Bookman: ‘If you don’t stop the pandemic, the economy will fail’

President Donald Trump gives Gov. Brian Kemp a chuck on the shoulder during his recent visit to Atlanta. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

On Tuesday, the state of Georgia reported an additional 3,413 cases of the novel coronavirus. 

Is that a lot? It sounds like a lot, but we’re six months deep into this pandemic, and it’s easy to become numb to all the numbers being tossed around. So maybe it would help if we put it into context:

The 3,413 new cases reported by the state of Georgia on Tuesday tops the total reported by the countries of France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Portugal, Poland, Switzerland, South Korea, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Ukraine combined. 

Georgia has a population of 10.5 million. The 13 countries listed above have a population of 437 million. So yes, 3,413 is a lot. So is 143,000, the number of U.S. dead, which accounts for more than one-fourth of the world’s total fatalities.

Of course, that’s the real world. You can live in that world, or you can choose to live in the world as described by President Trump.

“You will never hear this on the Fake News concerning the China Virus,” Trump tweeted Tuesday, “but by comparison to most other countries, who are suffering greatly, we are doing very well — and we have done things that few other countries could have done!”

In reality those numbers – 143,000 dead nationwide, 3,413 new cases in Georgia alone – represent a massive failure: a failure of leadership, institutional competence and empathy at both the state and federal levels. The fact that a few other states have caseloads that are rising even quicker than Georgia should not be cause for comfort; it should be a warning of what the path ahead may hold. 

In the countries listed above, and in many others where the pandemic response has been effective, local economies have largely reopened. People are back to work; restaurants are operating. Their schools and universities are preparing for in-person instruction this fall, with little controversy. Their sports leagues are operating. Life has returned to something approaching normal, because they have done the hard work of bringing the virus under control and are now reaping the benefits.

Clearly, we have not. If you’re feeling frustrated, you ought to be. If you’re angry, you should be. If you’re fearful about losing your job, your small business, your home, that fear is justified. 

It didn’t have to be like this. As recently as January, the United States was considered the international gold standard in public health, with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged as the world’s leading authority in handling pandemics. We clearly have the resources; we have the infrastructure, we have the scientific know-how. Yet we still somehow managed to screw it up royally and become the country that others don’t want to become.

Personally, I’m not content to let that “somehow” just sit there, as if we’re helpless to figure it out. Here in Georgia, as at the national level, part of the problem is that we have treated immediate economic impact as an equal or greater priority than long-term public health. Even if we set aside questions of morality, in practical terms that approach has been both an economic and public-health disaster. 

Even now, almost every public pronouncement that I have seen or read from Gov. Brian Kemp places a much higher priority on the economic toll of this pandemic than on the thousands of deaths it has caused in the state. 

If you stop the pandemic, the economy will rebound. If you don’t stop the pandemic, the economy will fail.

Then there’s the “freedom” question, the supposed trade-off between liberty and public health involved in issues such as mandatory mask orders. Kemp has made it clear that despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, he will not issue a statewide order to wear masks in public and he refuses to allow local officials to take that action on their own.

That’s foolishness, because this is really basic stuff, stuff that is fundamental to the very concept of government.

As adult Americans, you have the liberty and freedom to smoke cigarettes. You also have the liberty and freedom to drink alcohol. Those are your choices. However, you don’t have the “liberty” to smoke cigarettes in a public building, and you don’t have the “freedom” to drive drunk. Government does not allow you to do those things because by doing them you put the lives and well-being of other people at significant risk. The same is true about not wearing masks in the middle of a killer pandemic.

And yes, ideally, you wouldn’t need laws and regulations to stop people from smoking in a public place, just as you wouldn’t need laws to stop people from driving drunk. But in case you haven’t been reminded recently, we do not live in that ideal world. It feels as if it’s getting less and less ideal all the time.