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.

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21 responses to “Bringing Analytical Clarity to the COVID Shutdown Debate”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Some observations:
    The Swedish model–the economy was said to have contracted 8.6 percent from April to June, less than that of Europe as a whole, but still a significant effect. The country’s death rate has been higher than that of its immediate neighbors. It seems that the key to the Swedish approach was to impose a few sanctions, but rely mostly on the willingness of its population to practice social distancing. Americans have shown that they are not that willing to give up their socializing.

    Polarization–The media did not dismiss hydroxychloroquine because Trump hyped it. They dismissed it because there was no credible evidence that it worked and evidence that it could be dangerous in some cases. Because of the President’s false hyping of snake oil remedies, there will be widespread distrust of any vaccine that is released before the election, as has been hinted.

    Recommended approach: Sounds a lot like what the Northam administration is doing.

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Dick, I could not disagree more completely. Only Trump Derangement Syndrome can explain the media assault on HCQ as a viable option (if not a panacea.) I’d ask for it. Now we are watching the same thing with convalescent plasma. But for his touting of it, the FDA decision this week would be routine. Several other countries are using HCQ with measurable success. The plasma is clearly a valid idea worth pursuing. The real pandemic is partisan insanity, a bit on both sides and even infecting the medical community.

    I do wish Trump had stayed out of it, offering no opinion of either treatment method. Too much to hope for….

    The same partisan media tells me daily there is no reason to worry about mail ballot shenanigans. That is a whopper of epic and dangerous proportions.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I have not seen the reports that HCQ is being used with measurable success. Can you point me to them?

      As for the plasma issue, many experts feel that the FDA exaggerated the results.

      In fact, the FDA director today walked his comments back, saying that he “misspoke” about the 35 percent success rate.

      How can we trust anything this administration says?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        re: ” How can we trust anything this administration says?”

        Lord O’Mighty Dick.. If this ain’t Trump Derangement Syndrome, I don’t know what is!

        I recommend a week of watching FAUX News and it should fix your problem!

        The man is a certifiable Hero Dick.. Certainly certifiable… 😉

      2. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        Dick, added some HCQ links below. Scroll on down. Didn’t want to stick a long list in here.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Steve – have you seen this:

          FDA cautions against use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for COVID-19 outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial due to risk of heart rhythm problems

          1. Steve Haner Avatar
            Steve Haner

            You can read the links below, too. Plenty of smart people think the FDA is way off base on that, and around the world they are using it. Is that why our death rates suck? Maybe.

  3. My understanding, the first thing that happened wrong for USA the was CDC botched the early COVID test kits due to sloppy bio-lab practices, basically allowing COVID traces to get into the kits before sending them out. From the get go, we needed to be allowing competent private labs to make the test kits, and all of the labs, not just somebody’s political favorite winner.

    In the face of two simultaneous disasters. (1) CDC failure and (2) market meltdown, Trump made some “mistakes”, presumably consistent with his political philosophy of accepting no blame etc. Hey the stock market is good!

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    Let’s see, the Trump apologists are going to say that Trump has TRIED to LEAD , right? But the media and science was against him, right?

    but here, I’m gonna quote that leftist rag WaPo that has Trump derangement syndrome, to give ya’ll something more than Sweden to hang your COVID19 skepticism on:

    ” In the Brazilian Amazon, a sharp drop in coronavirus sparks questions over collective immunity”

    The hospital system was coming apart. Coronavirus patients were being turned away. Basic necessities — beds, stretchers, oxygen — had run out. Ambulances had nowhere to take patients. People were dying at home. Gravediggers couldn’t keep up.

    The human destruction in the Brazilian city of Manaus would be “catastrophic,” physician Geraldo Felipe Barbosa feared.

    But then, unexpectedly, it started to let up ­— without the interventions seen elsewhere.

    These neighbors were hospitalized with coronavirus. Their vastly different journeys show the depths of Brazil’s rich-poor divide.

    Hospitalizations of coronavirus patients plummeted in the state from a peak of more than 1,300 in May to fewer than 300 in August. Excess deaths in Manaus fell from around 120 per day to practically zero. The city closed its field hospital.

    In a country devastated by the novel coronavirus, where more than 3.6 million people have been infected and over 114,000 killed, the reversal has stunned front-line doctors. Manaus never imposed a lockdown or other strict containment measures employed successfully in Asia and Europe. And what policies did exist, many people ignored.”

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      That is Northern Virginia today. Dig down into the VDH website and Northern Virginia has infection, hospital and death rates down there with several other parts of the US where this is now just a low simmer…..

      Trump has been ridiculed for predicting a fade. But he just was repeating what somebody had told him, he had no freaking idea on his own — he just parroted somebody (probably Fauci). When Biden opens his mouth, he also is parroting what somebody told him. Don’t expect politicians to give medical advice. Most of them can’t even grasp the math behind opinion polls….

