Was Killing the American Economy Absolutely Necessary?
Like it or not, this is a question that will continue to be asked, and the terrible answer has already begun to take a convincing shape.
Recently, Fox News analyst Brit Hume told Shannon Bream that “it’s time to consider the possibility” that “this lockdown -- as opposed to more moderate mitigation efforts -- is a colossal public policy calamity.” He goes on to reference the millions of jobs, businesses, and incomes lost, and further mentions the negative “effect on children who don’t have a normal life,” concluding that “we may never recover from many of these losses for a very long time if ever.”
He’s far from the first to muse on the question. Back on March 20, Dr. David Katz, the founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, argued in the New York Times that our fight against the novel coronavirus could prove worse than the disease. Armed with what was then the latest data available from South Korea, he brilliantly argues against the holistic social and economic lockdown on the grounds that the evidence clearly showed that only specific demographics were significantly at-risk of being hospitalized or dying from infection. The evidence we’d already seen in America had “entirely aligned with the data from other countries,” he writes, which suggested that deaths were “mainly clustered among the elderly, those with significant chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, and those in both groups.”
He concludes with a warning:
A pivot right now from trying to protect all people to focusing on the most vulnerable remains entirely plausible. With each passing day, however, it becomes more difficult. The path we are on may well lead to uncontained viral contagion and monumental collateral damage to our society and economy. A more surgical approach is what we need.
Those words should be chiseled on the tombstone of this once-booming Trump economy.
Indeed, in the early days when Dr. Katz offered his prescription, there was time to tailor public policy to “protect the truly vulnerable” and restore a “sense of calm” to society, while allowing the vast majority of people to “develop mild coronavirus infections,” thus advancing “natural herd immunity.” Now, well over a month since the lockdowns began, turning Americans’ social and financial lives back toward normalcy has proven to be about as smooth as a battleship reversing course amidst a sea of jagged icebergs. And keeping this ship afloat is proving costly, with Congress mulling a fourth phase of stimulus spending that could exceed an additional $1 trillion, and the Fed is promising to deploy “its full range of tools” to support the U.S. economy as our response to the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep it crippled.
This raises an interesting question. If we Americans didn’t maintain a popular delusion that our government has an unlimited supply of money to print and throw at any given problem, might we have been compelled to approach things differently? And if we had approached this pandemic with “more moderate mitigation efforts” rather than destroying the economy and placing much of the populace under house arrest, would the health outcome have been vastly different?
Well, Sweden responded to the pandemic without shutting down its society or economy, and it hasn’t become Italy. Florida didn’t institute a “draconian statewide lockdown,” and it hasn’t become New York. What does that tell us?
Just weeks ago, the notion that all-inclusive public lockdowns of healthy Americans “save lives” was assumed to be a given. In fact, California’s low number of cases and deaths relative to New York was commonly attributed to it having locked down a couple of days before New York did. But as T.J. Rodgers writes as the Wall Street Journal, how quickly economies shuttered in response to Covid-19 “appears not to be a factor” in the severity of their respective outbreaks.
“We ran a simple one-variable correlation of deaths per million and days to shutdown,” he writes, “which ranged from minus-10 days (some states shut down before any sign of Covid-19) to 35 days for South Dakota, one of seven states with limited or no shutdown.”
“The correlation coefficient was 5.5% -- so low that the engineers I used to employ would have summarized it as “no correlation” and moved on to find the real cause of the problem.” While he concedes that New York, given its “population density or subway use,” may have uniquely benefited from its shutdown, “blindly copying New York’s policies” in other places “doesn’t make sense.”
Perhaps even more important is the example of Sweden. The policies it adopted are “much less economically destructive than the lockdown in most U.S. states” or its neighboring countries. Knowing the demographic targets of the disease, “Sweden asked only senior citizens to shelter in place,” while the rest of the country continued operating stores, restaurants, and most businesses. The Volvo plant was shut down for a brief time, but has since reopened, “while the Tesla plant in Fremont, Calif., was shuttered by police and remains closed,” which is among the many factors which prompted Silicon Valley tech tycoon Elon Musk to openly characterize California’s lockdown policy as “unconstitutional, outrageous, and fascist.”
The toll on Sweden’s economy was mild compared to ours, to say the least, but what of its Covid-19 toll? Much in keeping with the other data we’ve long seen, the virus harmed a very specific demographic, and not significantly more so than other countries which completely locked down.
“Sweden’s death rate,” writes Rodgers, “without a shutdown and massive unemployment -- is lower than that of the seven hardest-hit U.S. states,” all of which, “except Louisiana, shut down in three days or less.” Relative to its European neighbors, Sweden is “in the middle of the pack.” Its death rate per million is “comparable to France; better than Italy, Spain, and the U.K.; and worse than Finland, Denmark, and Norway.”
We should cheer for Sweden to succeed, not ghoulishly bash them. They may prove that many aspects of the U.S. shutdown were mistakes -- ineffective but economically devastating -- and point the way to correct them.
The data show that the Swedes quite possibly got it right, and we very likely got it wrong. How did that happen?
Johan Giesecke, the former State Epidemiologist for Sweden, gives us a clue.
Consider that our own Dr. Anthony Fauci was, on or around March 10, moved to push for “sweeping new recommendations” to “sharply limit” Americans’ social and commercial activities as a result of Imperial College of London’s epidemiological model, which predicted that 2.2 million Americans could potentially die without “drastic restrictions on work, school and social gatherings for periods of time until a vaccine was available, which could take 18 months,” according to the New York Times.
Epidemiological models are notoriously unreliable. Even those that defend their usefulness readily admit that fact, as Zeynep Tufekci perplexingly writes at The Atlantic: “Right answers are not what epidemiological models are for.”
Professor Giesecke, similarly, explains that such models are “very good for teaching,” but they “seldom tell you the truth.” And perhaps that’s why he and his successors advocate crafting public policy in response to what they can discern as truth, rather than in response to outlandishly predictive and academic models.
Not only does Professor Giesecke seem to understand the nature of epidemiological models better than Dr. Fauci, but he also seems to better understand the societal and economic impact of the lockdowns, which Dr. Fauci has flippantly referred to as “inconvenient from a societal standpoint, from an economic standpoint.”
Over half of the Covid-19 deaths in Sweden occurred in nursing homes, and Johan Giesecke admits that “there are many things that could have done better a couple of months ago” to protect that group of Swedes. But asked whether he believes that the lockdowns seen around the world are misguided, and whether they have the potential to do more harm than good, he’s quite clear:
Yes. I think so, on the whole. What I’m saying is that people who will die a few months later are dying now and that’s taking months from their lives so that’s maybe not nice. But comparing that to the effects of the lockdown… what am I most afraid of? It’s the dictatorial trends in eastern Europe; Orban is now dictator of Hungary forever; there’s no finishing that. I think the same is popping up in other countries; it may pop up in other more established countries as well. I think the ramifications can be huge from this.
All of this presents a serious problem for anyone defending the continued assault on the world’s largest economy in favor of widespread social and commercial lockdowns to combat Covid-19.
In spite of the efforts of those who have a vested interest in justifying the lockdowns and the economic damage, the truth is snowballing, and it all suggests a very disturbing conclusion -- America could have achieved a similar health outcome without destroying millions of businesses, incomes, and lives, without weakening our nation’s fiscal solvency by trillions of dollars, and most importantly, without compromising our most fundamental American rights.
Image credit: Sanu N