DANIEL VAUGHAN: Reopening the economy into the great unknown

One of Socrates’ better observations was that he knew “nothing except the fact of my ignorance.”

The great Greek philosopher taught an intellectual humility that was always aware that the human mind has limits. We cannot know everything. And the great danger in anything related to humans is that there’s still the great unknown we have to contend with, which should engender a deep humility in the face of our infallibility.

We’re entering one of those unknowns right now as governors across the country weigh whether and how to reopen state economies. Have we passed the peak of COVID-19? The novel coronavirus has wrecked health care systems across the world, brought the global economy to its knees, and in five weeks more than erased all the jobs gains from the darkest point of the Great Recession to the present.

What we’re experiencing is one of the swiftest public health calamities in human history. Every day brings with it new developments, mountains of information, and adjusted models trying to account for all the variables. In response, individual humans have made a choice, apart from governments, to shut down the economy.

Our illusions of control over the natural environment have evaporated. The geopolitical ramifications have brought some institutions low while shining a light on new enemies of America.

None of this was predictable, even two months ago. And even with all these facts, it seems, for now, that we’ve escaped the worst-case scenarios bandied about on social media and cable television. Could we experience another surge from this virus, shutting things down again? That’s certainly possible.

But that’s the thing we’re dealing with now: possibilities. Possibilities and variables. With approximately one in five Americans out of a job and various parts of the country past, in the middle of, or still facing the prospect of peak-COVID-19, we’re stepping into the unknown “returning to normal.” We don’t know if normal is possible.

President Trump likes analogizing things to wartime, and saying that he’s a wartime president. In war, though, we usually know when hostilities have ended and whether we’ve achieved victory. Viruses don’t fight under the Geneva convention.

With COVID-19, we don’t know. And that’s why people on both sides are acting with such surety of their positions. You either fear the unknown and don’t want things to open up again, or you’re claiming a readiness to face the great unknowns of a viral disease that spreads rapidly, and our detection lags several days behind. But we genuinely don’t know whether normal will return and, if it does, how long that will take.

That’s why we should take heed the warnings of Socrates. Or, if you prefer, take the Biblical Proverb that says, “Pride cometh before the fall.” It’s a warning some churches should have heeded to avoid losing members to the virus.

Could reopening the economy work? Sure. It could also end up creating a second wave of infections, more significant than this initial wave. That was one of the lessons we took away from the dreadful 1918 Spanish Flu: never let your guard down.

For Americans of the early 20th Century, the second wave led to more casualties than the first. And even if reopening now is the right option, we’re still not basing that on hard evidence. It’s our best guess.

Speaking of guesses, the epidemiologists are guessing as much as the next person. They’ve built models and tried to capture all the variables. But this is the first time that entire field has had to contend with a virus sweeping the globe and try to give advice to leaders of all levels on the best course of action.

They’re doing the best they can, obviously, but all the models they’ve got are based only on the pandemics of history. Now, it’s showtime; the data and variables are changing rapidly, and so are the estimates.

The epidemiologist’s weaknesses are natural: they face no political blowback if they mess up, and they don’t know how to fix or reopen the economy. Their only focus is public health — a noble goal, but only one aspect of the problem for decision-makers. They offer helpful probabilities. But even the slimmest of possibilities can come true in any environment. Donald Trump can beat Hilary Clinton, rain can occur on a sunny day, and the Cubs can break the curse and win a World Series.

The key to this moment isn’t self-assurance of your stance on any one given point: it’s flexibility and adaptability. Public policy has to adapt to changing facts and shifting variables.

It takes humility to acknowledge that our conclusions can turn on a dime with new information. In the abstract, that makes sense. In our polarized time, however, all anyone wants to do is beat the “other side” on the head over “missed predictions.” The truth is they didn’t know, either.

Everyone missed this virus. Everyone. No one gets a passing grade. We weren’t prepared, we didn’t think it would affect us to this degree, and our institutions were slow to react. That’s all in the past, though it deserves future examination.

What is ahead of us, though, is the unknown. And we need to acknowledge our great ignorance in this time if we’re going to come out on the other side of this safe and sound.