      1. Pefectspelcheker Avatar

        That was such a brave and amazing prediction by Trump! A pandemic that faded away must be a first in the history of the world. Every pandemic before this one killed 100% of the population on the planet.

        “Don’t expect politicians to give medical advice.” I agree with you 100% There was one idiot that thought injecting bleach was something worth trying and see if it was the cure we’ve been looking for. Don’t remember who came up with the idea? Must have been someone with a huge brain damage? Many people, the best people can probably tell you the name… Thumper? Thump?

        1. Steve Haner Avatar
          Steve Haner

          Yeah, and his opponent complained about a ban on travel from China. Neither has a freaking clue about any of this on their own. I give Biden and Trump equal (feather) weight on this stuff.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    So we think that Trump led the country well and that he’s being unjustly criticized by the partisans and biased media?

    All this mess is trouble caused by people who don’t like Trump?

  6. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Ha, Ha, Ha –

    Jim Bacon finally catches up to Ms. Gupta’s et al. truths that were relayed here by me to us all last spring on Bacon’s Rebellion while Jim was still looking into goats entrails offered up by the American medical and university establishment and its progressive crony professional fear mongers among us. Fortunately, Jim exquisite entrails predictions, wildly wrong, finally stopped.

    Meanwhile, Virginia Gal is nowhere to be seen.

    What does all this mean?

    1/ Typically wide spread demands that we “follow the science” is largely bunk, because the scientific consensus of experts is typically nonsense, given that experts are not Gods as they claim, but self interested human beings, who fell from grace in the Garden of Eden, and been on their own versions of Fool’s Errands ever since.

    2/ But most always a tiny minority of experts and non-experts who actually think clearly and seriously for themselves, rather than running with the herd, are right on target on this complicated subjects, though most always they are punished for it at the time, and are rarely given credit for their truth telling once that fact is revealed plainly, and as others (fools before) rush in to claim credit that they don’t deserve. This lasts until the herd hysteria, political correctness, and public posturing on the subject passes into oblivion. This often takes decades, centuries, or thousands of years, or never happens. Such is the human nature hard wired into us critters, as it relates to group dynamics, and herd mentality.

    The list of the heroes will follow here for the sake of the public record.

  7. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    It is an old and valid treatment, and traditionally doctors are allowed to prescribe things off label, on their own, with the consent of the patient. The war on HCQ, preventing even the CHOICE, really makes me wonder if the goal is to prevent a successful treatment from being used. I hate being that paranoid, but there it is.

    THIS WHOLE STRING demonstrates that the issue is a pandemic of partisan bullcrap, total partisan bull crap, and for those of us just trying to understand the course of this disease, how to protect ourselves, etc. it is hard to dig down and find the pony. But if I thought I had this, and it was early in the course, I’d ask for HCQ (the stash of zinc is already on the shelf waiting.)

    1. Thanks Steve.

      This site must have some very smart people posting comments. Apparently they know more that Dr. Harvey Risch, a noted Yale epidemiologist.

      * 53 global studies that show positive results with HCQ on COVID-19
      * 14 global studies that show neutral or negative results with HCQ on COVID-19
      * 10 of those 14 negative studies were of patients in very late stages of the disease
      * 2 of those 14 negative studies were by the same doctor in Minnesota
      * 1 of the studies used by Dr. Fauci from a Brazilian outlet was debunked
      * The last study be Lancet was later found fraudulent and retracted

    2. Top-GUN Avatar

      Amen Mr. HANER

    3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Thanks, Steve. These were enlightening, especially the writing of Dr. Risch, linked to in one of the articles cited.

      1. What does it say when a well informed person such as yourself is unaware of opposing views on an important topic of the day? Might that be indicative of a problem with the Fourth Estate?

  8. James A. Bacon
    “We can do better. We can find the optimum balance between protecting the public health, keeping the economy going, and safeguarding personal freedom.”

    Citizen’s make potentially life and death decisions all the time. Why should this be different? It is most unfortunate that a large segment of the population insists on having the government make decisions for them. They also insist that dissenters be silenced and forced to comply.

    “Authoritarian China implemented a lockdown at Wuhan, and it seemed to work, at least temporarily.”

    At the same time China was locking down Wuhan, it was allowing travel from Wuhan to the rest of the world and lying about the virus. China was trying to protect itself, while infecting the world. It’s not “blaming” China to seek to hold them accountable.

    Do you know what nation called it right about the virus in the early days? It was Taiwan. They knew what was happening on the mainland, and tried to pass that information on to the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO ignored Taiwan because it isn’t a member state. Taiwan can’t join because China won’t allow it.

  9. VDOTyranny Avatar

    Interestingly, CDC recently issued guidance new guidance:
    “Don’t attempt to force anyone who appears upset or violent to follow COVID-19 prevention policies or other policies or practices related to COVID-19”

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