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Structuring the Debate Over COVID

The debate over how to manage the COVID crisis has surfaced two highly dissimilar perspectives:

  • Some argue that we must follow the guidance of scientists to minimize deaths.
  • Others say the greater threat is to close down the economy.

The current focus of this debate is whether and how to open schools. The first group maintains that the first priority should be avoiding further spread of the virus caused by forcing students into classrooms where many are unlikely to maintain appropriate distance. The contrary argument is that young children are at far less risk of contracting the virus, and their parents cannot rejoin the economy if obligated to stay home to care for their children.

Instead of viewing this dilemma as “us vs. them,” concerned citizens should frame the debate as a tension between two key drivers. When these drivers are arrayed on a 2×2 matrix, four scenarios can be constructed that better represent what choices are available to find an optimal resolution to the problem.

The two drivers can be represented on a simple spectrum:

 When these two spectra are arrayed on a 2×2 matrix, four distinct scenarios are generated:

The Hope Strategy in Quadrant I was followed to a large degree in countries such as China, South Korea, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand. As a result of restricting population movement and extensive testing, COVID numbers dropped sharply. With fewer cases, monitoring and contact tracing strategies have proven viable and effective. Officials are concerned, however, about the potential for a resurgence sparked by foreign travelers or a local spike.

The Fear Strategy in Quadrant III is starting to emerge as the best description of the current situation in the United States. Social discipline is lacking in many parts of the country, testing remains inadequate and outbreaks appear out of control in many states as the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are spiraling up. The fear is that it could get a lot worse than it already is.

With the Fear Strategy looming larger and the Hope Strategy no longer a realistic option, state and local officials—supported by health care professionals—have begun to adapt the Plan Strategy as shown in Quadrant II. They believe officials need to start closing down society again to get deaths under control. This will have serious economic repercussions. Models based on this scenario do not project full economic recovery until 2027 to 2029. Lives are saved but with serious damage to many local economies.

Many consider The Deal in Quadrant IV the nightmare scenario. If frustration mounts considerably, increasing numbers of people could argue that some deaths of the elderly and those with medical problems must die to get the economy back on its feet and avoid Quadrant III.

The bottom line is that none of these scenarios is optimal; each has pros and cons. The core issue is where does society believe  the country should be in terms of the two key drivers. A Constructionist Strategy (see “Destructionists vs. Constructionists: America’s New Political Divide,” The Analytic Insider June 2020) would focus the public debate on how far up or down each spectrum society wants to go in dealing with this unprecedented threat.

Once those preferences are known, then the task for public and health officials is to fashion a strategy that reflects popular expectations. A good place to start this process would be to inject this structuring of the problem into the school re-opening decision. As it becomes increasingly evident that we will need to find a new normal, it is critical to hone our ability to engage honestly as a society about what we value and what tradeoffs we are prepared to make.