Beating covid-19: Compulsion or Persuasion and Guidance

March 31, 2019

The number of deaths in the U.S. from covid-19 have doubled every three days over the last 22 days amounting to 3,141 by the end of March 30. At that point there were 163,788 confirmed cases (those testing positive for the virus).  https://www.ft.com/coronavirus-latest  The actual number of cases is thought to be considerably larger but remains undetected because of limited viral testing.  America’s overall strategy for containing the virus is to isolate those infected in order to stop or slow its spread until a vaccine can be developed, tested for safety and effectiveness, manufactured and administered (one to two years after the discovery of the vaccine, with luck) or until enough of the population has acquired immunity as the result of surviving from the disease (herd immunization), i.e., almost everyone who gets it. The details of the approach vary from community to community.

The virus that causes covid-19 is spread from person to person. It can be picked up from surfaces touched by a sick person, coughed or sneezed into the air within six or so feet or by direct contact, but it can only enter one’s body via the month, nose or eyes.  “Prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads”  “Protecting-yourself-from-coronavirus”  Thus those who test positive for the virus should be isolated from the rest of us (quarantined) and the rest of us should self-isolate

if we experience symptoms of the disease. To protect ourselves from picking up the virus and bringing it to our faces we can reduce our social interactions (work from home, avoid public gatherings such as religious services, and restaurants, bars and public entertainment). Two measures are more important than any others: test as many people as possible in order to detect and isolate those with the virus and wash our hands with soap frequently.  The President’s coronavirus-guidelines for American

These measures can be imposed by government decree and enforcement by the state or can be urged by public education and voluntary individual actions. On March 17 the Governor of Virginia explained why he had not ordered restaurants and bars to close. “Northam said too many Virginia residents rely on restaurants for their meals to justify ordering they shut down.”  “Northam-adopts-10-person-standard-opposes-closing-restaurants”  For the United States as a whole and for most communities (public health services are administered by cities and states) the restrictions on our activities are voluntary. The specific guidance or rules are determined locally, thus providing useful data on which approaches work best.

As in Singapore, S. Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Sweden and a few other countries, business closures in the U.S. have generally been voluntary until March 30. But unlike these countries, which have successfully kept death rates relatively low, the U.S. failed to undertake significant testing for the virus for more than two months after the outbreak of the disease in Wuhan, China. After the tenth death, the death rate from covid-19 in the U.S. has doubled every three days and passed the number of 9/11 deaths on March 30. On March 30, the Governor of Maryland, followed by the Governor of Virginia and the Mayor of the District of Columbia, made shelter in place mandatory: “We Are No Longer Asking Or Suggesting That Marylanders Stay Home, We Are Directing Them To Do So.” “As-covid-19-crisis-escalates-in-capital-region-governor-hogan-issues-stay-at-home-order-effective-tonight”

There is general agreement that testing should be pursued vigorously and those testing positive should be quarantined and their contacts tested, etc. This buys time to better prepare for the increased demand for medical care that will be needed and to develop treatments and vaccines. Though many will die needlessly in the U.S. because of a several months late start with such a program, the question remains which policy to follow for everyone else going forward.  Should it be government mandates to shut most things down and keep everyone home (or at least try to), or should we rely on the choices of each individual for how best to protect themselves and their loved ones while carrying on with their lives? What are the matrixes by which that choice should be judged? “This-pro-trump-coastal-community-in-florida-hit-early-by-virus-sits-at-emotional-nexus-of-national-debate-over-reopening-economy-amid-health-crisis”

In my opinion maximizing individual choices about how to respond to the epidemic is both more effective and more in keeping with America’s freedom loving culture. By more effective I mean that it will best slow the spread of the disease with minimal damage to the economy and the quality of our lives. We each have a strong incentive to protect ourselves from contracting the virus. We also care about protecting others from exposure (most strongly our families and loved ones) but can be deterred from that goal by the loss of income if we stay home. The CARES Acted signed into law a few days ago is meant to compensate firms that shut down temporarily and workers who stay home temporarily and thus to better align the incentives to protect others with the financial consequences.

We protect ourselves and others by diligently adhering to enhanced hygiene practices (frequent hand washing) and by reducing unnecessary social contacts (no hand shaking etc.). As with most everything else in life we are each better able to determine how best to balance the risks of social interactions (whether to work from home or in the office) with safer isolation, than are government officials making general rules for everyone.  The countries that have adopted this approach have left their citizens free to go to work or restaurants but undertaken extensive educational programs on the best practices to protect against transmission of the virus. “South-korea-keeps-covid-19-at-bay-without-a-total-lockdown”

South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and other countries taking this approach provide their citizens with honest information needed by them to evaluate the risks of different choices. This includes information on who is infected and identifying infection hot spots. In the U.S. a person’s health status is private. But when a person carries a contagious disease into the public, his/her condition should be made known to those who risk exposure.  “Coronavirus-data-privacy”

Government mandates to shelter in place or cease many business activity will become increasingly difficult to enforce (have you watched the “Steven Soderbergh movie Contagion”). Persuading the public to adjust their behavior in ways that slow the virus’s spread and providing helpful guidance on how best to do so until a vaccine is found or most of the population becomes immune would be both more effective and more politically popular.

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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