How we should deal with the current crisis

The joy of social isolation

The one thing that everyone in the US seems to agree on is that social isolation saves lives. Wear a mask, avoid groups of people, don't leave the house unless you absolutely have to. Early on in the pandemic, the newspapers and TV were showing pictures of foolish scantily-clad college students crowding the beach over spring break, doubtless sneezing on each other and who knows what else, bringing down the wrath of the CDC, state health officials and everyone on our neighborhood listserv. Soon after this, various parts of the government started mandating social isolation, while we anxiously watched the number of new infections continue to rise. Now, finally, the rate of new infections seems to have reached its peak, thanks to these tough measures and we all rejoice.

Except me. Louise will tell you that I delight in disagreement, but I disagree with her - I'm just trying to state what I think is a logical approach. What exactly are we trying to achieve with this isolation? Some will say - Peter, you dummy, we're trying to make sure that people sick with Covid-19 don't pass on the infection to others. Look at the experience of Sweden, which has tried a more relaxed approach than the other Scandinavian countries. The current reported number of infections in Sweden is about 250 per 100,000 of population, compared with 176 in Denmark and 151 in Norway. More relaxed approach equals more sick people, which means more dead. Case closed!

A novel approach - get it over as fast as possible

This agreed-upon argument for social isolation sounds kind-of reasonable, but it contains a serious error in logic. Fundamentally, it is necessary to acknowledge that this is a super-infectious virus and you aren't going to be able to hide from it forever. The initial effect of the relaxed approach is to infect more people, yes, but it doesn't mean that it will continue to infect more people. Consider the following policy: everyone in the US is put into a single large room and instructed to mingle, shake hands and sneeze on each other. The next day, they go back to work. After a few days, most people feel just fine - they either have a natural immunity or they are having a symptom-free case of the disease. They keep working. A bunch more people feel sick and take a few days off work to recover. Some need to be hospitalized but recover and go back to work; others die. After a few weeks, everyone has been exposed to the virus and they have either recovered or died. Everyone gets the virus right away; there are no new cases after that.

What about the old folks?

Now, before you think that I am advocating this policy, let me discuss some potentially reasonable objections to it. (Other than we don't have a big enough room.) First, it puts at risk the groups that are particularly likely to die from the virus - primarily my own, the aged. We are also more likely to die from the flu, but at least we can get a flu vaccine that is partially effective. We have no vaccine for Covid-19 and most reasonable people believe that it is unlikely that one will be available before a couple of years at least. I don't think it is unreasonable for us oldsters to isolate ourselves, at least when the virus is obviously romping around the world. Besides, most of us are retired and are not subject to the same financial demands that make isolation so costly for younger people.

What about the strain on hospital resources?

Second, if everyone who is susceptible to Covid-19 gets it at the same time, the hospitals will be swamped. This is the justification given for "flattening the curve" - if we can spread out the serious cases, the hospital facilities can be used more effectively. While this point has some merit, the flat curve we have been hoping for isn't necessarily the right curve - just consider how little sense it makes if we have ample unused hospital facilities (as does Sweden). The right curve would be the one that just uses up the currently available facilities, so some initial relaxation would be a good idea; use the space now in order to free up space for future cases. But do not forget our ability to improvise - use hospital ships, create ventilators out of tin cans and balloons - so I suspect that our obsession with the curve is somewhat exaggerated.

Can't we wait for it to go away?

Third, wait for it to go away. Pandemics don't last forever - the SARS epidemic in 2003 only lasted about six months before it petered out. That virus seems to have been more deadly than the related current Covid-19; once infected, you could expect symptoms to appear within a couple of days. Despite the fact that it was transmitted world-wide, the virus had trouble propagating itself, so that the eventual death toll was relatively small - about 700 deaths world-wide and no deaths at all in the USA.

However, the Spanish flu which emerged around the last year or so of World War I followed a much different path. First it spread widely and then appeared to die out. Then, later in 1918, it swept the world again, causing many more deaths than the first wave. Then it died out. But in 1919, yet another wave appeared, causing hundreds of thousands more deaths. Then it died out. In 1920, an additional but relatively minor breakout occurred and did not last long. Overall, some have estimated that 500 million people were infected, about one-third of the world's population, and deaths were around 50 million, or ten percent of the infected population. I even wonder if the percentage infected might be understated - perhaps the later waves became less virulent because there was almost no-one left to infect. We have no particular reason to believe that Covid-19 will continue killing people for three years, but it certainly not impossible. Would we seriously consider sheltering in place for three years? No way. More likely that we emerge from our quarantine at some point and then all the people who were not exposed to the virus because they were sheltering will be exposed to it and get sick. So the order to stay home merely forced us to have an unwanted vacation and delayed our getting sick. I hear angry protests about how relaxing the lockdown will cause a rise in infections. Of course it will - but what is the alternative? Keep the lockdown until the virus has disappeared for good? Good luck with that!

