An Ounce of Prevention


We yield to no one in our fondness for cliches, though we’re self-aware enough to be a little ashamed of it. They’re a shortcut to navigating the world, particularly in uncertain times. Like now.

One of our favorites: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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Some people are complaining that “the media” (a monolithic monster that doesn’t exist, but that’s a discussion for another day) are blowing the coronavirus pandemic out of proportion. We saw this complaint several times in the comments on an article in the Wall Street Journal. It was headlined “Coronavirus Testing Causes Chaos Across U.S.” A representative criticism: “What kind of irresponsible headline is this? … Don’t fan the flames, report the news in a mature way.” But in the midst of a crisis, it can be hard to distinguish between hysteria and prudence.

COVID-19 presents another wrinkle: How will we know if school closures, curfews, business closures, social distancing, sheltering in place and other extremely socially and economically disruptive strategies were effective? If these tactics are deployed and the number of cases and deaths are not as high as predicted, will that be because the pandemic’s dangers were exaggerated, or will that be because the strategies worked?

Many will remember the worry over the Y2K bug, the computer coding problem involving the transition from the year 1999 to the year 2000. When Jan. 1, 2000, dawned, however, the havoc predicted by some failed to materialize, and the whole furor is now widely dismissed as a hoax. But that’s not a correct assessment. Y2K was a crisis averted by timely application of money and effort.

The stakes involving the coronavirus in the United States are far higher. The social and economic damage wrought by extreme measures must be weighed against those stakes: the health and lives of millions.