Do we save more lives by social distancing or restarting the economy? | Opinion

April 23, 2020 6:30 am

Many protesters at the state Capitol focused their ire on Gov. Tom Wolf as the author of the state’s reaction to COVID-19. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

By John A. Tures

America has been given a tough choice: engage in social distancing and try to reduce the spike in body count from the coronavirus, or try to restart the economy and attempt to reduce deaths resulting from a strong economic recession.

Both sides claim they are the ones who will “save lives.” History can show us which is right, by looking at data from the Spanish Influenza, as well as the Great Depression.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from 2007 is the evidence that shows what would happen if we flattened the curve, as well as the consequences of not social distancing, titled “Public Health Interventions and Epidemic Intensity During The 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” written by Richard J. Hatchett, Carter E. Mecher, and Marc Lipsitch.

St. Louis realized early on the trouble that the Spanish Flu could provide.  The city closed schools and public institutions, limiting public gatherings, adopting many of the social distancing practices we’ve come to know. Those mitigation efforts did mitigate the spread of that disease.  The graph from that PNAS article demonstrates how the city flattened the curve.

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Philadelphia defied warnings and even threw a huge pro-World War I parade to show off their patriotism.  But all that they demonstrated was their ignorance. The Pennsylvania city had its hospitals overrun with the infected residents, and the death rate soared to 250 per 100,000 residents. St. Louis never topped 50 deaths per 100,000 residents.

But it’s not just the two towns that give us the evidence.

“Comparisons across 17 U.S. cities show that the first peak in excess P&I death rates during the fall wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic was ≈50% lower in cities that implemented multiple NPIs to control disease spread early in their epidemics than in cities that made such interventions late or not at all. This finding suggests that such interventions may be capable of significantly reducing the rate of disease transmission so long as they remain in effect.” Hatchett, Mecher and Lipsitch conclude.

What’s amazing is despite the success of St. Louis and failure in Philadelphia, Michael J. Coren for Quartz writes “’Social distancing interventions were not always trusted,’ he [Hatchett] wrote in an email; they were widely ignored during flu pandemics in 1957 and 1968.”  After the Hatchett research, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has adopted these practices.

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Critics of social distancing claim that the costs would be higher in an economic downturn would be worse than those of COVID-19, claiming they could lead to an increase in suicide or non-suicide deaths.

But history will shock you again. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that during the Great Depression, life expectancy overall went up, according to Jose A. Tapia Granados and Ana V. Diez Roux.

“Mortality tended to peak during years of strong economic expansion (such as 1923, 1926, 1929 and 1936-1937” the authors write in PNAS. “In contrast, the recessions of 1921, 1930-1933, and 1938 coincided with declines in mortality and gains in life expectancy.”

Of course, not all of it is due to economic activity, and the creation of Social Security could certainly explain the results of 1936 to 1938. But these results do debunk the notion that an economic depression would produce a boom in deaths, and that economic growth would automatically increase our life expectancy numbers.

Anyone doubting these facts should see America’s life expectancy numbers in the 1900s. They show just how bad death was during the Spanish Influenza. Life expectancy plunged from 55 years to 40 years in a short time.  Thankfully the numbers rebounded sharply after the disease passed.

But they are chilling statistics that reinforce the costly mistakes many cities made during the 1918-1920 Spanish Influenza pandemic.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary page. Readers may email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JohnTures2.

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