Coronavirus Crisis: America’s High-Risk, High-Cost Project

Phlebotomists stand outside a triage testing area for the coronavirus at Roseland Community Hospital in Chicago, Ill., April 22, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

America has never undertaken its like — a high-risk, high-cost endeavor launched amid uncertainty, panic, and pessimism.


hatever we eventually call it, there is a coronavirus “project.”

It’s a race to identify the origins, nature, and danger of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the best way to treat, vaccinate against, and mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 disease — all without destroying America to save it.

However the Corona Project is defined, it remains different from all previous existential American efforts. We are not building any new weapon or infrastructure or deliberately adopting a radical new policy. Much less are Americans fighting a visible enemy, poverty, or just bad habits.

Instead, we are giving ourselves massive social and economic chemotherapy to weaken or retard the virus within us before our massive therapeutic shutdown kills the U.S. economy — a sort of neutron bomb that destroys human interaction without incinerating visible infrastructure. In other words, we the patient apparently must be sickened to the point of near death in order to survive the disease.

It is certainly difficult to compare similar American mass efforts in the past. Their costs are murky — and not just because of inadequate record keeping, the adjustment of prior dollars to current time and inflation, or the need to consider the relationship between lives and money. In addition, the tab for past “wars on” something or other (e.g., alcohol, illiteracy, smoking, poverty, drugs, etc.) usually rippled out for years, both positively and negatively.

Other Wars, Other Projects
While there were efforts to mitigate the 1918 and 1957 flus and summer polio outbreaks, along with smallpox, yellow fever, typhoid, and cholera epidemics, we’ve never seen anything comparable to the reaction to the coronavirus.

So it is hard to calibrate the expense of the Corona Project’s shuttering of the American economy for what will probably turn out to be a period of almost two months and far longer in some places.

We are told that the Manhattan Project cost in our present currency some $23 billion. Leave it to others whether that “investment” saved or took more lives. It certainly ended the war in the Pacific without an invasion of Japan, spawned peacetime nuclear energy, and created deterrence in the Cold War that might have prevented a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

The B-29 bomber program, which both delivered the bomb and napalmed most of the industrial output of Japan, cost almost twice as much as the Manhattan Project, at over $40 billion in today’s dollars. The huge plane led to quantum leaps in aircraft design. Without it, the atomic bombs probably could not have been dropped (The superb British Avro Lancaster had the capacity to carry such huge bombs but perhaps not the speed or ceiling to ensure that the bomber could be suitably distant after dropping the weapon, or even had the range to fly from and return to the Marianas).

NASA’s various space programs probably have cost far more than the often cited $1 trillion price. But going to the moon likely more than paid for itself in a variety of ways — in spin-off industries, new technologies, invaluable scientific data, and the emergence of a new sense of increased national prestige.

Critics of the F-35 joint-strike fighter claim that it will cost in toto over $1.5 trillion in all related costs during its lifespan. We have no idea how they can come up with that number, only that the plane is far more expensive than what was initially promised. The interstate highway system’s first phases probably cost around $500 billion in today’s money — and saved hundreds of thousands of lives in its first few years.

World War II, aside from well over 400,00 American dead and the resulting generations of disability and mental-health issues, cost the U.S. in modern currency over $4 trillion, despite turning a lingering Depression-era economy into a global juggernaut. No doubt the actual related expense was trillions of dollars higher.

Few have accurate figures on recent optional wars. But general estimates put the 19-year-long Afghanistan war at $2 trillion, and the 2003-08 active war in Iraq at another $2 trillion — with more than 7,000 American deaths in action or related to both wars.

No one has yet calculated accurately the full cost of our great gamble of shutting down most of a $22 trillion economy. To do so would spark heated controversy. But we should at least agree that the U.S. has never tried anything similar to the present shutdown and that its costs will exceed any project and likely any war in our history. We are literally paying an economic price comparable to the costs of the Space Race, the Manhattan Project, the interstate highway system, and several wars several times over all at once.

