Are our leaders panicking us into a second Great Depression? Or are they taking the right steps to prevent mass casualties? We asked two commentators to trade arguments over email.
Word just came in that Montgomery County, Maryland, has closed all its tennis and pickleball courts. So if you come to visit, don’t bother packing your rackets or pickles or whatever the gear is, because pickleball is off.
In DC, the tennis courts are still open. I know because freelance snoops – mostly middle-aged women – have taken to social media to inform the world whenever they spot a gang of suspicious characters in white shorts and headbands trying to sneak in a doubles match, making sure to tag the police, the parks department, and the mayor just in case they want to send a squad car.
If these snitches were thinking rationally, they’d notice that tennis puts more than six feet between players (not sure about pickleball). But they’re not thinking rationally. Who is these days?
It’s difficult to sort through the sandpile of numbers about this epidemic. Figures for “coronavirus deaths” are useless if they don’t distinguish between dying from and dying with. Case numbers might go up because the disease is spreading or because you’re testing more people.
So I’m sticking with the one ungameable number: total fatalities. According to the useful website EuroMOMO.eu (European Monitoring of Excess Mortality), which collates all-cause mortality data for 23 countries, Italy has seen an increase in deaths in recent weeks, compared to previous years, but the spike is smaller than the one in 2016-17, the winter when it was so cold the Danube froze over. This is true even if you restrict it to those over 65, the age group that accounts for the overwhelming majority of coronavirus deaths.
If we end up inducing a second Great Depression to avert a crisis that, in terms of fatalities, is comparable to a bad flu season, skeptics of the lockdown will feel justifiably vindicated. Which will be small consolation, since we’ll be poor like everybody else. Did you catch this morning’s unemployment numbers?
As I write, the French government is requisitioning refrigerated food storage warehouses to use as morgues. Spain is storing bodies in ice-skating rinks. Before it went into lockdown, Iran dug mass graves for virus victims so big they could be seen from space.
I note this not to be macabre or to play on emotions, but because when quarantine skeptics question the numbers (and they are imperfect), my instinctive response is a version of Dr Johnson’s “I refute it thus.” Who knows if people are dying at a higher rate than in past years? Well, have you looked at all the overflowing morgues?
That said, the numbers do tell a very clear story. If, as you suggest, we look at overall deaths, the conclusion is that we are almost certainly undercounting coronavirus deaths rather than overcounting them, since people also die without being tested. This is true in Spain, Italy, and France. In Northern Italy, excess mortality is up to twice the official virus death toll. Now, you might say, aren’t figures less bad in the rest of Italy? Yes –because they went into lockdown.
Then there is the issue of ICU beds. Coronavirus is undoubtedly killing a lot more people than the flu, but it’s giving many times more people pneumonia of the kind that requires intensive care to survive – hence the notorious “flatten the curve” strategy. People have drowned in their own mucus awaiting treatment in Madrid’s most modern hospitals. Italy and Spain have already implemented battlefield triage rules. ICUs in Paris have been running at occupancy rates hovering around 200%, despite the Air Force evacuating people around the clock to less-affected regions; in hardest-hit Vosges, the number is a staggering 425% (and this is weeks into lockdown). This is very, very real.
A pandemic will cause economic mayhem in any world, but there is simply no doubt in my mind that a laissez-faire approach causes an unacceptable risk of collapse of the health care system and of avoidable mass casualties. I spent February raging at Macron’s establishmentarian pusillanimity in the face of an insidious foreign threat, at establishment media saying “It’s only the flu and if you disagree you’re a racist,” but at least this sort of liberal deathwish I understand. I wish I could understand that of my fellow conservatives, particularly those who, as I know you do, care more about the common good than economic figures or libertarian shibboleths.
You can’t credit the lockdown with reducing the figures for at least two weeks, given the incubation period of the virus. In that interim in Italy, before the benefits of their lockdown could possibly have been felt, death totals were still comparable to 2016-17. Things were bad, but not unprecedentedly bad.
Unprecedentedly bad is 6.6 million people filing for unemployment in a single week in the United States. The week before it was 3.3 million. The previous record was 695,000. Don’t expect the new record to last for long.
Do you know what 30 per cent unemployment looks like? I’m terrified we are going to find out. Restaurants and retail shops are just the beginning. Small businesses of all kinds are dying, and they won’t all spring back to life when the lockdown ends. I’m staggered by people who think the government can treat the economy like a computer on the fritz: unplug it and plug it back in again. It doesn’t work like that.
And most of the people whose lives we are ruining are those to whom the coronavirus poses virtually no threat at all. Unlike the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed the young and healthy by the millions, this is a disease that, everywhere it has struck, has killed almost exclusively the very old and already seriously ill.
One friend who got laid off is pregnant. She needed these next few months of work to save up a little fund for cribs and strollers. She would qualify for unemployment benefits if she could get them on the phone, but of course the lines are jammed. I don’t know what will happen to her savings now. Probably go to her landlord.
