Amassing the significant labor force necessary for “contact tracing” might not be too difficult in a time of mass unemployment. What will be harder to overcome are the legitimate worries Americans will have over violations of privacy. Not to mention how they might respond to the techniques of “isolation.” Checking oneself into a government-approved corona-hotel requires a deference to authority and devaluing of autonomy that runs against the American grain. We have enough trouble getting folks to wear masks.
John Cochrane of Stanford’s Hoover Institution calls the expert recommendations a “smart reopening.” He also says it is unlikely to happen. Instead, we are in for a “dumb reopening,” where people tentatively resume patterns of life resembling normality until they hear of rising infections in their area and reduce social contact voluntarily, causing a decline in new cases. “There are hundreds of little behaviors each of us take that push the reproduction rate around.” Think of a turtle retreating to his shell.
It is astonishing (and frightening) to consider that, despite our technology and wealth, America seems fated to respond to the coronavirus much in the same way it responded to the Spanish influenza a century ago: stop and go, in fits and starts, a 3,007-county patchwork of closings and re-openings and more closings, where individual responsibility and self-discipline matter as much as, if not more than, bureaucratic fiat. A “dumb reopening” would not suppress the disease, but it might provide a chance to address some of the economic, social, religious, cultural, and psychological damage that the coronavirus has wrought. And, given the recent decisions by officials both Republican and Democratic, a “dumb reopening” lies ahead. Whether we like it or not.