The exponential increase in Covid-19 infections has triggered a number of federal and state emergency measures requiring shelter in place, banning large gatherings, and shuttering retail establishments and eat-in restaurant dining. Some are now objecting that these restrictions are crippling our national economy. They ask for an end date when these restrictions will be lifted. Building a national consensus now, based on scientific and prudential considerations, will allow for a smooth economic restart later.
The last time the United States faced a national crisis comparable to the pandemic was the onset of large-scale terrorism heralded by the attacks of September 11, 2001. As part of the response, the U.S. government initiated a sliding scale of protective security restrictions reflected in a color coded threat warning system, scaled from green to red. Green was the (theoretical) color of no threat, and other shades culminated in red, the alert for credible and specific intelligence that a terror attack was imminent. A red alert mandated the highest level of readiness, including limitations on movement, potential lockdowns, and heightened vigilance and anxiety. During my tenure as Secretary of Homeland Security, we triggered red only once, in August 2006 when we and British authorities narrowly foiled an advancing plot to blow up numerous transatlantic airliners with liquid explosives.
But as with the viral pandemic we are now facing, the challenge with this terrorist alert system was not the difficulty in concluding that there was a specific and credible threat. Rather, it was in answering the opposite question — when has the threat sufficiently receded so that we can drop from red alert to a less restrictive security regime? That decision was very difficult, because a premature all-clear could result in dropping guard against a still imminent threat, with horrific results. Intelligence and security professionals, and political leaders, still smarting from the failure to avert 9/11, were under considerable pressure to maintain maximal protection, lest they be blamed for a subsequent terror incident. But there are considerable economic and social costs to this.
Intense restrictive restraints are necessary
That dynamic is reflected in the current debate about pandemic restrictions. If the only imperative is to eliminate risk of serious illness or death, then a long-term blinking red alert with the most restrictive social and travel restraints, is an obvious recourse. Indeed, we see this with increasingly draconian interstate travel bans being ordered by some governors. But the economic and psychological consequences of unrelenting security measures can be high, and debilitating over time. While total risk-elimination may seem the proper objective for security professionals, the collateral damage may be very substantial and even irreversible. Imagine the results if, after the discovery of the 2006 airline plot, we had grounded passenger aircraft for an extended period of time, instead of simply imposing limits on carry-on liquids.
For that reason, experienced security decision makers generally approach safety threats as a risk-management, rather than risk-elimination, exercise. Risk management may well require restrictions on travel, communication, and behavior, but it balances the marginal gains in safety against the costs of what is being surrendered. This balance is not an exact science; it requires recalibrating the balance as more information is collected and analyzed. Most important, risk management demands strategic vision and judgment that is neither reckless nor overly timid in weighing real risk.
The principle of risk management is critical as we enter more deeply into a period of extensive restriction aimed at mitigating the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Any political leaders and commentators calling for a specific end date are unrealistic and even irresponsible. But people are right to raise the question — how do we determine when to reduce or scale back these restrictions? The costs of an extended lock down are real and substantial, and fall disproportionately on less privileged members of our society. As they continue, economic, social and psychological harm may become embedded.
Risk management must be thoughtfully executed
These trade-offs need to be candidly acknowledged by our officials and public health experts. In many ways, the pandemic is more challenging to defend against than terrorism, because we are dealing with a contagion threat from numerous unwitting disease carriers, as opposed to a finite number of bad actors. But even with this difference, the decisions about how long to maintain and when to dial down restrictions must be an exercise in risk management. That means — among other things — the reasoning behind any modifications must be transparent, grounded in science and fact, and generally perceived as fair. A critical predicate to any modification, therefore, must be grounded in accurate, comprehensive and current data about viral spread, based on testing, clinical reporting, and even analysis of on-line activity that reflects public experience and behavior.
Managing the risk and adjusting the stringency of restrictions will be a dynamic process and not just one-size-fits-all. Our federal and state officials, therefore, must avoid promising an expiration deadline for these restrictions, but must assure the public that they will be adjusted as more data and analysis refine our understanding. Objective criteria based on accurate data should be used to determine the reopening of businesses, schools and other public venues. For example, after medical mitigations are in place, health systems have adequate capacity and the country has passed the inflection point for new infections, regions of the country should be able to return to normal. But that should not occur until these measures and outcomes have been validated through an objective process.
As with threats from human terrorists, threats from an invisible pathogen demands a whole of society campaign of risk management, with leaders being transparent, and citizens being cooperative. Americans always rise to the occasion when we need to be tough. But that spirit needs to be sustained with credible public communication, and realistic confidence that we will be neither reckless nor timid in scaling back from red alert.