Ireland cancelled its St. Patrick’s Day parades. So did Boston. Austin scrapped the famous South by Southwest Festival. Universities are moving their classes online. Employers have been telling people to work from home to avoid exposure to Covid-19, the deadly coronavirus disease that is rapidly becoming a global pandemic.
Disruptive as they are, those fast, decisive actions may save lives. Past outbreaks suggest that when public health officials move aggressively in the early stages of pandemics, their efforts are more effective. One study of 17 cities’ historic outbreak-response found that when measures to increase “social distancing” (including canceling large events) are deployed early on in an outbreak, cities can cut in half an epidemic’s peak death rate. While it may seem like an overreaction to cancel classes or large events when the number of cases in the United States is still relatively low (423 as of Monday), this is actually just when officials should be on the case.
“States and cities are going to have to act in the interest of the national interest right now to prevent a broader epidemic,” said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, on Sunday. “Close businesses, close large gatherings, close theaters, cancel events,” Gottlieb said.
So far, the virus has killed more than 3,000 people across the globe. It has already led to scenes that seem surreal in a modern society. Italy ordered millions of people to quarantine. In Europe, soccer teams play before empty stadiums. Ships at sea with sick passengers have been denied entry to ports. In some parts of the country, stores have run out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. For many Americans, the coronavirus outbreak is the first time they’ve personally experienced a pandemic so severe, with all the fear and disruption it can cause.
The Centers for Disease Control suggests that Americans avoid crowds, keep space between themselves and other people, and stay away from cruise ships. Older Americans in particular, or people with preexisting conditions like diabetes and heart or lung disease, should be especially careful. But all of our actions, whether young or old, sick or healthy, matter, because we all have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable from greater exposure to the disease.
On Monday, Boston officials canceled the city’s parade, out of what Mayor Marty Walsh described as “abundance of caution.” Large conventions in the city have already been postponed or canceled. Schools across the state have closed, though often just for a day or two to disinfect buildings.
Each of those decisions will cost businesses money or force parents to stay home, inflicting real economic damage. The financial impact of the virus is certain to go well beyond the turbulence in the stock market. Airlines, hotels, and restaurants all stand to suffer major losses. Global supply chains have already been disrupted, and with so many businesses already carrying high debt, there is a growing risk of financial crisis.
Unlike in other countries, in the United States local officials have to make the tough calls on whether to cancel events or order quarantines. These are hard choices. But the old saying about an ounce of prevention has never been truer than in the critical early stages of this outbreak.
This editorial has been updated to reflect breaking news.
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