By Stephen Gowans
May 16, 2020
It’s no accident that one of the world’s great morons—he who thinks injecting disinfectants and shining bright lights into bodily cavities will save the world from COVID-19—should be cheering on one the world’s most moronic public health policy choices.
The novel coronavirus—aptly dubbed the stealth virus—is highly infectious, if not peerlessly contagious. People can be infected by the virus—and spread the disease to others—for up to two weeks before showing symptoms. Or they can experience symptoms so mild that they’re not aware they’re ill. If we believe it’s now safe to co-mingle with people who aren’t visibly sick, we’re mistaken.
It’s estimated that if no measures to limit the spread of the virus are taken, each infected person will pass on the pathogen to three others. If you do the math, it will soon become apparent that left unchecked, the coronavirus will spread like wildfire. According to standard epidemiological models, a virus as contagious as this will reproduce exponentially until 60% of the world’s population is infected, whereupon the spread will begin to slow. In the end, 90% of us will be infected. With an estimated death rate of 1%, COVID-19 will kill 68.4 million people (the world’s population of 7.6 billion X a 90% final epidemic size X a 1% fatality rate)—that is, if we decide that letting the virus spread unfettered is better than continuing the lockdown until the virus is brought to heel.
To be sure, the overwhelming majority of those infected won’t die, and the fatality rate is miniscule, but a miniscule fraction of a large number (the world’s 7.6 billion people) can be surprisingly large. Only 3% of the world’s population was killed by the Second World War, but we would hardly blithely accept a reprise of that conflict simply because most of us would make it out alive.
If the pandemic is allowed to run its course, millions more will die from other conditions than can’t be treated as hospitals are overwhelmed and doctors and nurses are left bedridden by infection. Millions will die from heart attacks, strokes, other infections, postponed surgeries, delayed cancer treatments, and trauma that over-stressed healthcare systems can no longer accommodate. Economies will teeter, and then collapse, from massive absenteeism, as workers succumb to infection or refuse to show up to work to protect themselves from a now raging pandemic. If you think lockdown is tough, just wait to see what happens when the virus spreads unchecked.
On the precipice of a disaster
Fatigued by the lockdown, a number of countries, jurisdictions, and people, are giving up the fight. They’re lifting suppression measures, or ignoring social distancing guidelines, on the grounds that ‘the cure can’t be worse than the disease.’ The trouble is, if the disease is an out-of-control pandemic whose destination is 68.4 million dead, healthcare systems in collapse, and supply chains breaking down under massive worker absenteeism, it will be far worse than they imagine—and unquestionably far worse than the cure.
In North America, some states and provinces are pressing ahead with the phased reopening of their economies despite the counsel of public health officials that it’s too early; the virus has not yet been brought under control. In some jurisdictions, rather than slowing, the virus has resumed a growth path. The R value, a measure of the virus’s reproduction rate, has climbed above 1.0 in many places—indicating that the number of new infections has returned to an exponential path. In jurisdiction after jurisdiction, economies that weren’t supposed to reopen until the number of new infections had unremittingly declined over many weeks, are now throwing caution to the wind, and inviting populations to begin resuming normal activities.
The idea is to sacrifice some people, mainly the elderly, so we can save the economy. But killing off 68.4 million people so we can get back to work, won’t produce the desired outcome. On the contrary, as bodies pile up in mass graves, economies will collapse—the worst of all possible worlds.
UCLA economist Andrew Atkeson explains:
Under the policy of resuming normal activity now, or in 30 days, the disease is likely to spread rapidly. The dynamics of the disease would build to a crescendo over the next several months. At peak, over 10% of the population would have an active infection at the same time, and the daily death rate is likely to be very high – on the order of 20,000 deaths per day. And all of this would be going on in the context of a completely overloaded healthcare system. One naturally wonders whether under these conditions, Americans would lock themselves down, afraid to go out to shop and work given the illness and death around them, meaning that economic activity would grind to a halt then just as it is doing now under lockdown likely to spread rapidly. The dynamics of the disease would build to a crescendo over the next several months. At peak, over 10% of the population would have an active infection at the same time, and the daily death rate is likely to be very high – on the order of 20,000 deaths per day. And all of this would be going on in the context of a completely overloaded healthcare system. One naturally wonders whether under these conditions, Americans would lock themselves down, afraid to go out to shop and work given the illness and death around them, meaning that economic activity would grind to a halt then just as it is doing now under lockdown.
US treasury secretary Stephen Mnuchin has been lobbying for the reopening of the US economy on the grounds that it’s being ravaged by the lockdown. In a tense Oval Office meeting, US national security adviser Robert O’Brien—exhibiting more foresight and critical analytic skill than Mnuchin—told the treasury secretary that, on the contrary, the economy would be destroyed if officials did nothing.
A policy that kills the economy, and dispatches 68.4 million people to early graves, is, come to think of it, the public policy equivalent of injecting Lysol in your arm and shining a bright light up your ass.