Could California Be Setting a Model for the Nation?

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

There are three coronavirus response models being offered for general public consumption with varying degrees of popularity. None are particularly comforting. Each has fallacies.

For purposes of discussion I will call them (1) the Utopian Model; (2) the Science-Based Model; and (3) the Doomsday Model.

California’s preference hews closer to the second model with some elements of the first. The third iteration is too frightening to contemplate.

A look at each:

The Utopian vision which has been coopted by the president and his Administration presumes that miracle cures (e.g. the injection of toxic disinfectants) are just around the corner and the messages from the CDC and other authorities that paint a far grimmer picture can be safely ignored.

“This will go away without a vaccine,” declared Trump the other day.

The task force press conferences which were briefly disbanded and are now apparently under revision to suit an audience which he believes is hungering for more will put greater emphasis on the failing economy than the real-time imperatives of an unprecedented health crisis.

The two are inseparable which suggests that the remedies must work together or they will most likely fail. Most businesses, public places and many other vital institutions cannot safely open all at once in a nation spreading an invisible sickness at a terrifying rate despite super-human efforts to contain it.

Though Californians have so far been largely spared, the well-publicized “flattening” of the COVID-19 curves continue stubbornly upward in many parts of the nation as infections and deaths steadily rise.

California has reported over 63,000 cases in just the past 6 weeks and soon over 2,600 deaths! In two months the unemployment claims have surpassed 4 million.  The actual jobless totals are probably much higher when those who chose not to apply or have been chronically unemployed are counted.

The national unemployment rate is a staggering 14.7%— highest since the Depression with more than 1 in every 5 out of work.

Making light of that, President Trump exclaims, “We had the greatest economy in the history of the world…and we will come back stronger than ever.”

Brave words or sheer fantasy?

Utopians focus on the second set of numbers and the opening of society as the key to recovery. There is no argument anywhere that a restoration of our economic health is of the highest priority. And there is also little question that the repercussions before that can occur will be devastating and long-lasting.

The unvarnished truth is that there can be no full-bore opening as long as carriers of the coronavirus bring them into their workplaces threatening to once again overwhelm our medical system.

This stubborn disease cannot and will not be wished away.

The universal catechism repeated ad nauseum is “test, trace, treat, isolate”—an easily understood prescription long advanced by the CDC and the vast majority of health experts—though proving very difficult if not impossible to carry out in many places.

In California the PPEs which includes the testing kits, machines and reagents are still in short supply and in the state’s most rural areas where the infections are increasing there is inadequate medical personnel.

San Francisco which was among the first to institute the strictest stay-at-home orders has shown a marked flattening of the curve.  However, Los Angeles which adopted similar restrictions only a few days later is experiencing a spike even after aggressive actions to bring containment.

The federal government is touting its ability to carry out 250,000 tests daily. The vast majority of those in the medical community are recommending 2-3 million tests every day.  That may also be utopian.

Californians have been very good at exercising “social distancing—to date the most reliable disease suppressor while we await the foretold vaccine whose discovery is months and perhaps even years away!

Fears of a resurgence in the Fall are apparently not part of the utopian model.

Ongoing community surveillance to arrest the spread of the virus are only possible through intense contact tracing which is non-existent in many places in California and elsewhere.

The Utopian theorists —which include some big-state governors such as those in Georgia, Florida and Texas—are encouraging a return to so-called “normalcy” in conditions that are the most abnormal in our lifetimes. Yet, the White House has registered few objections.

Some governmental stumbling and even serious mistakes as we confronted this novel and inexplicably lethal bug was predictable. The remarkably inept response and lack of preparation at the highest levels of government was not.

Trump has repeatedly issued pandemic-fighting guidelines which are often confounding, contradicting ones endorsed just days earlier by the CDC and the president’s own medical brain trust.

California’s young governor, Gavin Newsom, is not openly defying these fuzzy directives, and to the contrary, has been very cooperative while retaining flexibility to chart a different course.

This has paid big dividends. California is expected to receive upwards of $20 billion in COVID-19 related funding just in the first round of federal assistance.

Even so, in the upcoming year a shortfall in excess of $54 billion is anticipated in the state budget. The January budget called for $222 billion after the buildup of a $21 billion surplus. It will not return again anytime soon.

The federal government can always print more money—something which neither California nor any other state can do since they are duty-bound to balance their budgets.

The Doomsday model suggests that talk of any cure is purely fanciful and we are just marking time while the planet continues its inexorable march toward extinction. If the coronavirus does not write our final chapter, then the next pandemic will.

By such dire predictions the greatest exertions of the scientific community will ultimately bear little fruit as we fight a battle we are destined to lose. In short, whether through climate change other natural disasters or disease we are doomed!

By these forebodings President Trump’s more charitable detractors may see him as playing the role of a latter-day Sisyphus — the practitioner in Greek mythology of infamous trickery and deceitfulness who pushed an immense boulder up a hill only to have it roll down every time it reached the top!

Fortunately, neither the utopian model nor the more apocalyptic one carry much weight. Those who subscribe to the utopian model tend to dismiss science as a useful tool but are doing so at the risk of prolonging the duration and the spread of the virus.

California’s governor is not buying into that model.

New York with highest number of deaths and infections of any state demonstrated that even against seemingly insurmountable odds, by following a science-based data-driven recovery program that threw every resource possible at it, the pandemic can be beaten down.

California is invoking measures similar to those New York implemented that Gov. Andrew Cuomo summarizes in his heralded daily briefings which are getting higher popularity ratings to the president’s dismay.

Newsom has initiated a four-phase opening of the state designed to do the least to further imperil public safety if it works. Even so, Phase 2 calls for the reopening of 70% of the state’s economy.

Only time will tell but advocates of the do-as-little-as-possible approach are treading on dangerous ground.

Newsom has relaxed his stay-at-home order to enable selected retailers to reopen with curbside pickups that prohibits customers from entering stores.

Restaurants, beauty salons and gyms will come later and large sports venues after that.

This minimalist approach lessens the risks although it will not eliminate them. It will do little to console families that have lost loved ones or bring an end to the ongoing suffering in communities around the state—particularly among those in black, brown and other underserved populations— least capable of combatting the disease.

The utopian dream for those who subscribe to it relies on false prophets akin to the Doomsday theorists. There will be many battles ahead if and when total victory can be declared.

The infections are still spreading.  Lives lost cannot be restored and more losses are inevitable. Our obligation is to make the optimal  decisions that may ease the pain to catch up with a virus that got ahead of us.

In six months California’s voters and those across the nation will be able to tell us among other things which model made the most sense.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.