Watching the devastation caused by the government response to COVID-19 calls to mind the Vietnam War-era line about destroying a town to “save” it. Amidst this economic carnage, it’s easy to forget the original point of the COVID shutdown.
But citizens must not forget the rationale cited as justification for government-ordered closing of businesses (and the indirect government-ordered firing of thousands) because the goal of the shutdown has now been achieved, meaning it is time to reopen and rebuild our society.
The point of the shutdown was never to eliminate all COVID-19 infections, which is impossible, but to slow COVID’s spread over a longer time frame. Officials expected the total number of infections to be roughly the same with or without a shutdown, but they worried that having many people infected at the same time, rather than spread over two months under the shutdown scenario, would overwhelm our health care system, prevent treatment, and generate a higher death rate.
It can be debated whether that was the right approach, but it is now clear that Oklahoma has flattened the curve and our health care system is prepared.
The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model has gone from predicting in late March that roughly 5,000 hospitals beds would be needed for COVID-19 patients in Oklahoma at the state peak of the pandemic to predicting just 882 hospital beds are required.
The data make clear the chief goal of the shutdown has been achieved. Hospitals can now handle the outbreak. The justification for closing Oklahoma society no longer exists, and there is no reason to delay its reopening—although Oklahomans will need to continue many safety measures at home and in the workplace.
Some suggest society cannot reopen until COVID-19 has been defeated. But the virus is not going away anytime soon. A vaccine, if one is developed, won’t be available for at least a year-and-a-half. And keep in mind that vaccines for similar viruses (like the flu) are not effective up to 60 percent of the time.
To say society cannot reopen until COVID-19 is eliminated or an effective vaccine is available is tantamount to saying society may never reopen. And working families can’t afford to wait even a few more weeks, let alone months or years.
Today, thousands of Oklahomans are unemployed and face a bleak future not because they contracted COVID-19, but because of government response to COVID-19. To continue imposing such hardship after the shutdown has served its purpose is not just unnecessary, but cruel.
Gov. Kevin Stitt’s announcement that his administration is laying the groundwork to reopen society shows he understands this and is welcome news. The time has come to end the shutdown. The time has arrived to begin rebuilding Oklahomans’ lives.
Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).