Did the President Shut Down Too Soon?

‘What if’ questions are kind of pointless, outside of fiction (‘What if the South had won the Civil War?’). But the Democrats love them if they can cast aspersions on their favorite boogeyman, Donald Trump. For two months now they have been loudly deriding the President for taking too long to react to the arrival of the Wuhan Bat Bug on our shores.

The Boston Globe editors declared on March 30th that Mr. Trump “has blood on his hands” for not acting sooner. Kenneth Peres at Common Dreams indulges in rampant ‘what-if’ism on May 12th:


An April 2020 analysis by epidemiologists Britta Jewell and Nicholas Jewell . . . provided the following estimates for the range of preventable deaths.

“…an estimated 90 percent of the cumulative deaths in the United States from COVID-19, at least from the first wave of the epidemic, might have been prevented by putting social distancing policies into effect two weeks earlier, on March 2, when there were only 11 deaths in the entire country. The effect would have been substantial had the policies been imposed even one week earlier, on March 9, resulting in approximately a 60 percent reduction in deaths.”


Rufous Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus rouxii), thought to be the source of the SARS-COV-2 virus.  (Aditya Joshi / CC BY-SA)

This claim of a 90% reduction is evidently based on estimates derived from epidemiological models, speculating on the possible effects of ‘social distancing’ on a then-hypothetical epidemic caused by the new SARS-COV-2 coronavirus. The models themselves, which made wild predictions of the pandemic danger of the virus, were the basis of the President’s Task Force recommendations, leading him to endorse a drastic shutdown of the US economy by mid-March. The most extreme of these, the work of the British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, projected a possible 2.2 million deaths in the United States.

Even today President Trump is touting the 2.2 million figure to defend his policies since January. Had he not, he says, acted quickly in halting travel from China, and then from Europe, and had he not implemented the Task Force recommendations in March, we would be seeing vastly higher numbers of dead than we have. Given the vitriole of his critics, it is understandable that Mr. Trump would cling to the high model numbers, even if they have been long since discounted. “Look how much worse it could have been,” he can say.

But in point of fact, the models were based on scant evidence from China on both the contagiousness and the lethality of the Wuhan Bat Bug. Both were assumed to be as much as ten times worse than the influenzas that regularly afflict us, maybe as dangerous as the terrible Spanish Flu of 1918-19. Change the assumptions, and the model predictions change as well.

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