A barricade and security guard keeps visitors from the Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago, March 16.

Photo: tannen maury/Shutterstock

To some the coronavirus is a supporting actor in a drama titled “The Iniquities of Donald Trump.” Those of more balanced mind wonder whether Mr. Trump’s failings can be distinguished from the predictable and expected failings of the U.S. government.

But it’s unlikely Mr. Trump will seem important to historians telling the story. Columbia University once found that 20% of flu sufferers and 5% of cold sufferers bothered to see a doctor. This is why the Wuhan virus was destined to go world-wide even if China had been upfront or an American president had been clairvoyant. Every bit of data since has confirmed it. Infectious respiratory diseases are a fact of nature. Beijing was finally driven to action by the same consideration that drove other countries to action—when the number of infected people and the duration of their cases overwhelmed a local hospital system.

This is the proximate crisis that called for a public response around the world. Novel pandemic diseases are not a black swan. Our lockdown response was a black swan.

We started off sensibly. “This is not something [American families] generally need to worry about,” said CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier in mid-January. “It’s a very, very low risk to the United States,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci a week later.

Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, urged residents to go about their business normally as recently as March 11.

As coldblooded as it seems, these were the right statements at the time. Under “flatten the curve,” changes in public behavior aren’t needed until they are needed. Roll that around in your mind a bit. The better we do at equipping local hospitals, the less we need to bankrupt local businesses and their workers to slow the virus as it runs its course through society. That was the idea we started with.

Not even the U.K. Imperial College study that so alarmed the world’s policy makers recommended indiscriminate lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders. If we meant what we said, we’ve overshot in many places. Beds are empty. A ventilator shortage did not materialize. We failed to set aside enough capacity to treat other medical conditions like strokes and heart attacks. This is costing lives.

What happened? From Bill Gates to your local editorialist, a new priority waddled to the fore. We decided that, whatever contributes to killing Americans at a routine total rate of 8,000 or so a day, it shouldn’t be the coronavirus.

Accidents, yes—6% of deaths. Heart disease, yes—23%. Flu and pneumonia, yes—20%.

These deaths are allowed but not deaths from the coronavirus even at the cost of economic ruin for millions. Of course the media and public are free to decide now they never wanted flatten the curve; they wanted to be spared the virus altogether. But explain how this is to be done. And explain why. The Economist magazine says we can’t restart the economy without an “unprecedented” $180 billion testing regime. Unprecedented is an interesting word because China, a country of 1.4 billion people with eight cities larger than New York, either must have developed such a system with nobody noticing or hasn’t found it necessary.

With its porous southern border, with its nine million overseas citizens who can come home whenever they want, the U.S. isn’t New Zealand. Even so, I wonder if New Zealand a year from now will think it was sensible to seal itself off from the world to avoid a disease that may not be more deadly for the average person than the flu and certainly will not be extinguished elsewhere.

U.S. politicians, sensitive to their survival in office, are stuck trying to save their constituents simultaneously from the virus and poverty, and get only cheap shots from the media. Restarting the economy will lead to more coronavirus deaths—and more motor-vehicle deaths, more workplace deaths, even flu deaths.

What Americans need now is not another celebrity ad repeating the unsustainable “stay at home” mantra. They need detailed advice from government about how transmission does and does not occur (do masks help? are surface residues a significant threat? does infection confer immunity?) so they can learn to live with a virus that isn’t going away at least until a vaccine is developed.

And, for God’s sake, the media should stop confusing “infection fatality rate” with “case fatality rate,” grotesquely misleading the public on the true death rate. It’s hard to see why anybody would even report case fatality rate, a number without meaning since most of those tested either had celebrity access to testing or symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization (i.e., the equivalent of counting drunks and people who drive blue Austin-Healeys to estimate the risk of dying in a car accident).

Notice I have not mentioned Donald Trump since the second paragraph, because he has yet to find a way to be particularly relevant to this story—which I know will be shocking to readers who think the failings of Mr. Trump dwarf all other narratives.

Wonder Land: The coronavirus lockdown model is about to collapse beneath its own weight, undermined by politics, confusion about the virus itself, and the basics of human nature. Images: AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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