and presumably seriously ill. That is likely not the case.
I am not an epidemiologist and I will repeat that I am not only taking this very seriously but doing all I can to comply with the guidance provided. The main reason is I do not want to be responsible for delivering the virus to anyone else. But I am concerned that if I am right in my overly-simplified analysis, sooner or later our citizens will understand that though greatly to be feared, we have not been told the whole truth. A time for reassurance will come and this kind of context will take center stage. When that happens it may undermine the credibility of those who have placed our lives and the entire economy in the deep freezer.
Finally, I’ll appeal to an even more famous quotation by Lord Acton: “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I would not trade places with our leaders for anything. When I was in a position to help make a decision about whether to continue to hold an event in the early days of this pandemic, I took the safe route and opted to cancel. I believe with few exceptions our leaders have acted wisely and responsibly, weighing the incredibly high costs of taking such extreme actions. But, I worry. I shake my head like many others to think that a governor or mayor or county executive may issue orders that control the finite details of the lives of citizens under their authority. You can go here, but not here. If you are in this business you must stop work. You may not hold weddings or funerals. We hear rumors of requiring face masks or sealing borders between states or communities. This is power exerted on a scale that may have our founding fathers spinning in their graves.
The palpable fear created by unceasing media reports missing important context has made us grateful for the decisions made by our leaders to protect us. But, will they be as eager to relinquish that power as they were to assume it? One hopes so, but Lord Acton has been proven right over and over. Right now, under cover of the pandemic, the Russian leader is demonstrating that once power is granted, it is intoxicating and corrupting. Will our governors, mayors, presidents, county executives show the character and qualities of a George Washington who turned down the idea of becoming king or will they fall to the temptation of corrupting power as Vladimir Putin is? Time will tell. But our leaders need to be aware right now that we are still Americans and Americans are defined above all by a passionate love for and commitment to freedom. We will not abide losing that freedom except for the more dire circumstances.