COVID-19: In Rush to Act, There are a lot of Questions that We Still Haven’t Answered
A recent thread in the news is the economic and other negative consequences of the COVID-19 restrictions. In other words, there are trade-offs . . . more prevention of the virus comes at a cost of other things. Rational decision making requires assessing the trade-offs. This is difficult right now due to uncertainty about the virus. But this can breed fear and unwise actions. I‘m concerned about the limited information being publicized, which feeds the fear factor. To assess the trade-offs and risks of various policies, it’s important that the public be informed. This also provides additional public “oversight” of policy makers’ decisions. Unfortunately, a lot of relevant information is not forthcoming from public officials.
This leaves me with an assortment of questions and worries.
We see a lot of data on confirmed cases of COVID-19 and fatalities. But it’s important to put this in context. For example, what is known about the seriousness of this coronavirus compared to say, a bad flu outbreak such as H1N1? It's clear that the old and infirm are at risk regarding COVID-19, but how much more so than the flu? How easily is the virus transmitted relative to the flu? It seems that this is more serious than the flu, but how much more serious?
Other comparisons to the flu also are helpful. There are many, many flu cases and deaths per year, with the latter mostly among the old and infirm; well more than for COVID-19. I'd like to see a comparison of the fatalities/risk of the flu to those for COVID-19. Discussion of the (un)suitability of the comparison would be helpful as well.
My understanding is that the usual course of the flu is an initial phase of cases rising at an increasing rate, then rising more slowly, then new infections stop. The latter two phases, I gather, are due to the virus finding fewer susceptible hosts and warming temperatures. Is a similar pattern expected with the coronavirus? Is the coronavirus sensitive to temperature?
In assessing the trade-offs noted above, it’s important to recognize the downside of the massive shutdowns, including lost lives. The lost income and the related hardships due to the shutdowns cause lost lives among the vulnerable. For example, say that the probability of fatality due to lost income rises by one ten-thousandth for a person in ill-health. If this happens for 10,000 people in ill health, there is one more death. One million such people implies 100 deaths. Are we killing more people than we’re saving?
Policy makers ought to account for such factors in deciding on the scope shutdowns. Unfortunately, politics of “the visible” dominates. Deaths and new cases of COVID-19 are highly visible, yet the losses from more restrictions (including fatalities) are not as obvious and are not reported. The political incentives are to ignore the latter.
Another important question is the effectiveness of increased restrictions, both regarding how they reduce caseloads and increase economic hardship. For example, how much does it help (and hurt) going from ball games with no fans to no ball games; from closing bars and restaurants to closing all retail; from closing retail to closing all business?
It’s important to deal with the damage already caused by the shutdowns. One way to do so is to lift restrictions that careful analysis (see the above) finds are not effective. For harm already done, focus help focus on short-term relief for people in need, short-term loans to businesses so they don't go bankrupt, and resources for hot spots. Also, for loans, short-term is important because ultimately the point is for businesses to reopen. That's the only way they can recover and repay the loan.
It seems clear that this is a serious situation and various measures are prudent. Indeed, there are some very hard-hit areas that need help. Answering the above questions and using them as a guide ought to yield better policy. I think reasonable estimates of everything noted above can be arrived at pretty quickly. I hope that policy makers use them in reasonable manner, but I worry that there is too much of a rush to “do something” to save political face.
Dr. John Garen is the BB&T Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky and a Senior Fellow at Pegasus Institute