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Martin Wolf and Wishful Thinking on Ending Coronavirus Lockdowns

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Martin Wolf and Wishful Thinking on Ending Coronavirus Lockdowns


Many commentators have observed that the economic damage of the coronavirus will likely kill more people than the pathogen itself. Too many people then move to arguments like “So let’s isolate only the elderly”1 or “We must therefore minimize damage to the economy.” We’ll turn to Martin Wolf of the Financial Times’ urgings on that front in due course.

The problem is that there are times you can’t have what you want and this is one of them, big time. Our old way of living will never fully come back. And too much fixation on “We need to relax the lockdowns because economy” is bypassing the hard thinking and work that still hasn’t been done enough to help more of us function better before we have either effective treatments that greatly reduce the number of serious cases or a vaccine.2

While China has loosened up on its restrictions, it’s not back to normal due to a combination of some workers reportedly not having returned for duty plus factories not being able to go into full schedules due to lack of new orders thanks to lockdowns in Europe and the US. But there are also rumors that infections have come back. Some countries like Austria, the Czech Republic and Denmark are planning to relax their restrictions in the next few weeks; we’ll have a much better picture a month after that happens of how much reversion takes place.

But the big problem for most countries, particularly the US with its hollowed out health care system and the UK with its starving of the NHS, is that doctors and nurses are already at the breaking point even in locations where the disease has not peaked. Medical professionals are at even greater risk of bad outcomes than the public at large due to potential exposure to large viral loads when exhausted. The lack of adequate PPE is a disgrace and the failure of the Feds to step in, even more so.

There are plenty of clips on Twitter showing the sorry state of hospitals; this is a recent one we featured in Links yesterday:

The National Nurses Union has issued repeated press releases on the lack of preparedness and needed safety protections. Yet the Washington Post showcases Matt Bai putting on an n95 respirator and medical googles (not ski mask made-dos) and other coverings. Not saying that Bai isn’t still taking serious risk, but that the Post is helping propagate the myth that front-line conditions are better than they are.

This video from the Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC (my old stomping grounds) even though taken outside on a pretty day, still gives a sense of the chaos indoors:

Yesterday, we discussed how the coronavirus is leading hospitals to suspend surgeries and treatments they deem to be postponable, even for cancer. We are now getting reports of cancellations specifically due to the lack of PPE:

In the UK, staff at the Barnsley hospital were provided with PPE 19 years out of date

The big point is that a group obviously and seriously exposed to the coronavirus is medical workers. I’ve argued that the big motivation for flattening the curve isn’t just to reduce deaths overall by not exceeding hospital capacity but in particular not to decimate hospital staff.

But as we are seeing from strikes among Amazon warehouse workers and other people who are deemed critical and have to work in close proximity with others, we are risking breakdowns in other now-even-more-essential systems.

And coronavirus is hitting key services where there aren’t many replacement staff, like air traffic controllers. From a late March article in Politico:

FAA personnel at air traffic control facilities from Las Vegas to New York have tested positive in the last week, prompting closures while the buildings were cleaned. The majority of the almost one dozen facilities affected so far have been towers at airports, but two of the incidents have been at centers responsible for controlling airspace over multiple states.

Though the airports themselves remained open, buildings had to be closed temporarily and control duties taken over by another facility, creating delays even in this depressed environment for flights. A cascade of more cases spreading throughout the controller community, especially if it hits several facilities in one region at the same time, could be crippling.

How about the staff that manage nuclear reactors? Sewage plants don’t take as much day-to-day minding, but prolonged staffing shortages could lead to bad outcomes. Readers might come up with other examples of important infrastructure or systems that would have trouble functioning well if a site or sites were to suffer a coronavirus outbreak.

