Bringing Analytical Clarity to the COVID Shutdown Debate

by James A. Bacon

While we’re on the subject of lazy, undisciplined thinking about COVID-19 vaccine mandates (see previous post), let’s address the topic of lazy, undisciplined thinking about economic shutdowns. The Wall Street Journal‘s Greg Ip brings some refreshing analytical clarity to the debate.

Ip addresses public policy responses to the COVID contagion around the world. Options can be viewed on a spectrum from a heavy authoritarian hand (China quarantining entire city populations) to an almost libertarian approach (Sweden restricting only large gatherings). The response of most countries, including the United States, has been between the two extremes.

Unfortunately, the U.S. response has been confused, vacillating and sub-optimal. Polarized between “protecting lives” and “protecting the economy,” Americans don’t really know what they’re trying to accomplish. Writes Ip:

“There have been few attempts to truly define the goal, and partly it’s because policy makers and epidemiologists haven’t thought well enough about the vocabulary to define what they mean or want,” said [Harvard epidemiologist Michael] Mina.

The U.S. never resolved “whether we were going to mitigation or suppression,” said Paul Romer, a Nobel Laureate economist. Mitigation, he said, meant accepting hundreds of thousands of additional deaths to achieve herd immunity, which no leaders were willing to embrace. But total suppression of the disease doesn’t make sense unless you’re going to stick with it as long as it takes.”

Before COVID-19 spread to the U.S., lockdowns were never part of the U.S. policy toolkit for dealing with epidemics. “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in its 2017 community mitigation guidelines for pandemic flu, didn’t recommend stay-at-home orders or closing nonessential businesses, even for a flu as bad as 1918’s,” writes Ip.

Authoritarian China implemented a lockdown at Wuhan, and it seemed to work, at least temporarily. In the U.S., epidemiologists introduced the idea of “flattening the curve” — slowing the rate of spread to avoid overwhelming hospitals — which could be accomplished only by locking down the economy. That idea, driven by media hysteria (my observation, not Ip’s), seamlessly morphed into the idea of suppressing the virus with the goal of saving as many lives as possible, regardless of the consequences to the economy, mental health, non-COVID-related illness, or other downstream effects.

As it turned out, the Sweden model, much excoriated by U.S., mainstream media, is looking increasingly successful. After a surge of illness and death, infections are down and the death rate as low as the rest of Europe’s — the difference being that Sweden’s economy has suffered far less damage.

I would add one thing to Ip’s analysis. The handling of the virus in the U.S. quickly became polarized around the person of President Trump. In the eyes of the media, whatever Trump did was wrong. If Trump touted hydroxychloroquine, the media dismissed it as junk science. If Trump favored reopening the economy, the media portrayed states like Georgia and Florida as humanitarian disaster zones — afflicting minorities the worst, of course. As the media and Democrats lined up on one side of lockdowns, Trump supporters lined up on the other. Everyone began viewing the debate through partisan lenses.

The result in the U.S. was a lot of on-again, off-again lockdowns that allowed the virus to spread while simultaneously inflicting prolonged damage to the economy.

Ip goes on to argue:

The experience of the past five months suggests the need for an alternative: Rather than lockdowns, using only those measures proven to maximize lives saved while minimizing economic and social disruption. “Emphasize the reopening of the highest economic benefit, lowest risk endeavors,” said Dr Mina.

What does that mean in practice?

  • Enforce isolation of nursing homes, which hold 0.6% of the population but account for 45% of COVID-19 fatalities (more than half in Virginia).
  • Restrict “super-spreader” events such as weddings, sporting events, religious services, and bar gatherings.
  • Wear masks.
  • Allow schools to open. Studies in Sweden and Netherlands suggest that teachers are at no greater risk in schools than the overall population.

If much of this sounds familiar, it’s because this is precisely the logic I’ve adopted at Bacon’s Rebellion — strictly regulate nursing homes and large gatherings. Urge (don’t mandate) people to wear masks in public settings. (Joe Biden’s call for a national mask mandate, including for outdoor activity, is an insane overreach.) Also urge (don’t mandate) commercial enterprises to adopt social-distancing best practices. In summary: Protect the vulnerable, let everyone else get back to work.

We can do better. We can find the optimum balance between protecting the public health, keeping the economy going, and safeguarding personal freedom.