Shutting It Down
On the one side, supporters of the national shelter-in-place policies would argue that without these Draconian measures, hundreds of thousands would have died and that, even before government action, many were already shutting down the economy out of their natural fear and precaution.

On the other hand, critics suggest that emerging herd immunity would eventually have reduced that number of deaths radically. In addition, as skeptics such as scientists John Ioannidis and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford (among others) have argued, we could see far more people die from the neglect or delay of treatments for critical diseases including cardiovascular problems and cancer, as well as from suicides, anxiety or depression, increased substance abuse, and spousal and familial violence. The anthropogenic cost is about $3 trillion, or $4 trillion, or $5 trillion — or is it now $7 trillion? — in lost stock-market value, federal borrowing, radical distortions in consumer and government spending, destroyed business infrastructure, and lost GDP.

Whatever one’s views of the lockdown, most will concede that shutting down most of a postmodern-21st-century economy incurs insidious costs not applicable to previous quarantines or Manhattan-like projects or large wars. The decision to do so was, by needs, made in haste to prevent what was forecast as a true national pandemic that would kill, we were initially told by some modelers, up to 2.2 million Americans. That horrific toll would have dwarfed even the 500,000 to 800,000 who died in the 1918–19 flu epidemic‚ and indeed far more than all U.S. wars combined.

Other underappreciated factors explained the panic surrounding the rapid decision. The virus did not start in the U.S. or “Spain” but in Communist China — a totalitarian regime locked in an existential trade war with the U.S. with a bad record of spawning viruses.

From the very beginning, all news about the epidemic, and indeed all policies directed against it, were determined by the Communist Party’s own self-interest — defined as ensuring China’s unimpeded trajectory to global hegemony. Data were destroyed. Researchers were silenced — or worse. News blackouts followed. All information about the origins, transmission rates, and scope of the pandemic either was censored or massaged to such a degree that the numbers and dates changed weekly.

To this day, no one has any idea how many Chinese citizens have died or been infected from COVID-19. We will never know. China’s Patient Zero supposedly appeared in late January, or was it mid-November? And who knows when he will be reinvented next?

We still do not know the role of either the Wuhan wet market or the level-4 viral lab just a few miles from it. The Chinese seem far more sensitive to charges that lax safety standards in their sophisticated postmodern laboratory sparked the outbreak than to the writ that their premodern butcher market was culpable.

In the end, it may prove that the latter was a propagandized ruse for the real culpability of the former.

That China locked down Wuhan and forbid internal travel to and from Wuhan, while allowing its quarantined residents to fly directly into Europe and the U.S. was the most telling of all Chinese outrages. That fact alone should remind those who cite xenophobia and racism during this mess that they may be right — but the perpetrators were always Chinese racists, not American or European ones.

The Causes of the Panic
We did not go through such hysteria in 2009 under the Obama administration or in 2017 under Trump. Both were severe flu years. The 2009 swine-flu outbreak was scary in that it attacked all ages and infected a supposed 60 million Americans. The 2017 flu did too but killed over three times as many, perhaps more than 60,000. The flus of 1957 and 1968 respectively killed more than 100,000 Americans without national lockdowns.

Why the difference in those responses from today?

Again, lots of reasons.

2020 is an election year. Trump is hated, not just opposed, by the media, Democrats, and the Never Trump former Right. The longer the lockdown and epidemic, the more his enemies sense that the virus might do what neither Mueller’s team nor impeachment could.

The name “corona” is strange and not familiar. Had the SARS-CoV-2 virus just been wrongly labeled “Influenza C,” the panic might have been less, regardless of the actual costs in human lives or the differences between an influenza and a coronavirus.

The virus itself seems especially horrific in how it slowly strangles and torments the elderly and the compromised.

