How should we decide if the economy should be reopened ASAP, or if we should continue waiting for testing, a vaccine, etc?
I believe the most relevant questions and information are:
QUESTION NO. 1. What justified the shut down and has that situation resolved?
QUESTION NO. 2. What are the costs and benefits of the two options – opening up now or not opening up now (waiting until some future time or when additional criteria are met)?
ANSWER NO. 1. The reason given for shutting down was that we had to flatten the curve so that hospitals didn’t get overwhelmed. It was not about reducing the number of people who eventually got infected, but slowing it down so that they could all be taken care of. If hospitals were overwhelmed and didn’t have enough ventilators, personnel, ICU beds, etc, people could die because they could not get care when they needed it.
I don’t believe there is anywhere in the country where hospitals are currently overwhelmed. Places like NYC that, early on, had too many patients to take care of at one time are now in good shape, I believe. The reason we were given for having to shut down the economy has been resolved. (To the extent there are any hospitals that are overwhelmed now, perhaps their economy should not be opened up just yet for that reason.)
The shut down decisions were made without full information about what would happen, how many people would get infected, how sick they would get, what treatments would be effective, etc. We can’t wait for perfect information. However, we are learning that the projections that were used to inform shut down decisions were very far off from what is actually playing out. The assumptions that went into the projection models, although perhaps well-intentioned, were quite flawed. That is not to say that models are always bad but it can be very hard to peg many of the assumptions, and so we should use projections with a big dose of caution.
In my view, the flawed projections probably made it more likely that shut downs would be ordered than if we’d had more accurate projections, because the projections dramatically overstated the effects of the virus – even by several times or more. Some people have concluded that shut downs were not warranted except perhaps in the worst hot spots (I have not looked at their data and reasoning in detail yet). The other thing that’s relevant here is that Sweden did not do a shut down at all. Swedes have been going about their business as usual. The last information I looked at said their death rate from the coronavirus is only slightly higher as a percent of their population than their neighbors who shut down their economies.
All of this leads me to conclude that we should strongly consider ending the shut down and opening the country back up now, as any reason that existed to justify the shut down has been resolved, and it may not have even been a good idea in the first place. The other thing to look at is to compare costs and benefits of re-opening now vs staying shut down.
ANSWER NO. 2: The most important thing to remember here is that when you pick an option, you get both the benefits and costs associated with that option. You cannot just take the benefits and ignore the costs. I know everybody knows this, but it’s easy to focus only on the benefits of shut down if you listen to the constant drum beat of reports about deaths, infections and hospitalizations from the virus. But you can’t shut down the economy without impacting people in ways unrelated to getting the virus.
I’m thinking about the two options as being A) keeping the economy shut down as it is now for an unknown additional length of time, and B) re-opening the economy while strongly encouraging those who are vulnerable to continue staying at home and being very careful; people who can and want to work from home should do so; people who want to continue to self-isolate should do so; people should practice good hygiene and continue to watch for symptoms of being infected. So option B is to re-open all businesses and let people do what they believe is prudent for their own lives.
If we keep the economy shut down for some unknown additional length of time, the spread of the virus will continue to be slowed down because people are interacting with others less than if we re-open everything. It’s hard to say exactly how much higher the spread and the death rate would be if we opened up the economy sensibly as described above. The spread is already slowing. And everyone who needs hospitalization will be able to get it, plus we are discovering new treatments that seem to be effective. So I believe the benefit of keeping the economy shut down is modest at best.
The costs of keeping the economy shut down are both economic and health-related. So far, 22 million Americans are newly unemployed due to the shut downs. Unemployment has significant effects to mortality, and it’s not just about mental health, although that’s very important; death from numerous medical causes increases with unemployment; heart attack is just one example. Also consider the entrepreneurs who have worked hard and sacrificed over many years to build up their business, only to have everything taken away from them in the blink of an eye.
I’m hearing that the small business loan funds are drying up already. Many businesses will fold and some people will go bankrupt, lose their life savings, their homes, everything they have strived for because of the shut downs.
Another human cost of the shut downs is the cost of social isolation and the lack of meaningful social interactions. Research shows that this is as big a risk factor for poor health as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and lack of physical activity. I know that many people are making extra effort to stay connected to their loved ones and neighbors safely, to ward off the effects of social isolation. But not everyone has people reaching out to them in this way, and I don’t think we should completely dismiss the health effects of social isolation.
It is my opinion that the costs of continuing to keep America shut down are much higher, much worse than any modest benefits that might come from continuing the shut downs. Let’s open up Missouri and the rest of the country NOW.
–Gayle Brekke, Parkville