Steve Waldman made the case for enduring the cost of lockdowns in a post last month:

COVID-19 is not just a disease that is infecting us as individuals. It has infected us as a society. The financial fallout, the flailing markets, these are the social equivalent of a mid-grade fever, an unpleasant and uncomfortable side effect of the work our society is performing to suppress and defeat the infection. There may be ways of reducing the unpleasantness without impairing the effectiveness of the response, various forms of economic stimulus or monetary loosening as a kind of social tylenol. Maybe those are worth considering. Some have been tried. But nothing would be more stupid, more suicidal, than to suppress the immune response in order to suppress the fever.

That is what ending our isolation now — what sending everybody back to offices, schools, restaurants, beaches, and bars — would amount to. It might well relieve the “fever” short term. The stock market is up this morning! But it radically increases the likelihood that the patient — our polity, our society — dies.

How would that happen? What’s the microstructure of this purported social collapse? How would putting people to work again be bad?

We desperately need people to work. All of us staying home will not save us. But some people’s work is much more critical than others’ to our society’s collective viability. We obviously need medical personnel to work. For them to work effectively, we desperately need the people who are capable of producing and ramping up production of PPE (“personal protective equipment”) to work. Perhaps more desperately, we need our agricultural and food supply chain to be producing the calories and nutrients each and all of us need to get through this. We need grocery store clerks, stockers, shoppers (for delivery and pick-up orders) to work. We need truck drivers a-truckin’. We need Amazon and UPS and FedEx, permitting us to get what we need with minimal opportunity to cough on one another. We need fire departments and police. We need the digital platforms and communications infrastructure. We need people delivering essentials to the elderly. We need the people who can develop and ramp up testing, tracking, and treatment. We desperately need people to work.

But if you are not one of these people, your staying at home — working as much as you can if you can or not at all of you can’t — is not “waste”. It is making a huge positive contribution to our society, by delaying the moment when it will be impossible to persuade a critical mass of these very essential workers to do their jobs, because many of them are sick and the rest of them are too afraid of getting sick.

The New York Times ran an article on Monday based on interviews of medical experts on what needed to be in place to relax the lockdowns with reasonable safety. Its four requirements:

Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care.

A state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms.

The state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts.

There must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

Needless to say, the US is not even close to meeting these standards. From the close of the story:

Gregg Gonsalves, a professor of epidemiology and law at Yale, said: “I’d feel better if we had serological testing, and could preferentially allow those who are antibody positive and no longer infectious to return to work first. The point is, though, that we are nowhere even near accomplishing any of these criteria. Opening up before then will be met with a resurgence of the virus.”

A lot of normally capable policy wonks seem not able to come to grips with the fact that the coronavirus has the upper hand. Sure, we can try reopening for business after we’ve tamped down the infection and death rate with stay-at-home requirements. And maybe the disease won’t propagate quite as quickly because the summer will have a mitigating effect.

But I have yet to see an expert opine that warmer weather will do all that much for contagion rates. And I also know too many people who seem to have convinced themselves that they already contracted it, when the second go-round of the past winter’s flu was nasty and I know personally of only one symptom description that does sound like it was coronavirus. In other words, a lot of people seem to feel the need to tell themselves they aren’t at risk when their personal factoids are far from dispositive.

So what happens to commerce if restrictions are largely or entirely removed, and in a month infections are back on the march? The resulting stops and gos, particularly at different times in different parts of the US and world, would make the production that was happening more uncertain and likely costly.

1 In case you haven’t sorted this out: First, models show that isolating the elderly only trivially reduces infection rates. Second, you can’t isolate them. They have to eat, see doctors, go to the bank, get their cars and houses fixed if they live independently or be attended to by younger people if they don’t. Third, younger people are still getting bad cases and dying, and even those who get bad cases and don’t die often do suffer lasting heart and/or lung damage. See this video on how the UK is seeing a lot of ICU cases of people in their 50s and younger:

Fourth, letting the disease rip puts the immunocompromised and those with other morbidities like diabetes at risk.

2 It would be better if I were wrong, but I am concerned that the jury is out on herd immunity. While getting Covid-19 does confer short-term immunity, some experts are worried that it may not last as long as a year.

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