Social Distancing

Research lead by Neil Ferguson and his colleagues at Imperial College London suggests that a staggering 2.2 million would die in the United States and 510,000 in Britain if nothing is done by governments and individuals to stop the pandemic (no social distancing or hand washing, etc.).  Imperial College London study  The U.S. was late and bumbling in addressing the Novel Coronavirus coming from China in December. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refused to authorize the use of tests approved by the EU and the test developed by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was flawed and had to be withdrawn. The United States remains embarrassing and dangerously behind other countries in testing and other preparations for dealing with the disease.  “Coronavirus-testing-delays-caused-red-tape-bureaucracy-scorn-private-companies”

Unable now to contain the virus in a targeted way, the U.S. has largely shut down its schools, theaters, restaurants and other places of public gatherings as well as flights from abroad. The Ferguson “report concludes that the British government might be able to keep the number of dead below 20,000 by enforcing social distancing for the entire population, isolating all cases, demanding quarantines of entire households where anyone is sick and closing all schools and universities — for 12 to 18 months, until a vaccine is available”. A comparable figure for the U.S. implies a reduction in the death rate to 86,000.

For perspective, traffic accidents in the U.S. in 2017 killed 40,100.  More than forty-seven thousand committed suicide that year and 55,672 died from influenza and pneumonia. When compared with ordinary flu, covid-19 spreads more rapidly and is ten times as deadly, but we still do not know very much else about its properties.  But, we can expect a relatively large number of deaths from this new virus no matter what we do.  But doing nothing will increase deaths considerably.

What steps should the U.S. take?  We don’t ban cars because people die in them. We choose to take calculated risks if they are not “excessive”.  https://wcoats.blog/2016/12/27/our-risks-from-terrorists/

The extreme measures being taken in the U.S. proceeded without serious estimates of the economic costs to the economy and the spill over health risks of children kept home with vulnerable grandparents, etc.  “The CDC guidelines advised that short- and medium-term school closures do not affect the spread of the virus and that evidence from other countries shows places that closed schools, such as Hong Kong, ‘have not had more success in reducing spread than those that did not,’ such as Singapore.  But this guidance was not released until Friday [March 13], after the cascade of school closings had begun.”  “States-are-rushing-to-close-schools-but-what-does-the-science-on-closures-say”

Our extreme reaction will generate huge costs that cannot be fully known reverberating for years to come. We can be pretty certain that there will be unintended, undesirable consequences quite beyond the disruption of our pleasurable, cultural activities (bankruptcies of otherwise viable firms and the resulting loss of jobs, etc.). The government (congress and the administration working together for a change) is attempting to anticipate and ameliorate as many of those consequences as possible. One example of the search for cost effective balance of cost and mitigation involves the stopping of flights from Europe.  The cost of monitoring arriving airline passengers before boarding abroad is very likely cheaper than the economic disruption and damage of forbidding foreign visitors at all.  Following Trump’s announcement of the travel ban (once his team sorted out and clarified what he was actually imposing) the American Civil Liberties Union announced, “These measures are extraordinary incursions on liberty and fly in the face of considerable evidence that travel bans and quarantines can do more harm than good.”

Unlike the U.S., Britain has not closed its schools and restaurants. But as I am writing this, the UK just announced that its schools will close Friday March 20.  The Patriot Act passed quickly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001 (for those of you too young to remember) reminds us how quickly and easily we surrender our revered liberties when we are scared.  Almost 19 years after 9/11 we still have the dangerously intrusive provisions of the Patriot Act.  Once freedoms are surrendered and the government steps in it seems to be hard to regain them.  The extreme measures being taken in the U.S. and elsewhere to slow the spread of covid-19 provide us with the latest example.

On March 16, Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, reported that models based on data available so far indicated that the biggest reduction in deaths came from “social distancing, small groups, not going in public in large groups. But the most important thing was if one person in the household became infected, the whole household self-quarantined for 14 days. Because that stops 100 percent of the transmission outside of the household,”

The biggest bang for the buck comes from individuals protecting themselves by social distancing, hand washing, and normal (and perhaps enhanced) care to avoid the sick and avoid exposing others when we are sick as we generally do now. Clear public health guidance from the government could go (would have gone) a long way to encourage the enhancement of such diligence.  The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts never closed down during the flu season.

Covid-19 calls for vigorous government action, even now when it is too late to stop it any time soon. We will need extra hospital beds, medicine, respirators, protective gear, replacements for infected health workers, vaccine research, development, manufacture and administration and more.  Soon we will require replacements for the many brave health care workers such as nurses and doctors as they also become infected with the virus. But as with all decisions, private and public, a careful assessment of costs and benefits of different courses of action will produce the best result.  Knowledgeable public information to guide the natural protective self-interests of each of us and our usual concern and respect for the well-being of our families, friends and neighbors can carry us a long way toward minimizing the further spread of this disease at minimal cost to lives and property.

P.S.  In my previous blog of March 15 (Covid-19, why aren’t we prepared) I reported Beth Cameron’s claim that the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense was disbanded in May 2018.  Ms. Cameron was its director at the time.  Yesterday Tim Morrison, director of the successor unit for a year in 2018-19, “No-white-house-didn’t-dissolve-its-pandemic-response-office”, explained that its staff and function were merged with two other units performing overlapping functions in order to improve efficiency without a loss of its capacity “to do everything possible within the vast powers and resources of the U.S. government to prepare for the next disease outbreak and prevent it from becoming an epidemic or pandemic.”  I apologize for misrepresenting what happened and expect Mr. Morrison to apologize for the disastrous failure of his unit to fulfill its mandate.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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