Some encouraging news: efforts to counter COVID-19 may also help protect the public from dangers beyond the virus itself

Centers for Disease Control

As the country braces for what President Trump solemnly warned would be a rough several weeks with rising death tolls, millions of Americans are following the social-distancing and stay-at-home orders that have severely limited travel and shut down much of the economy.  Millions more are energetically embracing the government’s counter-COVID-19 guidelines and are washing their hands frequently, and many are also covering their faces outdoors.

While the climbing death tolls are horrifying, there is increasing anecdotal evidence that COVID-19 restrictions and polices might also operate to limit some deaths and injuries unrelated to the virus that might have occurred without them.

Let’s be clear: none of this is to suggest that the pandemic is anything but a horror.  Yet it is important – particularly when we look ahead to the post-COVID era – that we understand its collateral effects, to include how the restrictions and polices it compelled operated (albeit unintentionally) to save lives beyond those who might have perished from the disease. 

We need to consider what changes we might want to make after the pandemic to capitalize on what we learn so we can build a better future.

There seems to be a surprising amount of anecdotal evidence of some rather unexpected yet positive indirect consequences of counter-COVID-19 regimes.  The New York Times reported just a few days ago that in New York “there is not a high volume of noncoronavirus patients.”  Why?  The paper explains that “[b]ecause most New Yorkers have isolated themselves in their homes, there are fewer injuries from car accidents, gun shots and construction accidents that would require an emergency room visit.”

Let’s unpack a bit the paradoxical implications of COVID-19 as well as the consequences of the restrictions it’s engendered.

The environment and economic disruptions:

As terrible as COVID-19 has been for humans, the environment is apparently indirectly gleaning some benefits.  A few weeks ago USA Today made this amazing report:

“Stanford University’s Marshall Burke determined that “the reductions in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved 20 times more lives in China than have currently been lost due to infection with the virus in that country.

Could the U.S. also benefit?  It seems so.  Scientists are quick to predict that pollution will return once the world goes back to work, but Time Magazine concedes:

“In the short term, the change is seemingly miraculous. Satellite images from the European Space Agency show reduced levels of nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels that causes respiratory problems, across major cities on the continent including Paris, Madrid and Rome as countries lock down and restrict travel. Cities across the U.S. have seen similar effects as Americans stay home in traffic-prone cities like Los Angeles and New York.”

The lesson here seems to be that it’s still possible for dramatic government action to clear air pollution quickly, and even a relatively short respite can save a lot of people.  While it’s certain that pollution will return with the revival of industry, this graphic demonstration ought to stimulate greater efforts for ‘green’ power.

Less violent crime?

As a result of stay-at-home orders should we expect fewer deaths and injuries from crime?  Probably.  Bloomberg reported on March 30th that:

“In Los Angeles, property crime was down 18% in the four weeks that ended March 21 from the previous four weeks. Calls for police services in Chicago have declined 30% for the month and crime in New York City fell almost 25% in the week ended March 22, compared with the week before.”

As the COVID-19 restrictions take hold, most major cities are also seeing a decline in violent crime.  For example, although reports indicate that the “Chicago Police won’t say if the coronavirus shutdown played a role in slowing March’s murder rate” it was down an astonishing 36% this past March as compared to March of 2019.

If such a decline persists and it spreads nationwide, it could be quite meaningful.  Consider that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tells us that homicides can annually account for more than 19,000 deaths, and assaults can produce 1.6 million emergency room visits.

There is legitimate concern that forced togetherness might trigger an uptick in domestic violence as has already been the case in some locations.  However,  ABC News said today that police departments in “Cincinnati, Denver, New Orleans and New York City said their rates of domestic violence calls and arrests remained flat through March [and that the] National Domestic Violence Hotline’s call volume has remained average during this period.”

The lesson of all this isn’t clear – beyond the obvious fact that criminals have a hard time operating in a mostly shutdown environment – but at least we do now have some objective proof that deadly crime isn’t inevitable.

Stay at home = fewer deadly car crashes: 

Are COVID-19 travel restrictions saving people who might otherwise have been killed or injured in vehicular accidents?  Almost certainly.  The National Safety Council estimates, for example, that in 2019, about “38,800 people lost their lives to car crashes,…and about “4.4 million people were injured seriously enough to require medical attention.”

However, the New York Times says that “in cities across the United States, traffic on roads and highways has fallen dramatically over the past week as the coronavirus outbreak forces people to stay at home and everyday life grinds to a halt.”

Other media outlets seem to concur that auto traffic is plummeting (see  e.g., here, here, and here).  Consumer advocacy groups have concluded the roads are so significantly less dangerous that they are demanding lower car insurance rates.

If there was just a 10% decline in vehicular deaths and injuries because of reduced driving, that could mean tens of thousands of people would not suffer death or injuries.

Remote-working a life-saver?

Will traffic and the accompanying pollution simply revert to the previous levels once the pandemic passes?  Maybe not.  Remote working had been on the upswing even before COVID-19 hit, but the pandemic has forced millions more to do it.   The Bureau of Labor estimates that 29% of employees can work from home, others put the figure at 60%.

