Dr. Phil: We don't shut down the country because 360,000 people a year drown in pools, do we?

Second time in four days that a pseudo-expert has made a point on Fox in support of the “reopen now” agenda that’s so blatantly false that it can’t have been made in good faith. Four days ago Bill Bennett compared the annual flu death toll to the projected coronavirus death toll in wondering why we don’t shut down the country every year to stop the flu.

The answer, apparent to anyone with a second-grade education: Because we have none of the other weapons against coronavirus that we have against the flu. No natural immunity, no antiviral treatments, no vaccine. Social distancing is the only way to slow it down at the moment. Carry on as normal and there’s every reason to believe the death toll between this disease and the flu would diverge spectacularly. Comparing deaths from one highly contagious disease during a lockdown to deaths from another without a lockdown is idiotic, and willfully so.

Now here’s Phil McGraw, who’s no more a virologist than I am (or Bennett is) but who was invited onto Laura Ingraham’s show anyway last night as a sort of rebuttal witness after she interviewed Anthony Fauci earlier in the program. What grade of education would one need to recognize (a) the annual death toll from drownings is much, much lower than 360,000, (b) the fact that COVID-19 is contagious whereas swimming deaths aren’t requires a different mitigation strategy, and (c) there are way less disruptive means to reduce deaths from drowning, car crashes, and smoking than ordering a national shutdown whereas, with coronavirus, there really aren’t?

There are around 3,500 unintentional drownings (unrelated to boating) in the U.S. every year, per the CDC, but the particular number isn’t important. The important part is the apples-to-oranges dishonesty of implying that there’s some alternative right now between letting the virus run free and imposing a degree of social distancing that’s going to have brutal economic consequences. I don’t mean lockdowns; those can and will be lifted soon. I mean the hard reality that a sizable chunk of the population will remain wary of public spaces like retail stores and restaurants for many months, until it has reason to believe the risk of illness and death has fallen. We have lots of alternatives with everything else McGraw mentions. We can tax cigarettes to reduce consumption and we can treat cancer patients with chemotherapy. We can pass laws for public pools requiring a lifeguard to be on duty at all times. We can set speed limits and require seatbelts and air bags to make car crashes less fatal.

Not only can we, in fact. We do. We took action to limit deaths from each of those causes. Just like we’re doing with coronavirus now.

The problem with COVID-19, for now, is that staying away from each other is the only course of action available to us to limit fatalities. It’s our only defense.

Ingraham did a little better in her interview with Fauci earlier in the program, wanting to know why we didn’t shut down the country to contain HIV or SARS. That’s at least comparing two different types of apples instead of apples to oranges. But the answer to each question boils down to this: Look at the number of infections in the U.S. in the span of just six weeks — 660,000 known, with 30,000 dead, and doubtless many more still unknown — and ask why we *wouldn’t* react differently to COVID than to HIV or SARS. It may be only through luck and aggressive containment in Asia that we were spared a similar epidemic in 2003 with SARS but that luck didn’t recur this time. Ingraham’s attitude seems to be “If we didn’t shut down for HIV then we can’t properly shut down now,” regardless of whether it’s necessary or not to avoid a freakish death toll.