As America moves to questions of how to open our state economies back up — and how fast to do it — it’s critical that we move the basis for our decisions from fear and haste to facts and data. 

The fear that COVID-19 might be worse than the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and potentially kill millions of Americans may have justified our initial response. But even as each new data report and each new study increasingly demonstrates COVID simply isn’t in the same league, the acid residue of fear remains, eating away at our chances for a rapid recovery.

Return to ‘normal’? Not likely. Here’s what may be next
In our opinion: Don’t let a pandemic turn into a mental health crisis

As a post-War baby boomer, my generation experienced The Great Depression and WWII through our parents, and the Spanish flu and WWI through our grandparents.  We grew up with our own set of existential anxieties — Rachel Carson’s apocalyptic “Silent Spring” predictions, Paul Erlich’s overpopulation alarms, and Club of Rome models projecting societal collapse. None of these disasters materialized.

They rarely do. As I’m endlessly fascinated by predictions and their accompanying threats, I’ve come to appreciate Mark Twain’s conclusion: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” 

Informed that I risked death by the coronavirus if I left my house, I was a bit skeptical. Still, I was moved by arguments to “flatten the curve” in order to prevent a collapse of our medical system. 

So we closed my investment firm’s offices 10 weeks ago. We moved the classes I teach at Stanford’s business school online, and I began interacting with tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and CEOs huddled in apartments across the planet. And, at jetBlue (from which I just retired as chairman), we arranged for loans and a payroll protection plan for our 23,000 employees.  

Acting on the best available information, with the best of intentions — and on the sober advice of experts — we, like so many, made sacrifices to protect our medical system’s ability to save lives.

But lately, with empty hospital beds, unused ventilators and hospitals at greater — not lesser — risk of failing (due to empty facilities and collapsing finances), I’ve begun to wonder. Might those who asserted that epidemics run their course only once herd immunity has been achieved, have had it right? On the other hand, might those still be right who insist that a return to a relative normalcy will simply fuel a viral firestorm?  

Before we place either of these incompatible bets, most Americans would like leaders to address — without recrimination — the following three issues:

  1. Lethality: If COVID-19 is less than 1% fatal – and, therefore, more like the flu than Ebola or the Bubonic Plague (i.e., more than 50% fatal), is it time to rethink our policy response? With antibody tests confirming that the denominator was multiples higher than initially thought, it is clear the crude mathematical models produced at Imperial College London and the University of Washington vastly overstated the fatality rate. 
  2. Opening the economy: If asymptomatic (or pre-symptomatic) people can infect others, won’t rebooting our ailing economy simply add fuel to a viral fire? On the other hand, if resources aren’t unlimited, don’t we have to weigh the rewards of reopening the economy against such risks? Finally, won’t the second and third order costs of economic damage — including unsupportable government debt when interest rates eventually rise — forever doom our pre-COVID way of life?
  3. The future: Since we’ve never been able to develop a vaccine for any coronavirus, what are our odds of finding this silver bullet? If (just like the long-sought-after AIDS vaccine) this one eludes us, too, and if COVID-19 is as contagious as we’ve been told, with effects as focused on those over 65, isn’t it time to protect the most vulnerable? If the young and healthy have less than a 0.001% chance of requiring hospitalization (even when infected), isn’t quarantining them alongside 65-and-older citizens a too-blunt response? 

“Unless we obtain data, analyze it without prejudice and apply wisdom without political considerations, I expect fear to prevail, compounding our initial missteps, leaving society, as Roosevelt said, ‘paralyzed by nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.’” — Joel Peterson

As a 73-year-old taking blood pressure medication, I assess my risks as far less daunting than those my ancestors took when coming to America. While I’ll continue to fasten my seat belt, obey traffic signals and install locks and smoke detectors, I’m not inclined to live out my life apart from my kids and grandkids, hoping for a vaccine.  

Unless we obtain data, analyze it without prejudice and apply wisdom without political considerations, I expect fear to prevail, compounding our initial missteps, leaving society, as Roosevelt said, “paralyzed by nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”

We might take a page from the classes I teach on entrepreneurial leadership: Successful entrepreneurs learn from mistakes, relentlessly gather information, adjust quickly to new realities and eschew the assignment of blame. They knock down the fear that comes with high uncertainty and high stakes by relying on the best facts and data they can gather. We can — and must — do the same for our country.

Joel Peterson is the former chairman of jetBlue Airways, a consulting professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the former chairman of the board of overseers at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of “The 10 Laws of Trust” and the just-released “Entrepreneurial Leadership.”