The number of coronavirus deaths in DC stands at 12. More than a month ago, we had multiple confirmed cases wandering around CPAC and AIPAC (never mind the acronyms, two of the biggest conferences in town), infecting, one would have thought, dozens if not hundreds of people in those enclosed conference spaces, who then would have infected thousands more in the weeks before the city shut down. The horrible crisis for which we are putting an entire city under house arrest, ruining people’s futures and finances, and forcing my friend to embark on her first year of motherhood with a bank account at zero – is this it?
Shutdown skeptics argue that with targeted measures such as those implemented in many Asian countries life can go on as normal. Europe and the US should have implemented those measures before the virus went out of control, and thus bought precious time. But last week even Singapore (pictured), with the most competent government on the planet, universally praised for its virus response, announced a one-month lockdown.
Contagious viruses spread at an exponential rate – we know this not from some model, but from everything we’ve observed, as well as elementary logic – which is why the time to act is when the numbers are small. Furthermore, it is precisely because, as you note, the virus incubates for two weeks, that the figures on day x do not tell us the true extent of the damage. Of course DC should be shut down.
It’s true that a young and healthy person is less likely to die from the virus (though many such people are dying of it now). But perhaps that person doesn’t want to unwittingly pass the virus to their grandma, or their friend’s diabetic roommate, or their neighbour’s immunodeficient kid. People spread viruses. That’s why we’re in this situation.
Perhaps, even, perish the thought, they’d rather be out of work than watch loved ones die.
Let’s talk about the economy: mass casualties and a collapse of the health care system aren’t good for the economy. When the prognosis for appendicitis is “dying on a hospital waiting room floor”, whatever else is going wrong, the economy is going to be wreckage.
The debate of how to crawl out of the now inevitable economic destruction is an important one. But wishing away this very real enemy will not help. The West is suffering today because of complacency, not because of a surfeit of prudent, decisive statesmanship. This, more than anything, is what both the economy and public health need now.
We cannot wish away the enemy, what we need is decisive statesmanship – anytime someone starts talking like that to me, I feel as if they’re about to start a war.
Which, in a way, you have, since locking up an entire nation in its homes is a wartime measure. Police cars driving through parks with bullhorns shouting “No sunbathing! Exercise only!” is the kind of comically totalitarian intrusion that only wartime could justify. Actually, in a proper war they’d probably have better things to do.
If it turns out all of this sacrifice was for nothing, that this wasn’t the Blitz but Vietnam, what do you think the political consequences will be? Nations with 30 percent unemployment don’t have a very good record in choosing leaders. It’s not the healthcare system’s collapse I am worried about.
Hospitals here aren’t close to overflowing except New York. Government modeling has overestimated the number of hospital beds coronavirus will require, not by a little, but by factors of five and ten, even in states like Florida where two weeks ago beaches were still packed with spring breakers, which means you can’t claim the lockdowns saved them.
So your nightmare scenario of medical shortages ruining the economy has not come to pass. Ironically, the opposite is nearer the truth. The healthcare sector lost almost as many jobs in March as the retail sector. Private practices don’t have patients anymore, so they are shutting their doors and firing their staff. The economic crisis is making it difficult to get medical care, not the other way around.
That’s the kind of ripple effect you can expect to see more of. You talk as if the economic effect of the lockdowns were something to be navigated, like a bit of turbulence in an airplane, but even with whatever plan the green eyeshades come up with, expedited small business loans or supercharged unemployment benefits, economic devastation on this scale is going to cause a crisis like you and I have never seen. And no amount of decisive statesmanship can prevent it.
We agree that New York, which had more Covid-19 ICU admissions in one week than flu admissions in the worst month in its history, is in poor shape. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, cases are down. Both are dense, dysfunctional cities, but in New York, Bill De Blasio energetically applied your “nothing to see here” strategy while San Francisco applied restrictive measures early.
But it’s not just New York: rural Georgia, for example, is in chaos. Rural Americans may not pack into subways, but they do go to churches and malls.
You fault me for minimizing the economic damage. I do not. But I am frustrated by the falsity of the choice presented by skeptics: the economy or your life. Tragically, the next months will be economically disastrous whatever happens.
Ohio went on lockdown in the third week of March. Over the previous two weeks, foot traffic to restaurants was down 30-60 percent, more than enough for mass bankruptcy. A small businessman in the American heartland told me all his employees quit, purely from fear of the virus. Pandemics bring chaos. It’s not the lockdowns that wrecked the economy, it’s the virus.
You seem to say “If I’m right, events will vindicate me.” I fear that if lockdowns prevent mass casualties, skeptics will claim it as vindication rather than condemnation.
But let’s say I’m right. Let’s say the government kept telling people to report to work while bodies piled up and citizens died like refugees, and the economy collapsed anyway, as it would in such chaos. Wouldn’t that provide opportunities for would-be Mussolinis?
By definition, we always know too little about new threats. You may be right, and I hope you are. But not only does it seem very unlikely that you are, your proposed strategy has enormous lethal risks, and a comparatively small payoff – namely, not a normal economy, but a potentially slightly less damaged one. It is foolhardy, and wishing things were different doesn’t change that.
Best wishes to you and your family,
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