Opinion: Focus on saving lives, not saving face

Patrick L. Anderson

During this crisis, a handful of elected officials have claimed that statistical studies show their actions have saved tens of thousands, even millions, of lives. Indeed, both the Trump and Whitmer administrations have now issued such self-congratulatory public statements, neither of which are supported by the facts. One such administration already walked back its claim. 

Let us look at the actual chain of events and decide whether the other one should as well. 

Reviewing the timeline

The U.S. faced an emerging crisis in January. The federal government responded by, among other things, shutting down travel with China, then Europe. Airlines began canceling flights very early in the year. By Feb. 10, economists at Anderson Economic Group declared the situation "a crisis, not a slowdown." Manufacturing plants began closing in Korea and Japan. Cruise ships and hotels were shutting down. 

By mid-March, the UAW, GM, Ford and FCA agreed to close assembly plants in the U.S. On March 16, President Trump announced that no more than 10 people should be in a room together, in line with large gathering bans in numerous cities and states. With employees being sent home and consumers cowering, the stock market crashed on March 9. Shortly afterward, the NCAA basketball tournament was canceled

Concerned with their own health, American citizens reacted too. The U.S. experienced a panic-induced toilet paper shortage, along with a run on hand sanitizer and protective masks. Social distancing took hold in America by early March. In Michigan, mobility (distance traveled on average by cell phone users) had dropped 45% by the middle of March. Congress also responded, enacting the Coronavirus Response Act, which the president signed into law to establish paid leave for workers.

These events all took place before Michigan’s original "temporary requirement to suspend activities" executive order took effect on March 24.

Peaks and valleys

As widespread as these actions were, the epidemic would take a terrible toll. In hard-hit areas like Detroit, heroic health care workers and family members found themselves bearing a sudden and heavy burden. Too many lives ended in solitary loss, as victims of the disease succumbed without the comfort of their loved ones near.  

Michigan had one of the worst epidemics, and one of the earliest. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, joining other Midwestern governors, issued executive orders in late March that forced many businesses to close. The goals of all these actions were to slow the spread of COVID so our hospitals would not be overwhelmed. With the clear emergency at the time, I believe the state executive orders in March — including in Michigan — were an appropriate response. 

By the middle of April, however, AEG analysts were tracking daily data for dozens of states as well as other countries. We could see that cases had peaked in Michigan around the first week of that month. By late May, the empirical data on Michigan’s epidemic was overwhelming: Cases had peaked in the state. Cases in Metro Detroit were also coming down. Cases in northern Michigan — outside of nursing homes and prisons — remained low. For many counties, the mode for reported cases per day was zero. 

Cause, effect and approbation

Against a backdrop of lengthy and widespread action on the part of individuals, companies and the federal government, is it accurate to speculate that the governor’s “aggressive action” had “significantly lowered cases, deaths?” That, had the state “done nothing,” “peak cases and deaths would have been 2x-3x higher?” That the actions of Michigan’s governor alone had saved “perhaps tens of thousands of lives?”

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer visits an emergency shelter for flood evacuees at Midland High School Wednesday.

That claim cannot be supported by the facts. Any such calculation would need to consider actions taken by health care workers, the federal government, local governments, private businesses, non-profit organizations and citizens themselves.

Furthermore, the supposed basis for this claim is a study from the Imperial College of London, which previously projected that the U.S. would incur a shocking 2.2 million coronavirus deaths (the actual toll is less than 1% of that number). One might ask whether this group’s analyses — including the one that overestimated casualties by 100 times — should be taken seriously. However, there is a more serious problem with the claim that Michigan’s executive orders saved “tens of thousands of lives": it doesn’t appear in the report that is purported to be the source. 

White House walks back a similar claim

This is not the only elected official to make such a claim. The nation’s president, in late March, appeared to claim that any reductions in deaths in the United States from the estimated 2.2 million were probably due to his policies. To his credit, that assertion was walked back by Dr. Anthony Fauci soon afterward. 

For politicians to say with a wink of an eye that they "helped put Americans back to work" is one thing. To suggest that tens of thousands of people are alive because of their actions is in another league altogether. If you stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, if you ran into the burning Pentagon or World Trade Center on 9/11, if you walked day-by-day into a medical ward during the worst of the epidemic, then you can say you faced danger and saved a life. You should be proud. 

If you claim heroism based on prediction errors in someone’s statistical model, you should not be proud at all — and, like the Trump administration did, you should recant as soon as possible. 

Save praise for those who earned it

Americans have every right to hold leaders to account for protecting them from war, pandemic and financial ruin. In this crisis as in others, we should recognize those who met that test — starting with the family members, friends, doctors, coworkers and community leaders who took on difficult tasks throughout this crisis. Let those that earned their heroism claim it; others should not.

Patrick L. Anderson is principal and CEO of Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing, Michigan. The firm has been closely tracking the trajectory of COVID-19 and its economic impacts since early February. For more information, see www.AndersonEconomicGroup.com.