Can't we wait for a cure?

Fourth, if we are unwilling to put our money on the virus quickly vanishing, we might still hope that someone will come up with a cure and we can emerge from isolation, take our pill and never have to worry about the virus again. I think there is a teeny bit of reason to this. It is highly unlikely that we'll have a real cure - just remember our experience with our old familiar coronavirus, the common cold, which resists our attempts to cure it even while we send men to the moon and invent the internet. However, it is not unlikely that drugs will become available to ease the symptoms and perhaps lower the death rate for Covid-19. At the same time, the bulk of the lives saved by the new drugs will be in the old folks category; we are also the ones without jobs and isolating is much less costly for us.

What about the economic market failure argument?

Fifth, economic theory tells us that there are times when voluntary markets fail. Just because you have a touch of Covid-19 doesn't mean that you want to stay away from your friends. Therefore it may make sense for the government to employ coercion to force a separation, so that your friends are not inadvertently exposed to the virus. Notice, though, the word "inadvertently"; if your friends know the risk and you don't force yourself on them, economic theory has nothing to say. People dining at Typhoid Mary's restaurant didn't know the risk they were taking, so coercion was definitely called for. But if young people want to go back to work, knowing the risk they are taking, why not?

The (lack of) justification for coercion

Are any of these caveats reason to require people to stay home? If you want to stay home for any of the reasons above, I've no objection to your doing so. But having the government force young people to forgo their income to stay home is unconscionable; note, also, that the poorest among us, who have no reserve of savings to depend on, will suffer the worst. Requiring young, productive people to stay home saves relatively few lives and wreaks havoc on their personal finances and on the rest of the economy. They lose their wages and then their jobs. They can't afford to buy stuff. Then their employer goes broke. Then the banks and other lenders to that employer lose money. Those lenders may include pension funds and insurance companies, endangering pensions and insurance contracts. And on and on. Entire industries, like the airline and hotel industries, are on the brink of failure. Retail stores are also hurting - J.C. Penny and Neiman Marcus are among those currently considering bankruptcy.

Some financial wizards are telling us to expect the economy to spring back to life once the lockdown is lifted and everything will be as if the crisis never happened. I say poppycock. There is an illusion that all the factors of production are just sitting there, waiting to be put back just the way they were. But things cannot be the same. That restaurant across the street closed because, without customers, the owner could not pay his rent. The original owner is not a candidate to step back into the same business as before because he spent all his available cash trying to see it through the lockdown and then had to default on his legal obligation. The property owner will probably have to reduce the rent, making it harder for him to pay the mortgage, etc., etc.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that the mighty power of the government (state or Federal) is necessary to see us through this crisis. Again I say poppycock. One reasonable role for the government might be to provide information on what is known about the virus and advice on sensible precautions that could be taken. Developing and certifying testing kits might also done by the government, although the initial response of the CDC and FDA was to clamp down on efforts in the private sector to do this - hardly a good sign. If hospital ICU beds and equipment are insufficient, there's probably a better way to provide them than shutting down the economy. If people have access to reasonable information, why not let them make their own decisions? If a company wants to continue to work through the crisis, its employees will have the chance to continue earning money. If an individual employee would rather take shelter, he or she might lose their job, but at least they have that option. If a company doesn't want to risk operating through the crisis, individual employees will be free to look for a company continuing to operate if they wish.

Unfortunately, in a time of crisis people tend to be willing to cede more powers to the government. I think it's a kind of "OMG I don't know what to do about this - please someone make these hard decisions for me!" thing. And as I have written above, the government may be able to provide some comfort and direction, even if it is not much better informed than the average citizen. (Remember the "wear masks!" - "don't wear masks!" - "wear masks!" confusion.) The biggest danger is that the government can use the crisis as a way of consolidating its power over those opposed to it. In Hungary in late March, Prime Minister Orban's supporters passed a sweeping emergency law, giving the prime minister the right to sidestep parliament and rule by decree during the pandemic, throwing normal constitutional checks out the window. President Trump announced that he was now the War President; you could hear the smacking of his lips as he considered all the new powers he imagined he would get. (Fortunately, not much in the end.)

One grim reminder of the ability of the Federal government to continue to make mischief during the crisis is the unprecedented level of deficit spending it has spawned in the name of stimulus. Everyone is on board with this - the president, Democrats and Republicans of both houses. The only disagreement is over which constituency will get the loot. Even the idea of the economy needing stimulus when we are seeing pictures of shoppers getting into fights over the last roll of toilet paper in the store is absurd. Maybe we should require all of congress, plus the president, to work full-time in a toilet paper factory? And keep them working until the trillion dollar budget deficit can be taken out of their paycheck?

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