Tag Archives: coronavirus

Tradeoffs in the Era of Covid-19

Lawmakers Want to Reopen America, But It May Not Be So Easy–Charles Fain Lehman
No One Is In Charge of Reopening the Country–Michael Brendan Dougherty
Curve-flattening a result of behavioral change, not central planning–Jonah  Goldberg
The important question isn’t when the government is going to lift restrictions–Megan McArdle
Experience Counts When It Comes to Preparing a Population for a Viral Threat-Jim Geraghty

(There are many other such pieces on the center and center/right; I just picked a few at random.)

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I am deeply skeptical of the totality of the nation’s shutdown. End arena attendance of professional sports, sure. Close Disneyland, yah. Halve occupancy rates of popular bars, require people to spread out when waiting in line, by all means. I’m very much in favor of closing airports, which effectively quarantines a lot of the country geographically. Require schools, gas stations and restaurants to devote considerably more labor to bleaching and cleaning restrooms several times a day, and close public access restrooms in most other retail outlets.

I’m not a “floomer”, although I really despise the smug way that people use that term. I worry a little bit about getting the bad form of the virus, but not as much, say, as I dread takeoffs when flying. My concerns revolve more about my mom and stepdad, less about my dad because he’s in a safe state.

But I firmly believe we should not have closed the schools. We should not have shut down most retail outlets, nor should we have forced restaurants to take out only. Give me back Starbucks!

The casual inequities of the shutdown really piss me off. It’s absurdly unfair that Walmart and Target, by virtue of four or five aisles of groceries, are allowed to sell pillows, picture frames, clothes, and electronics, while Best Buy, Staples, Kohls, and Macys are forced to close for months. It’s ridiculous that Home Depot and Ace can sell plants and seeds, but nurseries have to do online orders and curbside pickups.   I’m just grateful I don’t live in the state where “that woman” doesn’t let you buy mosquito repellant and seeds even from Walmart.

My attitude towards the virus is undoubtedly shaped in part by the same mindset that leads to my confusion that there are people in this world who don’t just get flu shots, but actually schedule them in advance. I worry about plane crashes and electrocution, occasionally fear the idea of getting cancer. But on a personal level, I simply don’t find a brand new virus that probably won’t kill you but might worth the level of reaction we’ve had forced on us by the governors, whipped on by a frantic media who clearly worries a hell of a lot more about germs than I do.

I am also personally outraged by the casual disregard those pushing the shutdown have for the nation at large. Shutting down the economy creates winners and losers, while the media and politicians pretended that business as usual = loser and shutdown = winning.

But such an outlook is manifestly incorrect, and before long people began (very hamhandedly) pointing out that we are bankrupting our future, hurting the children of our society, to save the elderly and the “vulnerable” (as if children aren’t vulnerable). But we aren’t, as all the same people will acknowledge, saving the elderly and the vulnerable, because without a vaccine or a cure the virus is out there and will wreak the same havoc on the elderly and vulnerable if it reaches them in six months instead of today. Thus all we achieved by shutting down, we were told constantly, is “flattening the curve”, saving our hospitals and our ventilators so they could be spread out to serve more covid-19 victims.  Except ventilators turned out to worsen symptoms, or close to it, so doctors aren’t using them as muchand we never had a shortage anyway. Meanwhile, hospitals are laying off staffbecause no covid19 patients, but no elective surgery, so no money.

I am grimly amused by the massive media layoffs which is not fair of me, especially since the layoffs aren’t really hurting the worst culprits. But here is my meanest thought: the media shutdown would have acknowledged considerably more complexity involved in shutting down the economy if the millions of opinion columnists, star reporters, and anchors  screaming for shutdown had realized how completely their industry would be clobbered when they got their wish.

The reaction to Covid-19 has split various communities of like folks. The GOP has certainly been split between those who were aggravated we didn’t shut down in late February to those who think it’s time to get back out there and eat, drink, and drive to work.  There are Dems who are noticing it’s not quite that awful, notably Kevin Drum, although most of them are all blaming Trump for, whatever. The skeptic community has been riven, and I’ve blocked more people on Twitter for their tedious lectures in the past month than in 8 years. I’ve been pretty far out there on the “this is all overkill” path and have received a number of private DMs from people saying they agree with me but are worried they’ll be professionally hurt by saying so.

But put aside what we should have done. We should reopen now. Not entirely. Not without restrictions. But we should reopen schools, stores, restaurants, and coffeeshops. We should reopen parks at all levels of government, let beaches have people, and let gas stations provide restrooms, again with restrictions. We should provide hotel rooms not just to the homeless, but to elderly and vulnerable populations that don’t live alone and might not survive their family returning to normal.

And when there are calls to reopen society, there are responses like those linked above, which fall into two categories.

First: whether or not governments reopen the economy, the public will have the final say. And the public isn’t ready to go back to work, school, and restaurants. Polls support this view. If you believe those polls are representative of actual behavior should the government reopen–well, all I can say is, you underestimate Americans’ capacity to tell pollsters what they want to hear. I think easily 30-40% of any given community will go running right out to shop, eat, drink, and beach/hike within a day of the order. And after a few days, another 40% will be right behind them. I’d guess 20 or maybe 30% of the population will claim they will “socially distance” for a while longer, but when you question them closely it turns out they go to stores early and restaurants late, after the crowds. Business will be down at first, sure. Millions are out of work. But most Americans will get out there. The only thing that’s keeping them from this now is the government fiat.

Suppose, however, that I am wrong and only a few people leave their homes, so restaurants and stores will still go bankrupt. Well, so what? Isn’t that what we’re spending trillions of dollars to help? Isn’t there a case for government support helping those businesses who get out there to help our economy recover, start rebuilding our tax base? Let the people who want to go out and shop, eat, drink, and recreate get started on it–again, with restrictions.

And if the reply is yes, but those people are going to transmit the coronavirus if they go out and about? Well, then, you’ve just shifted the debate again, haven’t you? If you don’t want to reopen the economy, then just say so.

Second: there are those who create these laundry lists of requirements that have to happen to end the shutdown. First, we need more tests. Then we need to use technology to track down infected contacts so we can stick them in hotel rooms. Then we need infrastructure to enforce and track all this and then we need to close everything down again in case we have a recurrence.

Wrong. We don’t need surveillance. We don’t need tests. We don’t need to build out an infrastructure. All of these things are nice. But we can do our best with what we have and move on, continuing to build capabability. Surveillance and tests are what the laundry list writers want, and they’re just continuing to confuse their preferences with what America needs. Generally, these are the writers who say things like: the American people had no idea how much covid19 was going to change their lives. There’s no returning to normal soon.

Well, no. Covid19 didn’t change Americans’ lives. Forced shutdowns did. And the Americans who don’t think these all-encompassing shutdowns were necessary don’t blame covid19. They blame governors. The media. By and large, these people appreciate Trump’s resistance to total shutdown and his enthusiasm for moving back to something approaching normal, whether or not it’s his call.

I don’t want old folks to die. I appreciate the need to protect the elderly and the vulnerable from a new virus that’s cutting a swathe through our population. But make no mistake: we are privileging the security of the vulnerable by purchasing the well-being of the youngest generations not just in terms of immediately lost education but also in the huge budget cuts that schools and other institutions will face because of the forced bankruptcy we’ve just imposed on much of America.  The public discourse is not acknowledging the tradeoffs involved in minimizing covid-19 deaths over the wellbeing of those who face minimal risk. People who argue for balance are ignored or mocked.

Change is coming. I hope it’s soon.