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As the Coronavirus (“COVID-19”) spreads into cities and towns around the globe, Americans remain unclear about its potential severity and what we, as a collective, should do in preparation for its effects on the global economy and public health. There is typically a relationship between the contagiousness of a disease and its lethality. COVID-19 occupies a dangerous middle ground with respect to these two variables, so we must be vigilant in responding to this already-present threat. Some key myths must be immediately dispelled and logically toppled in order for policymakers, businesses, schools and the like to take adequate action.
Myth #1: Closing schools, holding online classes, and requiring at-home work are overreactions, especially if no cases have appeared yet at these locations.
Social distancing is the single most important measure we must take to minimize, or at the very least delay, the spread of the virus. Waiting for a case to pop up in one’s town, school, or home before deploying social distancing policies (“reactive closures”) is morally abhorrent. Such a strategy will certainly produce greater contagion than would enacting those policies now—before this horrible disease further proliferates (“proactive closures”). Basic logic is sufficient to come to this conclusion, but historical examples of cities’ policies in responding to other contagious outbreaks also support this takeaway.
In addition to social distancing, everyone should (while supplies last) use disinfectant wipes on surfaces and frequently use hand sanitizers when outside of the home. COVID-19 spreads most commonly when we touch a surface, person, or object and then touch our face (mouth, nose, eyes, or ears) after exposure. Wipes will disinfect surfaces we touch, and hand sanitizers will disinfect our hands before we inevitably touch our faces with our hands.
Myth #2: This is not as bad as the common flu, so we should not freak out.
First, it is not true that this disease will surely be less deadly or less severe than the common flu. Harvard’s epidemiological expert Marc Lipsitch uses the best available data to predict that between 40-70% of the world’s citizens will contract the virus. There is no vaccine, and it appears that one will not be available to the public for at least a year to eighteen months.
Second, this is not an “either or” analysis. In other words, we are not choosing between responding to the common flu or responding to COVID-19. Instead, COVID-19 is unleashing an entirely new killing apparatus onto our society. A response of “other things kill us” is wholly irrational. If we thought that another instrument of death—like automobile accidents or a terrorist bombing—would introduce tens or hundreds of thousands of American deaths this year that did not occur in the past, then our (correct) collective response would not be one of apathy. For a hypothetical, consider the following. If we legalized self-driving cars this year and recognized that the introduction of these autonomous vehicles would cause hundreds of thousands of American deaths this year, then we would and should take measures to minimize deaths from this new phenomenon. So, too, we should not allow apathy to cause needless deaths in the case of COVID-19.
Myth #3: COVID-19 is not that deadly, so I should not worry too much about getting it.
For certain populations, like young people without prior respiratory conditions, COVID-19 seems unlikely to result in death. However, the death rate jumps to just under 20% for those over the age of eighty. So, it is true that the virus is not highly lethal for many people. However, this fact hides two principal realities. First, non-vulnerable individuals should not be quasi-complicit in the murder of the elderly. Contracting COVID-19 contributes to the spread of COVID-19. Increased spread of COVID-19 leads to a higher percent of vulnerable individuals, like elderly folks, suffering from COVID-19 and ultimately dying. Being cavalier about externalizing disease repercussions (including death) onto vulnerable and helpless people is simply repugnant. Second, even if the same number of people are exposed to COVID-19, taking preventative measures to postpone the spread of the virus will reduce the likelihood that a sudden spike of COVID-19 cases shocks the healthcare system. If people contract the virus over time in a more spread-out manner, then this will free up respirators, nurses, doctors, and healthcare resources at any given time of disease treatment. This goal of “flattening the curve” is perhaps the most worthy goal to actualize in the coming months.
Myth #4: America is the best place to handle COVID-19.
I am probably more welcoming of American exceptionalism sentiments than most, but COVID-19 is a situation where this breed of patriotism should not delude us. For good reason, America has individual liberty safeguards that prevent a Chinese-like, multi-month house arrest program. Even a slightly less draconian quarantine setup akin to the Italian approach seems politically impossible in America. But, as has been discussed (Myth #1), a vaccine-less world means that social distancing is the single best policy to prevent the spread of COVID-19. U.S. testing has lagged far behind other industrialized nations, like Israel and South Korea. Accordingly, both political freedoms and data suggest that the United States will not be the best place to erect severe counter-infectious-spread measures.
The United States is not the best place in terms of healthcare resources per capita or frequent and early testing for the disease. For example, respirators are crucial for helping affected individuals breathe when they are on the brink of death. But the U.S. is not at all a leader in the number of respirators per capita, so a sudden spike in the number of COVID-19 cases would negatively affect Americans in need of respirators more acutely than it would affect citizens needing respirators in other countries.
Notwithstanding recent claims of free or omnipresent testing, the United States lags far behind in the number of COVID-19 tests per capita it has administered. Early detection—followed by appropriate treatment and isolation—is undeniably crucial in curbing the spread of COVID-19. So, this is yet another way in which the U.S. is not the world leader in responding to this pandemic. America has the best healthcare professionals in the world, but the inadequacies in testing, social distancing, and resources (respirators, hospital beds, doctors per capita) mean that the U.S. will probably fare worse than several other countries. This is all to say that, while there are positive steps American politicians and leaders are taking, it would be mostly ideological or even imaginary to suppose that the United States is the best place for handling COVID-19.
Myth #5: Responding too harshly will devastate our economy, so we should be cautious in letting this virus affect our daily behavior.
We can pursue a full-court press on social distancing now, later, or never. In any of these scenarios, the economic consequences of this disease will be—and already have been—disastrous. This will continue. Macroeconomists should weigh in to project the likely repercussions of the approaches we consider, but two initial thoughts emerge. First, it seems highly unlikely that an aggressive policy of immediate social distancing—which leads to fewer COVID-19 cases and a flattening of the curve—would cripple our economy more than the counterfactual would. Second, we must factor the cost of human lives into this economic cost-benefit calculation. If an aggressive and immediate social distancing approach saves lives, then this alone is likely economically prudent in light of the high value we place on human lives.
Myth #6: We should not be alarmist because this could be another overhyped Ebola or swine flu.
The top experts seem unanimous in believing that COVID-19 will not be the same as Ebola or swine flu, so this alarmist concern is likely misplaced. COVID-19’s mix of contagiousness (more contagious than Ebola but less than other diseases) and deadliness (not as deadly as Ebola but deadlier than the common flu) means that it is likely to be much more problematic for the world than previously hyped outbreaks. In the highly welcome and desirable event that this prediction is incorrect, then it is better to be safe than sorry by being overcautious.
*Special thanks to all my friends and family in discussions on this topic as of Friday, March 13th, 2020. My views are largely informed by (and at times, wholesale taken from) these friends and family. Particular thanks to Luke Katler, Zachary Shapiro, Adam Bresgi, Brian Oldak, Rachel Dalafave, Scott Jeffrey, Jenny Lai, Mark Sturman, Sam Vranicar, Dana Vranicar, Michael Patton, Lisa Vranicar-Patton, and Reed Patton.
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