Why I won’t give you a hug


Dan Hicks


May 8, 2020

Dear family member,

I understand your perspective. The rural Californian county where you live — like mine — has had a few dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19, and no deaths. You talked to another member of our extended family, in an even more remote and rural county; he told you that he, his family, and his buddies all had something that sounds a lot like COVID-19, back in February. He couldn’t get tested at that point, of course, but they had all the symptoms: dry cough, fever, body aches. You’ve read a couple of news stories, saying that we know COVID-19 was in the state in February, and that a lot more people had antibodies for the disease than we first suspected (though, in our state, this is maybe as high as 4%, not 40%).

Meanwhile, due to health issues in your household, you’ve been under quarantine since the first of March. You missed one family birthday gathering — the last family gathering of any kind — in the first week of March, not long before the whole state went into quarantine. That’s exhausting. Lots of small business owners in your community haven’t been eligible to apply for unemployment. Some of your neighbors have gotten their relief checks — a single check, that can cover some fraction of one month’s rent, their only income over the past six weeks. Others — especially older folks who don’t do their taxes online — are still waiting for their checks. You retired recently, and right now your primary income is rent from a small cottage on your property. But you’re not entirely sure whether the family living in the cottage is working right now. If they can’t pay their rent, you’re not quite sure how you’ll be able to pay the electric bill and get groceries.

It’s not that you want to open the doors wide across the state. The outbreak in the Bay Area, about two hours from both of us, is still simmering. And things are still quite bad in LA. But, you think, rural counties like ours, with just a few dozen confirmed cases and no deaths, we should be able to open things back up. For our communities, the treatment seems to be worse than the disease.

That’s your perspective, and I can understand and respect why you think that. It would be great for people to go back to work, for the state and national parks to reopen, for our family to get together again for food and hugs.

But I have a different perspective. In major epidemics this one, outbreaks and quarantines tend to come in cycles. Things start to get bad, quarantine is imposed until they simmer down again, things open up, and then things start to get bad again. And because COVID-19 is so sneaky, it’s incredibly easy for things to get bad again, incredibly quickly. In Chicago, in a series of family get-togethers, one infected person unwittingly spread the disease to 16 other people. Three of those people died, and several went on to infect further people, all within a few weeks. While things are quiet in our rural counties now, just fewer than 10 active, confirmed cases, I worry that opening things up too quickly will lead to 100 cases, then 500, and then our small rural hospitals will be overwhelmed.

To prevent another bad way of cases, we need to be able to do the two things that the CDC has recommended since January: lots of testing, and rapid contact tracing. In California, the latest recommendation is that we should be able to do 108 tests per 100,000 people. (This is actually lower than the recommendation of 152 tests per 100,000 people from mid-April.) But currently we’re only doing 74 tests per 100,000 people. We’ve expanded our testing capacity, but we’ve still got a ways to go. Things are even worse in most other states.

I know you don’t like to talk about politics. But for me the crisis is unavoidably political, in terms of both the disease itself as well as the economic effects of the quarantine. As the epidemic unfolded in Asia in January and February, Trump was repeatedly warned that it would be here and that we needed to prepare. The Defense Production Act gives Trump the authority to order manufacturers to produce essential goods — like protective equipment for doctors and the swabs and chemicals needed for testing. He’s barely used it, which is part of the reason why our testing capacity is still so far below where it needs to be.

On the economic side, some of the effects of the quarantine are unavoidable. Shutting down the economy for 6 weeks or longer means that some economic pain is unavoidable. But we’re not distributing this pain fairly. Restaurant servers and kitchen staff are getting that one check, plus a little bump in unemployment benefits. The airline industry is getting tens of billions of dollars, and real estate investors — including Trump and his family — are getting $170 billion.

When we talked the other day, I told you about Germany’s approach to the crisis, where the government covers workers’ salaries, avoiding the disastrous spike in unemployment that we’ve seen in the US. You asked me how we could possibly pay for such a program. For the past few years, Amazon has made billions of dollars of profits, but paid no federal income tax, and even received refunds of more than $100 million. In part, this is due to Trump’s 2017 corporate tax cut. Since March, Amazon’s stock price has increased about 25%, as customers shift from brick-and-mortar stores to shopping online during the pandemic. Even if you don’t agree with me that a substantial general increase in taxes on the wealthy and large corporations is a good idea, couldn’t we agree that a one-time tax on windfall profits would be fair?

I hope that I’m wrong about what’s going to happen over the next few weeks. Like you, I think it would be wonderful if most people had already been exposed, that cases don’t rise as we reopen the economy, and that the emergency field hospitals and testing sites we’ve built over the last six weeks turn out to be unnecessary. I want to go backpacking, enjoy a latte on a Saturday afternoon before going to the movies, and most importantly get together with you and everyone else for a family dinner. But we’re far from certain that this best-case scenario is what’s going to happen. From my perspective, we need to move slowly, and be prepared for the worst case.

I love you. But I won’t hug you. Not until June.