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Nicolais: As the coronavirus spreads, growing divisions in society only makes things worse

As attempts to address the coronavirus pandemic lead to economic distress, the divide between perspectives becomes ever more evident

In retrospect, it seems a bit inevitable. On the same day we discovered that 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, our country passed Italy and China to become the world’s leader in diagnosed coronavirus infections.

Two numbers describing two realities. The gulf between them delineating the widening gap in perspective for many people across the county. Do you see the current crisis primarily through the lens of a pandemic, life-threatening virus or the economic collapse it has wrought?

Mario Nicolais

Of course it isn’t that simple. These shouldn’t be mutually exclusive choices. Most rational individuals can, and should, fear both simultaneously.

Unfortunately, that divide seems to be the current manifestation of our polarized society.

I’ve noticed it most on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Prompted by stay-at home orders, social media has become even more central to daily life. When you can’t go out to the world, you try to bring the world in to you.

For me that led to a moment when I saw back-to-back posts from two paramedic friends, who have worked together in the past, taking opposite positions. One has advocated fervently for lockdowns for weeks. The other bemoans the long-term costs of such action.

Chances are good that, as you read the last paragraph, you bristled at one response while nodding in agreement to the other. It’s the underlying societal juxtaposition in which we find ourselves.

Unsurprisingly, the decampment into these two outlooks seems most evident along partisan lines. While Democrats were quick to embrace social distancing, lockdown orders and similar measures to flatten the curve, Republicans have increasingly begun to push back as markets crashed and businesses shuttered.

That isn’t to say that Democrats aren’t worried about the economy or Republicans don’t care about the health and welfare of our citizenry. Anyone touting either of those positions is only trying to score political points.

But the longer Americans remain hunkered down in their homes, the wider the divide will grow. 

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President Donald Trump’s recent pronouncement that, “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” followed by an express goal of opening the country up for business by Easter, fed directly into that narrative. By and large, Democrats condemned him for ignoring the advice of public health officials and Republicans applauded his attention to the flailing economy.

This all plays out against the backdrop of an already much-anticipated presidential election in November.

Sadly, it seems primed to amplify the Silo Effect of our national politics. Despite bipartisan leadership from state governors, the over-riding narratives for both sides seem increasingly set.

For example, if we avoid a systemic collapse of our healthcare system and curb the number of lives lost short of the most dire predictions, we will likely see two different explanations. Many Democrats will claim efforts to “flatten the curve” were ultimately warranted and successful; in contrast, many Republicans will counter that the hysteria was an overreaction that caused trillions of dollars in damage.

While I’m traditionally fiscally conservative and worry about the economic effects of policy proposals like those promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, my work experience and education in health care delivery systems make me personally more inclined to advocate for a months-long shelter in place strategy. 

I worry that the current economic effects would be dwarfed by collapse of an industry that comprises one-fifth of our GDP. Similarly, a stop-and-start approach could risk “chaos and confusion” leading to a full economic depression.

And then there is this simple precept: no matter how bad the situation gets, the economy can recover; the dead cannot.

The coronavirus pandemic challenges us all in more than one way. It presents us with different realities that must be faced contemporaneously. There aren’t easy answers. But continued division will only expound on the problems. 


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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