Recently I wrote about the choices politicians have had to make in breaking bad news about how their states, and the residents of their states, are going to have to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Breaking bad news to people is a tough job — but in some respects breaking good news is arguably even more challenging, at least under our current circumstances.
And, for the first time in a long time, there seem to actually be some glimmers of good news. Ohio, for example, has carefully managed to avoid “hot spot” or “potential hot spot” status, and yesterday the state’s number of reported new cases was below the curve of projected COVID-19 cases for the eighth day in a row. In fact, Ohio’s number of new reported cases was less than one third of projections.
There are also some tantalizing signs that the curve flattening and bending is happening elsewhere, too. In yesterday’s federal coronavirus task force briefing, for example, Dr. Anthony Fauci reported that recent data from New York indicates that the number of hospitalizations, intensive care admissions, and intubations in that hard-hit state have started to level off, and Dr. Deborah Birx reported that social distancing — the countrywide mitigation strategy that has been implemented on the largest scale ever attempted — appears to be working.
But therein lies the good news challenge. The curve seems to be flattening and potentially bending precisely because the vast majority of American have taken the stay-at-home instructions seriously and have tried, responsibly, to isolate in their households. But if you give people good news, might they relax in their precautions and let up a bit in their zealous pursuit of social distancing, thereby increasing the risk of a new flare-up and outbreak? And if you get people’s hopes up, won’t they feel even worse if it turns out that these preliminary signs aren’t the bend in the curve we are hoping for?
In this case, I’m in favor of giving people the good news as it comes out, with appropriate caveats. People have made a lot of sacrifices during this shut-in period. Some have lost their jobs — for now, at least — and everyone has experienced disruption and more personal isolation than they would want to experience otherwise. We all need to know that our sacrifices are making a difference. And, as Andy Dufresne wrote to his friend Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a good thing . . . maybe the best of things.” In this case, there’s nothing wrong with a little hope to leaven our collective spirits during difficult times.
I’ve got a lot of respect for the innate sensibilities of the American people. For every jerk who has ignored social distancing to party on a beach, there are tens of thousands who have acted prudently and without complaint during this period to protect themselves, their families and their communities. I’m confident that people will continue to act responsibly if they receive some positive news about how their efforts are making a real difference. In fact, I think there is a good chance that Americans react to such news by redoubling their social distancing efforts, to finally bring this scourge of a virus to its knees and drive a stake through its ugly heart.