Calls to “flatten the curve” are everywhere. A phrase with little meaning a few weeks ago has become Public Goal No. 1.
Last week, the United States surpassed Italy and China as the nation with the most reported positive cases of coronavirus. Although North Dakota is far behind many states’ confirmed case and fatality counts, some fear an outbreak is on the horizon. Cass County recently reached double-digit confirmed cases and had the first coronavirus-related death in the state. Community spread is now resulting in more new cases than travel-related causes.
So, if flattening the curve is our top priority, the question remains: how?
Gov. Doug Burgum has taken action to limit the potential for community spread. He issued an executive order to close barbershops, beauty salons and other personal service businesses, in addition to previous orders closing schools and restaurants. “We knew this day was coming,” he noted during the announcement.
Stopping the coronavirus from rapidly spreading and overwhelming our health care system requires all of us to work together and make sacrifices. However, we should look to each other – not just politicians – in our efforts to flatten the curve.
Across the country, politicians have enacted extreme measures to combat the pandemic, including stay-at-home orders and asking the federal government to nationalize vital industries. Violating quarantine can even lead to jail time. However, these efforts have fared poorly in other countries. The Italian government placed the entire country on lockdown on March 9. Over two weeks later, Italy reported the highest single-day death toll since the outbreak began. Far from flattening the curve, Italian hospitals are now turning away infected patients over the age of 60.
Lockdowns, mandated business closures and quarantine orders wreak havoc on the economy. Unfortunately, economic downturns are also deadly and can further harm our health care system. It’s important to remember these measures aren’t the only way to handle pandemics. Historically, local efforts have fared well.
During the Spanish Flu outbreak, local efforts in Seattle helped the city overcome the deadliest pandemic in history. Citizens worked together to transform theaters into hospital space. Businesses enforced strict “no mask, no entry” policies. Individuals voluntarily quarantined themselves. These local efforts were remarkably successful. Seattle experienced only about 1,500 deaths in a city of more than 600,000 people (one-tenth of the Spanish Flu’s global fatality rate).
A century later, local efforts are also underway in Fargo. Proof Artisan Distillers is producing hand sanitizer from liquor. With the help of Northland Vapor, who donated containers, their hand sanitizer is available in local grocery stores. Adam Elznic has transformed North Dakota State University's 3D printing lab to make masks and kits for nearby hospitals. Other businesses and individuals are volunteering, promoting clean working conditions and finding creative solutions to help battle the pandemic.
When governments impose overarching restrictions on businesses and households, it becomes more difficult for local citizens to implement solutions. The coronavirus pandemic is serious. But when it comes to flattening the curve, we should allow local efforts to lead the way.
March is an assistant professor of agribusiness and applied economics at North Dakota State University, a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise and the Independent Institute, and the director of FDAReview. He specializes in health care policy. His views are his own.