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Foresight: the good, the bad, the ugly

March 30, 2020

HEB was planning for the current epidemic even while the Trump administration was in denial. Schwarzenegger gives praise.

This administration was shelving past plans, even while infectious disease scientists continued to point to the threat.

Ed Yong looks at the longer-term prospects. Now that the disease truly is pandemic, he is quite right to write off his first scenario. My suspicion is the mixture between the second and third scenarios will vary by nation and region:

There are three possible endgames: one that’s very unlikely, one that’s very dangerous, and one that’s very long. The first is that every nation manages to simultaneously bring the virus to heel, as with the original SARS in 2003. Given how widespread the coronavirus pandemic is, and how badly many countries are faring, the odds of worldwide synchronous control seem vanishingly small. The second is that the virus does what past flu pandemics have done: It burns through the world and leaves behind enough immune survivors that it eventually struggles to find viable hosts. This “herd immunity” scenario would be quick, and thus tempting. But it would also come at a terrible cost: SARS-CoV-2 is more transmissible and fatal than the flu, and it would likely leave behind many millions of corpses and a trail of devastated health systems. The United Kingdom initially seemed to consider this herd-immunity strategy, before backtracking when models revealed the dire consequences. The U.S. now seems to be considering it too. The third scenario is that the world plays a protracted game of whack-a-mole with the virus, stamping out outbreaks here and there until a vaccine can be produced. This is the best option, but also the longest and most complicated.

The notion that we can avoid an economic toll simply by lifting federal government efforts to dampen the disease is based on a skewed model of the trade-offs:

“Look, I’m an economist and I am gruesomely comfortable with putting a value on a life,” says Jason Furman, who teaches economic policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and served as chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Obama. “If it costs one hundred million dollars to save a life, and we have a limited budget, it may not be not worth it. But I think the right model right now isn’t that you’re trading lives off against better economic performance. It’s that if you don’t save those lives, you might have even worse economic performance.” The true choice, Furman argues, is this: You can suppress the virus now and deal with a terrible economy six months from now, or you can wait two more months to suppress the virus, find yourself forced into yet more extreme quarantine measures because the virus is pervasive and the death toll overwhelming, and find yourself in an even more horrendous economy on the other side.

The US is having to take fairly harsh measures now, precisely because we so long delayed a serious response. What we’re doing now may more delay the tsunami than flatten it. Greg Laden explains why even that is important. Some of the right seem to think if we had just ignored this, business would proceed into the future as normal. I fear soon enough we will see why that is fantasy. Fauci’s predictions of two hundred thousand dead merely projects the current trends forward, assuming we manage to reach a peak soon. Yesterday we had 2,000 dead. Twenty-one days ago, we had 21.

There is no wishing this away. It will last longer than most now are thinking. We need resolve, not Pollyannish optimism, genuine concern, not greed, good sense, not short-term thinking, honesty, not bullshit.

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