Politicians and Moving Goalposts

I’ve heard some friends express frustration that our political leaders keep changing what they’re asking of the population: Don’t wear a mask. Quarantine for a month to flatten the curve. Now wear a mask. Quarantine for a year until we get a vaccine. Going to the grocery is OK, but attending church isn’t. Social distancing.

We keep doing what we’re asked, hoping the latest will finally end all of this, and are understandably deeply frustrated and angry when our leaders keep throwing up now obstacles in this strange, infectious steeplechase.

The fact is, however, that our leaders are responding to a reality that is still not fully understood. Flattening the curve was a goal, and one could argue that we’ve done so. But bear in mind that this was a tactical goal. The strategic goal is to minimize the overall harm to the population, and the methods used have to change as we learn more.

Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” That is, when we learn more about the situation on the ground, the battle plan always has to be adjusted to account for the new information. The goalposts have to be moved. Refusing to adjust plans as we learn more loses battles.

So is going back to work risky? Of course, the answer to this is “sometimes.” Consider: The folks in the meatpacking industry who have seen severe outbreaks. Workers who are medically vulnerable. Parents who will have to send their kids back to a daycare with other sick kids. Those who live with their elderly abuelitas. Single parents who can’t find an open daycare.

But conversely, not going back to work is also causing a lot of people huge economic harm. Unemployment is at an all-time high in the US. The same parents who can’t put their kids in daycare are struggling to make ends meet. And the poor, who are most medically vulnerable, are also the most economically at risk from a few missed paychecks.

The easy road for a statesman to take would be to advocate for one extreme or another: “Open the country wide! Let’s get back to normal!” or “Everybody buckle down and stay home until we have a vaccine.” But either course would be catastrophic.

The immensely difficult task for a responsible leader is to recognize and balance the harm to lives with the harm to livelihoods and to do so with a still-incomplete understanding of COVID’s characteristics.

We have doubtless made mistakes and will continue to do so. But let those mistakes be born from the things we don’t yet know rather than a willful refusal to look at the very real challenges and suffering that people in different circumstances are experiencing.