Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Bury Lots of Bodies or Crash the Economy? The Coronavirus Dilemma

As our coronavirus pandemic worsens, our government leadership is being presented with a pretty bad decision:

Option #1: Do we continue to enact commerce-disrupting “shelter in place” orders to save lives and drive our economy into the ground,


Option #2: Do we relax the orders to save the economy but risk the lives of a large number of people?

Until recently, it seemed our president was following the advice of the medical experts and scientists, and was content to ride out Option #1. Until yesterday. 

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick took it even further by suggesting our grandparents should be sacrificed to keep the economy from talking. I wonder if he’d also be willing to sacrifice one of his grandchildren.


It’s truly a Cornelian dilemma. We’re damned if we do; we’re damned if we don’t. Assuming we don’t find a miracle cure, a vaccine, or the number of positive cases and deaths start to subside because of natural interventions (like warmer weather or herd immunity), this decision is only going to get more difficult

As of right now, today, we have about 50,000 positive cases around the US and about 580 people have died. Many people, especially in conservative circles, point to these low numbers as a piss-poor excuse to cripple our economy. The problem, of course, is both of those numbers continue to double about every two days. Barring one of those aforementioned interventions, occurring and based on what we’re seeing out of Europe in general and Italy in particular, we can expect the “doubling every day” trend to continue. 

What does that look like? 

Here ya go:

By the middle of April, we could see over 80 MILLION positive cases and over 1.1 MILLION deaths. Those numbers are extremely unlikely to come to fruition, mostly because either the government, individual citizens, or both would begin taking radical self-quarantining measures as the numbers started really shooting up. 

But what about the economy?

If we continue as we are right now, we’re probably looking at a 30% unemployment rate and a staggering 50% drop in GDP growth through early summer. We’re no longer talking about a recession; we’re talking about a full-scale depression. A that would royally suck. If you’re unfamiliar with how life changed for the folks who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s give this a read

So should we relax our “shelter in place” orders, reopen schools, and try getting back to normal life?

I say no, at least until a few things happen:

First, we need to get hospitals the supplies they need to do their job. This may require nationalizing industry for the duration of the pandemic. And develop the ability to set up temporary medical facilities for both coronavirus patients AND for the patients who require urgent or emergency care, but cannot receive it due to hospitals being inundated.

Second, we need a reliable, widely-available test to determine if people are carriers of the virus. A negative test would be required to return to any work environment where more than one person occupies a space.

Third, we need a reliable, widely-available test to determine if people have already been infected. This, of course, is based on the assumption that people cannot be re-infected. To the best of my knowledge, this is currently unknown. If it turns out people CAN be reinfected, this test would be unnecessary.

Fourth, we need comprehensive federally-funded sick leave for any employee who tests positive and/or starts showing symptoms. Without this, people will continue working despite being infected, thus quickly spreading the virus to the entire workplace. 

Fifth, we would need to set up the necessary infrastructure that would allow the most vulnerable people to continue to live. We need a plan to protect the elderly, people with heart or lung issues, people with compromised immune systems, smokers, people with asthma, etc.

If we did all five of these things well, we MIGHT be in a position to restart some commerce. Unfortunately, it’s looking increasingly likely our current president is unwilling or incapable of this sort of coordination and planning. 

If we look at the rest of the world, every place the virus has taken a significant toll has implemented radical lockdown procedures. The countries that have fared best did so through extensive testing AND did an excellent job of keeping people away from each other. 

Italy’s number of new cases and number of deaths have decreased for two straight days, which is an encouraging sign that they may have peaked. If they did reach a peak, we’re still eight or nine days away from our own peak, which would mean we’d peak at about a million positive cases and about 13,000 dead. That looks like our current BEST case scenario.

But if we start relaxing our procedures now (or next Monday, the end of the federal government’s 15 day period), there’s no reason to believe we won’t just keep piling up the bodies. 

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