Photo: U.S. Dept of Labor

A growing percentage of younger workers prefer remote working, and not having to commute carries with it health benefits beyond less traffic-caused pollution, and fewer car accidents.  As one analyst explains that:  “with the average American spending an hour commuting each day (in large metro areas it’s up to 90 minutes, due to traffic congestion), these commutes take a toll on a worker’s mental and emotional health as well as physical well-being.”

Another expert points out: “the American commute is a psychological and environmental scourge that increases depression, divorce, and fossil-fuel emissions.”  I believe a significant portion of the workforce will adapt to remote working, see its benefits, and never go back – particularly when their employers realize the potential savings.   More telecommuting is virtually inevitable.

Still, there are challenges with remote working, and it will never work for millions of jobs, but even with respect to manpower-intensive jobs, the COVID-19 restrictions highlight the fragility of many supply chain and distribution networks, and the vulnerabilities of the work force.

My bet is that we’ll seen an exponential rise in the use of such technologies as 3D printing and robotics that reduce the impact of COVID-19 and can provide economic resilience in the event of a future crisis without as much risk to the citizenry.  Indeed, observers are already saying that the “massive disruption caused by COVID-19 could lead companies to tap automation to manufacture products much closer to home,”

Diminished risk from overseas travel/living:

Can we expect the near total ban on overseas travel to save some lives?  Actually, yes,  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tells us:

“In 2015 and 2016, more than 1,700 US citizens died from nonnatural causes in foreign countries, excluding deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Motor vehicle crashes—not crime or terrorism—are the number 1 cause of nonnatural deaths among US citizens living, working, or traveling abroad.”  

Moreover, Forbes recently pointed out that there is “a clear indication that travel is a large contributing factor to the [COVID-19] virus spreading. ”  It added:

“When you take into account travel’s impact on global health, the workforce may not rely on travel as heavily in the future. Moments like this inspire innovators to create new technology for businesses to rely upon, which very well may dissuade future business travel.”

If health benefits don’t change the business travel equation, practical factors may.  While I agree that there will always be matters best handled fact-to-face, I also think Bloomberg News has a point that:

“The coronavirus has the potential to disrupt travel for more than just a few months. After businesses survive without the in-person touch for a prolonged period, it’s not hard to envision managers liking the lower-cost structure and not reinstating as many trips when the health threat recedes.

Of course, people will – and should – continue to travel overseas for both business and pleasure after the pandemic subsides, but we need to develop better protocols to limit the risks of global transmissions of disease.  Americans also ought to be better educated as to the perils of driving overseas.

Social distancing/hand-washing regimes can prevent other dangerous illnesses:

As noted above most Americans have embraced the social distancing and hand-washing regimes that government has urged as the best and perhaps only near-term way of halting the virus’s spread.

Today Bill Gates optimistically said that “if we do the social distancing properly, we should be able to get out of this with the death number well short” of the 100,000 to 240,000 the White House has warned could happen.

Importantly, these good-hygiene practices can also reduce deaths from other communicable diseases, and especially seasonal flu.  The CDC reports that the 2019-2020 flu season may have already killed as many as 63,000 people in this country.

The CDC and other medical authorities have long insisted that “[g]ood hand hygiene is important and effective in preventing the spread of any strain of flu virus.”  It’s hard to say how many people might be saved from death from seasonal flu by the government’s hand-washing advocacy instigated by COVID-19, but it could be significant.

If the good-hygiene habits persists into the next flu season, many thousands of deaths might be avoided.  It’s hard to imagine that but for the pandemic so many members of the public would embrace the life-saving recommendations health officials have advocated for so long.

My bet is that the hand-washing regime will become imprinted on Americans as a result of COVID-19, and that will have the salutary effect of significantly reducing seasonal flu deaths in the 2020-2021 period.

$100 billion in new healthcare funding:

As a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis, Congress enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).  Among its many provisions was $100 billion for various healthcare-related expenditures.

Included in the legislation was $27 billion “to support research and technology related to the development of vaccines that could thwart the virus and for therapies and diagnostic tests needed to prevent or treat the effects of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by this coronavirus.”

Though this vast influx of money is rightly focused on COVID-19, one can’t help but to think that the results of the research will also aid with the treatment of other infectious diseases and respiratory illnesses, and do so in the foreseeable future.

Concluding observations:

No one really knows how all or even any of these factors might – or might not – interact to counter at least in some small way the COVID-19 death toll.  Part of the reason it is so hard to do is indicated in a Financial Times article headlined as “The mystery of the true coronavirus death rate.

The article pointed out that 153,000 people around the world die every day, so it is difficult to determine how many of those listed as COVID-19 victims would have died of other causes.  It cites as an example the process in Italy where if someone with the virus dies, “Covid-19 is listed as the cause of death even if a patient was already ill and died from a combination of illnesses.”

Despite the cause/effect uncertainty that surrounds COVID-19, it seems to me that we need to try to figure out as best we can what good might be derived from this appalling situation. But allow me to reiterate something: COVID-19 is a horror, and nothing can change the tragic loss of life that has taken place and, sadly, will continue to take place.

Nevertheless, without being Pollyannish, we owe it to those who suffer to study what positive collateral effects have occurred as a result of the battle against COVID-19.  We can honor those who pass away from this terrible illness by carefully studying not only what stems it – and it will be stemmed – but also what we can learn from the effort that might save lives in other spheres of human peril.

Remember our Lawfire® mantra: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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