Money or lives: at some point we must say ‘enough!’
We trade off lives against other things all the time. If lives were all-important, we would ban motor cars -- given the many deaths from traffic accidents
And it is not as if confining people to their homes is safe. It will undoubtedly create depression in many and in already depressed people the outcome will be suicides. As well as tracking virus deaths we should also be tracking deaths from suicides and deaths from domestic violence. Becoming "stir crazy" from confinement is a well-known and dangerous phenomenon. It may not be long before deaths from confinement-related causes will equal or surpass deaths from the virus
Our current draconian policies to tackle coronavirus are just not sustainable. The middle ground is more like what Sweden is doing. See below
By BJORN LOMBORG
The potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic is enormous. But draconian policies to tackle the virus also have colossal costs. Ignoring the trade-offs could land us with one of the worst possible outcomes.
A landmark study by London’s Imperial College on death impacts from different policies helped change the minds of US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson towards implementation of lockdown policies. It showed that without any such policies, COVID-19 would kill a half-million people in Britain and 2.2 million people in the US.
Unrestricted COVID-19 means most people get sick at the same time, entirely overwhelming the healthcare system. Without restrictions, corona infections would peak in early June in Britain, with 280,000 sick people needing hospitalisation but only 8000 beds available. That is why it is crucial to “flatten the curve”. Policies to reduce the speed of infection can help spread out when people get sick and make hospital beds available for more people.
Smart policies such as self-isolation, house quarantines and isolation for the vulnerable have little cost and can flatten the curve somewhat, reducing deaths by about 50 per cent. But this still leads to a quarter-million dead in Britain, so understandably almost all societies have decided that stronger policies to slow the spread of the virus are needed.
Imperial College defines social distancing of the entire population to mean that people still go to school and mostly to work but they curtail other social interactions such as going to restaurants, cinemas and bars by 75 per cent. Together with the other smart policies, this could flatten the curve so much that there would be almost enough beds for everyone for the next five months.
Unfortunately, the study also shows that such a successful reduction in infection means few people have gained immunity. So if restrictions are lifted in September, a second wave of infections will once again overwhelm society and kill almost as many.
Thus, if we want to keep deaths low, the Imperial College study shows we may have to maintain social restrictions for what may be up to a two-year wait before vaccinations are available.
This point needs more emphasis. Up to two years of draconian social restrictions will not only be phenomenally costly but also impossibly hard to keep in place.
Look at the costs first. Most of the early predictions were moderate. But the world’s much more severe policies have exploded the costs. According to JPMorgan, China’s economy will shrink by an unheard of 40 per cent in the first quarter of this year.
For the US, Goldman Sachs envisages a 24 per cent second-quarter gross domestic product slump, and Morgan Stanley a 30 per cent drop. In the past week alone, 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits.
Moreover, most governments seem to have committed to draconian policies to avoid most deaths across the long term. These will cost much, much more. If China wants to reopen, it risks a second wave of coronavirus; if it doesn’t, the economic contraction could continue or get even worse. Economists are suggesting the costs of continued extreme policies could be comparable to Germany in the 1920s or the US in the 30s, with massive economic costs, a third of the workforce unemployed and a generational loss of opportunities.
The current raft of draconian shutdown policies spanning much of the world includes border closings, shutting down travel and closing schools, concert venues, restaurants, bars, malls, sports facilities and countless jobs.
These policies cannot be sustained realistically for many months, let alone years. Already, mobile phone tracking shows that 40 per cent of Italians still move around despite curfews and lockdowns. In France, “virus rebels” are defying bans and young Germans hold “corona parties” while coughing at older people.
As weeks of shutdown turn into months, this will get much worse. With many more people at home, this will likely lead to higher levels of domestic violence and substance abuse. As schools stay closed, the skills of the next generation erode. One study shows closing schools for just 13 weeks could initially cost the economy 8.1 per cent of GDP. As more people become unemployed and the economy plunges, we will be able to afford much less, also leading to lower-quality healthcare for everyone. Politically, the outcome could be dire — the previous long-term recessions in the 20s and 30s didn’t end well.
We need to discuss openly the trade-offs between tougher shutdowns and economic calamity. Trump is irresponsibly itching to end most restrictions by Easter. It could help the economy in the short term, but in the long term it could lead to the corona catastrophe forecast by Imperial College. Similarly, long-term shutdown policies also can lead to devastation: first destroying the economy; then, with their support withering and health regulations unravelling by September, a huge secondary wave of COVID-19 killing people indiscriminately.
Fortunately, the Imperial College study maps out more of a middle ground. It didn’t advocate the complete shutdown we mostly are seeing implemented. The researchers envisioned people continue studying and mostly working while reducing their social activities. They pointed out that cancelling mass gatherings has “little impact”.
This middle ground is more like what Sweden is doing: recommending people work from home if possible, and asking those who are sick and over 70 to avoid social contact. But most people still work, children go to school, most of society is still running. This is long-term sustainable. Shutting it all down — like France, New Zealand and California — is not.
We need to map a middle course that saves most lives and avoids a catastrophic recession.