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Is all this social isolation potentially more harmful than the outbreak? | READER COMMENTARY

Biologist doctor Caroline Gutsmuth swabs a woman with covid-19 symptoms as she stays in her car, outside a medical biology laboratory who opened a coronavirus drive-thru testing site, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, Monday, March 23, 2020.
Biologist doctor Caroline Gutsmuth swabs a woman with covid-19 symptoms as she stays in her car, outside a medical biology laboratory who opened a coronavirus drive-thru testing site, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, Monday, March 23, 2020.(Christophe Ena/AP)

Maryland and much of the country has reacted to the spread of the novel coronavirus by simply shutting down everything it could. Schools closed. Religious services suspended. Businesses shuttered. Social gatherings cancelled.

Kevin Rector’s thoughtful article asking the “simple question” of whether any of this was legal is timely (“Hogan, other Maryland officials are ‘suspending the normal social order’ to halt coronavirus. Is that legal?” March 20). He concluded that the legal consensus was that, yes, this is all legal.

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I do not intend to challenge that conclusion or the best intentions of governors around the country who have halted our way of life for what may be weeks or months (or even the rest of the year). Instead, I want to propose a “simple question” about this seemingly indefinite crisis: Do executive edicts from governors that could launch states — and the country — into a cataclysmic economic recession and extreme social isolation cause potentially even greater harm?

Americans and their policymakers need to also think about the consequences of causing millions (many with debt and few savings) to lose jobs, income and, potentially, access to health care. The effects, particularly for some hospitality and retail industries, could reverberate around the economy and take years to heal. The economic cost in lost output could be staggering, but so could the tax burden from massive bailouts proposed. The first bailout is $2 trillion, but what will we need in two months? Six months?

We should consider the effect of social isolation. Millions of Americans have been prevented from exercising basic rights such as religious worship or social assembly. Many have been separated from loved ones, live in extreme anxiety or have been denied access to support organizations. Will closing schools for months stunt student growth? Will closing gyms, canceling sports and abruptly changing routines cause medical issues in the future?

Not shutting down the country does not necessarily mean we cannot respond to protect our most vulnerable citizens. We can strengthen our national medical preparedness, hygiene and targeted measures to protect vulnerable populations (including quarantines if absolutely necessary). The government could offer workplace protections or additional assistance to vulnerable individuals who need to self-quarantine to protect themselves or loved ones.

Or perhaps none of that is truly enough and we simply need to halt the world as we know it in the hopes of slowing or stifling the coronavirus. And would the spread of coronavirus cause an even more catastrophic social and economic event, making all of the above irrelevant?

We face an extraordinarily cruel calculation as a society: a tradeoff between social disruption and the potential to save (an albeit unknown number of) lives. We have already made this calculation for an apparently less deadly disease, the flu, because we take limited disease prevention measures that still allow tens of thousands of Americans to die each year.

With millions of us confined to our homes for the foreseeable future, maybe we should take some time to do some soul-searching and think about the trade-offs we are making, especially with respect to our most vulnerable populations. And wash your hands, even when there is not a coronavirus outbreak.

Matt Dragonette, Silver Spring

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