As I watch what is happening in Louisiana, as state Rep. Blake Miguez of Erath leads the attempt by Republicans in the state House of Representatives to undermine the governor's authority to respond to COVID-19, I am reminded of lemmings following each other off a cliff. If they want to take that leap it would be okay with me — I wish them a pleasant journey — except that they want to take the rest of Louisiana with them, killing thousands of their own constituents and gaining nothing in the process. Now the issue is in the courts, and the courts need to understand what's at stake.
I spent seven years studying the 1918 influenza pandemic, participated in the George W. Bush administration's preparations for a pandemic, and have stayed involved in the issue ever since, including advising individuals in the Obama White House during the 2009 influenza outbreak, and engaging with World Health Organization senior personnel in the last few months. I can assure readers that there are multiple reasons why canceling the governor's order is not just bad policy, it's a disastrous policy.
Apparently the chief objection Miguez and his colleagues have to the governor's position — other than pure political gamesmanship — is that it damages the economy. But if they care so much about money, they should consider that eliminating the emergency would threaten access to enormous amounts of federal dollars to help fight COVID-19. More importantly, they view public health — saving people's lives — as antagonistic to economic recovery, that it's either/ or. That is a foolish and ignorant position to take, unsupported by actual evidence. The truth is that economic recovery depends on whether the public believes that going out is safe. Both history and recent studies make that point. Lifting restrictions would lead Louisiana down the path of herd immunity, kill an unacceptable number of their constituents, yet do nothing to restore the economy.
In the 1918 pandemic, cities that imposed stricter regulations and stayed closed longer had a stronger economic recovery after the pandemic. That's according to a study this year by a member of the Federal Reserve board and an Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist. Another study of this year’s economic collapse done by University of Chicago economists — among the most conservative economics departments in the country — asked “how much of that collapse resulted from government-imposed restrictions.” They analyzed data from 2.25 million businesses and concluded "legal restrictions explain only 7 percentage points of this. Individual choices were far more important and seem tied to fears of infection."
Herd immunity advocates point to Sweden, which tried a similar approach, and claim infection of as little as 25% of the population could achieve it. They are wrong. In Manaus, a Brazilian city of almost two million, 66% of the population has been infected — and cases are surging again. Sweden had five times the per capita death toll of neighboring Denmark and eleven times neighboring Norway — and its economy performed worse than either, and cases there are also surging.
Early in the pandemic New Orleans had the fastest increases in new cases in the world, and the rest of the state wasn't doing well either. We finally got it more or less under control, at least compared to much of the rest of the country. That's because John Bel Edwards and LaToya Cantrell have done the right thing.
John M. Barry is the author of "The Great Infleunza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history," and a professor at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.