COVID-19: The Fierce Urgency of Now
Two days ago, on March 10, members of Indivisible in Florida received an email inviting them to join in a new “battleground-state initiative” called Organizing Together 2020, and to “get in on the ground floor” as the effort starts to open field offices across the state. Tonight, several of Indivisible’s national organizing staff are hosting a conference call for potential volunteers there. “We’re launching Organizing Together 2020 in Florida to defeat Trump and his agenda. Whether you’re committed to a candidate or still undecided, Organizing Together 2020 will be a home base for you to organize your community,” reads the sign-up page for the call. “We don’t have time to waste — we need to start organizing now if we want to beat Donald Trump in November.”
Indivisible isn’t alone. The Joe Biden for President campaign is currently asking people to sign-up to knock on doors for him in Florida, Arizona, and Illinois. AccessNow, the digital rights organization, just sent me an email asking for nominations for the “Privacy Defenders and Offenders” project, with the winners of the Privacy Defender Award getting full travel funding and program support to participate in the annual RightsCon conference, which is scheduled for June 9-12 in Costa Rica.
That’s just on the left. On the right, the Trump 2020 campaign website lists dozens of “MAGA Meetups” all across the country. The National Rifle Association has a whole slate of shooting competitions and sportsfests for kids scheduled. Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition just announced its annual “Road to Majority” policy conference will be held in Washington, DC at the end of June—this after a number of Members of Congress were exposed to coronavirus by an infected attendee at the annual CPAC conference.
It’s understandable why so many political organizations are moving forward with their existing plans in the face of the unknowns presented by the rapidly moving coronavirus. We’ve never experienced a pandemic like this one, where the virus is dangerous to many, contagious even when people aren’t showing symptoms, and there is no cure or vaccine. Organizations can’t change on a dime. Back in 2010, when the BP oil spill took place, none of the Big Ten national environmental organizations made any significant changes in their programming or organizing, even as the spill lasted for months and garnered huge nightly coverage on television.
But the math of exponential growth suggests that this is no time for business as usual. As of today, the United States has 1,323 confirmed cases, according Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. That number is undoubtedly low, since so few tests are available. For arguments sake, let’s say there are 2,000 cases of infection. Health experts say the number of people infected is doubling every 4-6 days, but again to keep things simple, let’s say every 5 days. At that rate, with no reduction in the virus’ spread, we will have more than 2 million Americans with coronavirus 50 days from now, at the end of April, and all the spare capacity in the nation’s hospitals will be used. By mid-May, we’ll have 16 million and hospitals will be totally overwhelmed.
It’s true that national political organizations are starting to wake up to the threat. Ben Wikler, the head of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, just announced that it is ending all in-person canvassing and postponing in-person events. Indivisible National has been pushing to pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which is facing opposition in the Republican-controlled US Senate. But it has also just published a guide to “Community Building During the Coronavirus” that, to be frank, vacillates about what needs to be done to flatten the curve. Instead of recognizing the dire nature of the current crisis, it says “it might be the right decision in some circumstances” to cancel in-person meetings and suggests waiting until local authorities impose meeting restrictions before taking the more responsible action of stopping them.
The evidence is clear that strong proactive action centered on immediately reducing social interaction can slow the virus’ spread and save lives. As Nicholas Christakis, a Yale University physician and social scientist who studies social networks tells Science magazine in a March 10 interview, closing a school reactively, after a moderately transmissible pathogen is detected, reduces the total infection rate by 25% and delays the local peak of an epidemic by about two weeks. But, he adds,
Proactive school closures—closing schools before there’s a case there—have been shown to be one of the most powerful nonpharmaceutical interventions that we can deploy. Proactive school closures work like reactive school closures not just because they get the children, the little vectors, removed from circulation. It’s not just about keeping the kids safe. It’s keeping the whole community safe. When you close the schools, you reduce the mixing of the adults—parents dropping off at the school, the teachers being present. When you close the schools, you effectively require the parents to stay home. There was a wonderful paper published that analyzed data regarding the Spanish flu in 1918, examining proactive versus reactive school closures. When did [regional] authorities close the schools relative to when the epidemic was spiking? What they found was that proactive school closing saved substantial numbers of lives. St. Louis closed the schools about a day in advance of the epidemic spiking, for 143 days. Pittsburgh closed 7 days after the peak and only for 53 days. And the death rate for the epidemic in St. Louis was roughly one-third as high as in Pittsburgh. These things work.
There is still time, I think, for us to press for strong action. Plenty of people and organizations–including us here at Civic Hall–are obviously moving on their own to shut down or shift to work-from-home as the norm. I suspect that inside lots of national political organizations, staff are having urgent discussions about their own workplace decisions. But at the same time, we need the leaders of those groups to also speak up more clearly about the need to face the urgency of this crisis. Many lives are in the balance.