To the Editor:
It was perhaps inevitable that the debate over Coronavirus policy would fall victim to the partisan divide. Protestors on the political right are pushing for the elimination of stay at home policies and the opening up of the U.S. economy while discounting the seriousness of the epidemic. The liberal left postures that data and science should drive the decision to re-open and that a premature relaxing of stay in place rules would result in the reemergence of the virus.
It is clear that many protestors on the right have overly discounted the threat of the virus. It is extracting a grievous toll in sickness and death among Americans. Posturing on the steps of state capitals carrying assault rifles and spouting libertarian slogans will do nothing to ameliorate the damages of the epidemic nor bring the economy back to life.
Yet the liberal left is not entirely on the side of the angels in the debate. Their reliance on epidemiological models for policy-making ignores the fact that current knowledge regarding the novel virus is not sufficient to generate a reliable model. This is demonstrated by the divergence in the predictions of different models as well as their generally poor accuracy. Models are always simulations of reality not reality itself. They are useful when their assumptions approximate reality and enough data exists to demonstrate predictive validity. Models that attempt to predict human behavior as well as the actions of a new virus are especially unstable. Several epidemiologists have conceded that more data is necessary to validate their models. Some claim that millions of Corona tests are necessary to generate necessary data and current harsh containment policies must be kept in place until the data is generated. This may be reasonable from a purely epidemiological perspective but it ignores the damage that the current draconian methods being used to contain the virus are extracting. The dilemma is that we are not just facing a public health problem. We are facing a complex situation that includes medical, economic, social and psychological dimensions. All must be factored into an effective solution to the current crisis.
In order to better understand this point, it is useful to visualize two imaginary “damage” curves. One is a variation on the curve that is frequently shown during briefings on the spread of the virus. Call it the Corona damage curve. It demonstrates the havoc caused by the death and disease caused by the virus as well as its attendant health costs. The second curve includes the damages caused by the harsh methods being used to contain the virus. It tallies the economic, social, psychological and health costs associated with the current shutdown. As the virus is contained, the Corona damage curve declines. Over time, however, the shutdown damage curve increases. An effective policy on when to relax restrictions depends on where the two curves intersect. Note that this does not occur when Covid damages are at zero. It implies that some health costs due to the virus will continue but the costs to society of maintaining an economic shutdown would be greater.
Among the social costs of an extended shutdown will be the devastation of small businesses. Like many Americans, most small businesses exist month to month, relying on current revenue to pay their rent, suppliers and employees. They simply cannot sustain a shutdown that lasts for months. After only one month of the shutdown, more than 26 million Americans are unemployed. That number will continue to increase if the shutdown continues. The great majority of the unemployed are workers who depend on a regular paycheck to pay for food and rent. Moreover, many rely on their employer for health insurance. The health consequences for these workers and their families are dire if their jobs do not return. After only one month of the shutdown, the federal government has appropriated two trillion dollars to ameliorate some of the financial problems due to the crisis. This is approximately 10 percent of the current U.S. GDP and it was financed solely through debt. How many more debt-financed two trillion relief bills do you think that the U.S. can or will afford?
The times call for innovative responses to a complex and uncertain problem. The ravages of the Coronavirus must be minimized but at the same time so must the damages to society of an extended shutdown. A realistic solution may not optimize each dimension but the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
Robert D. Russell, Ph.D.
Thank you for this assessment. Unqualified to render a scientific judgment, we hesitate to differ. As we noted in our response to Ms. Pistole, elsewhere, though, we fear that this issue is in the hands of people who cannot be trusted. The Alleged Administration tells us it’s under control. We do not believe that. The laws of contagion are in control. They’ll render their verdict in the months to come.
The government responded with blinding speed to make billions available to big business. Workers—being relatively powerless individuals—got a one-time check and perhaps a temporary bump on their unemployment compensation. Now they’re being told to get back to work, even if work is unsafe. Refuse and you lose your unemployment. The deck is still stacked—and we do not trust the dealer.