The past few weeks have offered Alaskans an unwanted lesson in how quickly our world can be turned upside down. Two weeks ago, everyone was still at work. University and K-12 students were leaving school for spring break and expecting to come back March 16. Bars and restaurants were bustling, and Alaskans were flocking to concerts and movie theaters. There were 500 total cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and none in Alaska.
Fast-forward to the present, and nearly all the machinery of our society seems to have ground to a halt. Alaskans are working from home, and many in the service and hospitality industry aren’t working at all. Students across the state are still in a holding pattern, with tentative plans for some manner of online instruction for the remainder of the school year. There are tens of thousands of cases across the U.S. and more than a dozen in Alaska. New cases indicate that community transmission in Alaska — spread among people who have not traveled to a hot zone for the virus — is underway. These numbers, and this situation, will get far worse before they get better.
But it could have been far worse than that.
As Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said when imposing some of the first major restrictions on businesses and public life in Alaska, “It will be impossible to know if we overreacted or did too much, but it will be quite apparent if we underreacted or did too little.” It remains unclear whether we have done — or are capable of doing — enough to keep COVID-19 from overwhelming our state’s health care system and laying waste to our communities. But the measures taken by local and state governments, as well as local businesses and residents, are helping blunt the virus’ potential spread.
There have been many examples of strong decision-making that helped reduce risk. Anchorage School District’s decision to cancel school-sponsored travel for the remainder of the school year, greeted with shock by some at the time, in retrospect looks prescient and necessary. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has consistently taken difficult action to try and keep ahead of the virus, ordering the closure of municipal facilities and businesses that would provide easy opportunities for COVID-19 to spread. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has wisely ordered a moratorium on elective medical and dental procedures, to clear capacity for coronavirus victims. His decision to close Alaska schools was a tough one for most families, but it removed what could have been a major vector for the virus to spread as families returned from spring break trips. And Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, has done heroic work in spelling out the crucial need for social distancing to stop the disease’s exponential growth. Dr. Zink has clearly and rationally explained how this virus works to the people of Alaska, and why these measures are so important.
And on an individual basis, Alaskans have paid each other innumerable kindnesses large and small, helping each other endure the upending of our communities. Some have made grocery runs for others who are more vulnerable to the disease or who are quarantining after travel Outside. Others have helped ease the economic hardship for restaurants and other businesses by making a point of getting take-out meals or buying gift cards.
And yet more will be required of all of us — in some cases, much more. There is a straight line between the effectiveness of our social distancing and the number of Alaskans we can keep from dying of coronavirus. Everyone able to work from home and reduce their contact with others absolutely must do so. Social distancing requirements aren’t suggestions we can disregard when they’re inconvenient. They’re minimum standards to help prevent the virus from being able to close the air gap between one person and another.
There are also massive societal problems that must be addressed — and fast. The state must swiftly administer unemployment claims to reduce hardship for those who have lost jobs. Moratoriums on disconnection of utility services for COVID-19-related hardship are wise, as are moves by the state and federal government to stem evictions and foreclosures. Moves at the federal level to provide individual monetary relief nationwide are forthcoming; on the state level, paying out this year’s Permanent Fund dividend as early as possible, as the governor has proposed, should be done to help ease Alaskans’ fiscal uncertainty in the short term.
The Legislature and Gov. Dunleavy are dealing with the immediate threats to Alaskans’ health, safety and economic security posed by COVID-19. But they’re simultaneously faced with the unenviable task of passing a budget with the price of oil at its lowest level in more than two decades. And with all the economic harm already being unleashed by COVID-19, the kind of austerity measures necessary to match spending to current revenues are impossible. The Legislature and Gov. Dunleavy must work together to authorize a budget for Alaska that can keep the state on track as much as possible; we have no time or money to waste on partisan infighting.
We must give our health care system as much time as possible before COVID-19 cases in Alaska overtax the system. If we succeed at it, we succeed together; if even a fraction among us fail or don’t take control measures seriously, we will all fail together. We are facing an existential crisis for our health care system and our economy. It’s a tough bargain, but it’s simple: We are trading very deep economic pain in the name of saving of lives, and it’s all about saving as many lives as we can. Practice good hygiene, and maintain social distance from others. Our state depends on it.