Policymakers must approach this pandemic head on, with calm and humility. Calm, because a virus is not the only contagion we face. Panic is its own contagion, one that impairs judgment. Humility, because even when policymakers do not act out of panic, their best laid plans often go awry.

In that vein, policymakers must first discard laws that are preventing health professionals from responding to the pandemic.

Humility counsels policymakers not to assume in every case that they can better assess the benefits and costs of shutdowns or lockdowns than private citizens, nor that federal policymakers can do so better than states or localities. To ensure containment efforts are proportionate and do minimal damage to the American people, policymakers must base them on solid epidemiological information and commit to lifting them upon reaching prespecified targets.

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Pandemics and Policy

The third great crisis of the 21st century has already inflicted a greater toll in lives lost and economic hardship than 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse combined. And just as the COVID-19 pandemic has upended our daily lives, it has transformed the political landscape, with governments at all levels exercising emergency powers rarely seen outside the context of total war. With so much at risk, what’s needed now is sober, realistic assessment of the choices ahead—a guide to policies that can stem the damage while avoiding permanent transformation of American life and law. The Cato Institute aims to meet that need with its new series, Pandemics and Policy.