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Jerome E. Dobson and William A. Herbert: Pandemic puts Americans' patience, flexibility to the test

Jerome E. Dobson and William A. Herbert: Pandemic puts Americans' patience, flexibility to the test

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White House guidelines for reopening say “fewer COVID-19 cases, sufficient hospitals, adequate testing.” All well and good, but what about public trust? That requires straight talk, which is rarer than masks these days. Honesty is key, and common sense is overdue.

In politics today, polarities dominate the airwaves while reasoned debate subsides to background noise. An overwhelming majority of Americans fear reopening too soon, surveys have found. Conversely, vocal opponents demand immediate cessation of preventive measures.

In previous eras, civic leaders and scholars might have sparked thoughtful debate throughout a broad spectrum of society. In today’s hostile culture, misinformation and confusion reign. People are suspicious when the pandemic becomes a convenient excuse to close borders like a wall. Conscientious citizens scratch their heads and wonder: Why can’t we leave our homes? Hike alone in a park? Swim in an ocean? Plant a garden?

Legitimate questions go unanswered.

Why say “stay at home” or “safer at home” in the first place? Clearly, it’s not the confined space of a building that changes risk, but rather geometric separation from others infected. The most vulnerable populations are confined inside buildings such as nursing homes, psychiatric wards, prisons and unsafe workplaces. It makes more sense to change the guidance to: keep apart, be safe. And adjust rules to match real world geography.

Geography-based quarantining slows the spread of the virus, but it must be articulated intelligently, implemented carefully, and explained respectfully, codifying the advice of public health authorities, not mere politicians.

Societal divides, now fully exposed, need to be remedied as the pandemic recedes. Policies focus primarily on cities, and confusion results when those same policies are applied to less-dense areas. For some officials, “outside” conjures visions of intermingling urban crowds, while rural residents earnestly believe they can maintain proper distances outdoors.

Saving lives also means saving jobs, especially in vital industries that provide medicine, food, shelter, transport and reasons to live. Workers deserve a voice in workplace conditions with labor, health and safety laws enforced.

Will policies be enforced in authoritarian ways? The mayor of Messina, Italy, yells obscenities from drones watching over his constituents. China’s Social Credit System utilizes human tracking, drones and information systems to calculate a score that determines every aspect — travel, jobs, social status − of individual lives.

For two decades, we’ve warned about geoslavery — the coercive or surreptitious use of location-based technologies to track and control human movement. China embraces it, but similar authoritarian measures would fail in the United States. A Connecticut town canceled its controversial deployment of drones to monitor pedestrians’ body temperatures. Only reasoned persuasion will coax compliance in this country.

Most disasters are what experts call complex emergencies. Floods cause fires. Fires cause power outages. But pandemics?

The novel coronavirus presents as complexity in the extreme, and every side effect is as mighty as the disease itself. Suddenly, every nation must save lives, economies, values, and public trust — all simultaneous, urgent and essential — and each brings its own complementary, competing and contradictory necessities.

Recovery is not just about finances but also values. How many deaths, how much lower health quality will Americans accept for a certain level of prosperity? How much democracy are people willing to forego temporarily — or permanently? How much privacy and freedom? Money will be essential, however, for expertise, equipment and supplies. Greater necessities and reduced prosperity will mean higher taxes, especially for those profiting from the pandemic.

For reopening, the goal must be to minimize deaths and illnesses while restoring essential goods and services, protecting fundamental rights, and maintaining acceptable lifestyles. The formula will vary from place to place based on human and physical geography.

Jerome E. Dobson is a professor emeritus of geography at the University of Kansas; president emeritus, American Geographical Society; and a trustee of Reinhardt University. He also is a Jefferson science fellow with the National Academies and U. S. Department of State. William A. Herbert is a distinguished lecturer at Hunter College, City University of New York, and a faculty associate at the Roosevelt House Institute for Public Policy.

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