So far, the coronavirus’s lethality rate among those infected seems comparable to the flu but it could also be more contagious. So, in theory, we don’t yet know whether its likely toll of 1 to 2 deaths per 1,000 infected will be rendered less relevant — if 150 million Americans, not the normal flu tally of 30–60 million cases, become exposed and thus in theory 150,000 could still die. It seems unlikely with the virus already peaking, but again no one knows.

Corona is also fickle. It seems not to kill 99.9 percent of those infected who are under 60 and in good health, but, very rarely, it can kill someone hale and young. And the virus does so in a cruel fashion of mimicking a mild flu for days only to trigger a hyper-immune response that induces the body to kill itself.

Vigorous health-care workers on the front lines are rewarded for their courage, in Thucydidean fashion, with daily blasts of heavy infectious loads that occasionally can wear down the immunity of even the youngest and healthiest.

A Bankrupt Media
Given the eternal nature of the news, we are fed every gory detail about the 1 in 1,000 deaths, but we hear almost nothing about the 999 healthy and under-60 corona patients who suffer few or at least tolerable symptoms.

There is not yet anything comparable to the hit-and-miss influenza vaccination. Our media, to be fair, is not just not fair and not sensationalized. It’s politically weaponized, globalized, and propagandized.

Partly media bias is due to the nature of global bicoastal affluence and elitism (the major media and their affiliated social media and entertainment are centered in the power foci of New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley).

Partly, the role of the influential and media-centric New York corridor, where almost half the country’s fatalities have occurred, explains the asymmetrical coverage.

Partly, media incompetence, arrogance, and partiality reflect the failure of journalism programs and graduate schools to teach writing skills, ethics, and professionalism.

Partly, the causes are the Internet, emails, and social media that translate unsourced hysterias into news to win instant market share and clicks from global thumbs-up/thumbs-down electronic audiences.

Weaponizing the Virus
Like it or not, unlike the Manhattan Project or the B-29 program or the Space Program or the War on Drugs or even the earlier response to 1918–19, flu, the Corona Project is seen as the determinant of the next presidency as well as an adjudicator of a growing factionalism last seen in the pre–Civil War divide. In very general terms, our polarization today pitts a more globalized and affluent, progressive, bicoastal nation against its more traditional, populist, and nationalist interior antithesis.

That is no exaggeration, given that almost every decision of this crisis — keep or end the lockdown, end shelter-in-place, borrow and spend $3 trillion or $5 trillion, use or don’t use hydroxychloroquine, defund or increase funding for WHO — is seen as either hurting or helping Donald Trump or Joe Biden in November, and by extension the sort of culture each has come to represent.

There is one difference, however, from past experiences of “the war on ______” and previous colossal “Projects.”

The Epidemic of Pessimism
The upbeat, can-do confidence evident in earlier crises mostly either won public support or at least public indifference (which was seen as support). And there were also clear goals: Build a big bomber to ruin enemy industry, make a new bomb to end the war immediately, tie the country together with freeways, reach the moon, stamp out drugs, poverty, and smoking.

The Corona Project instead is ostensibly aimed at strangling the virus and returning to normal — except the architects of the project offer no such confidence either in medical or economic terms.

They pessimistically talk down to us that the virus will always be with us; that it will mutate into something possibly worse; that we can, won’t, or might gain herd immunity; that we can’t go back to normal; that even antibodies won’t provide immunity; that it will take years to recover from the economic damage; that the second wave will be even worse; that there may never be either a vaccine or a successful remedy.

That constant mixed messages of doom reflect past puzzlement about everything important and trivial connected to this virus — the rate of human transmission, the efficacy of masks and hand sanitizers, the use of antimalarial drugs, the roles of political agendas and cultural fault lines.

The only constant is that a reporter or credentialed expert will authoritatively assert a theory as a fact and demonize those who disagree — only to be proven wrong tomorrow. Then he’ll forget his error, recalibrate, and start over next week.

Such gloom, despair, and constant internal bickering did not lead the U.S. Army across the Rhine or put a man on the moon.

And the current epidemic of pessimism will not work with the current Corona Project, either.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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