Discussions of the pros and cons of mandated lock downs to stop (or slow) the spread of Covid-19 often miss the most important point. The key factor in restraining the spread of a contagious disease (beyond vaccines, basic public health measures, etc.) is the behavior of each one of us. Given our respective risk preferences the question is whether we adjust our behavior sensibly to protect ourselves and others from infection? Our behavior may be responding to government mandates to close restaurants, theaters, and factories or it may be responding to information provided by public health experts on the nature of the risks and measures to mitigate them. In the latter case our experience and that of our neighbors will depend importantly on the quality of the information provided and our trust in its efficacy. Our individual choices allow responses that are more suited to the individual situation of each actor. “The unnecessary fight over covid-19”
In short, if governments were to say, “do whatever you want, but these are the risks as we understand them,” people would not necessarily rush to the concert hall, or baseball game, or hop on a plane. “Sports fans live attendance poll” Offices, factories, restaurants and entertainment venues must convince their workers and customers that they have taken reasonable steps to be safe from Covid-19 (or other risks). Thus, comparing the results (infections and economic output) of lock down with no (or mild) lock down countries is not the right test.
We need to focus attention on the quality of the information being provided to the public, the public’s trust of such information, and the efficacy of the measures being taken by those offering reasons to gather in public places to enhance its safety. Those who have had Covid-19 or who have been vaccinated for it face minimum risk of catching it (again) or of spreading it and can pretty safely attend public events. Thus, a trustworthy way of establishing that fact would be very useful. I carry my vaccine certificate wherever I go but they are relatively easy to counterfeit if it became useful to do so. Thus, the reason behind the various projects to develop so called vaccine passports (better named vaccine certificates) is obvious.
The technical design, including privacy protections, raise more issues than you might at first imagine, including establishing interoperability standards and access to public records. However, the position taken by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defies understanding by those of us who place our individual freedom in first place. He stated that: “We are not supporting doing any vaccine passports in the state of Florida…. It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.” “Biden vaccine passports-DeSantis” This is incredibly wrong. Restaurants now serving indoors already test our temperature before allowing us to enter. I visited my credit union in the IMF building in downtown Washington, DC today and they took my temperature as well. If gatherings are not convincingly safe, sensible people won’t attend. Countries requiring arriving passengers from other countries with a high incidence of Covid-19 infections to quarantine for two weeks would presumably wave that requirement for passengers with a credible vaccine certificate.
It is hard to imagine that the public accommodation clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would require a restaurant to admit and serve a customer with a contagious disease. But there are privacy and other technical concerns with implementing a reliable certificate of a covid vaccine. “The next front in the pandemic culture wars vaccine passports” The benefits to the economy and our freedoms are significant enough to make the effort to overcome them.
Like all of us, President Trump is eager to reopen the economy. Does he have the authority to do so or do state governors? Fortunately, neither can force us to start eating out again, or return to our offices. We remain a country where those decisions rest with each of us individually (or jointly with your boss with regard to returning to your office, shop or factory). That means that those parts of the economy that have shut down will get going again when the affected businesses have taken measures to protect their customers and employees sufficient to regain their customers’ trust that they are safe places to visit. But as I argued last month, that should always have been the basis of social interactions. “Beating-covid-19: Compulsion-or-Persuasion-and-guidance”
The broad-based, blunt instrument of sheltering at home unless your activities are vital (says who?) is imposing staggering damage to the economy. The best way to minimize that damage is to restore public trust as quickly as possible that those with it are being isolated and treated. A blanket shut down of non-essential activities is not the best approach. Each of us in our personal situation can better determine where we feel safe to go than can a government agency. However, some of us will not give sufficient weight to the dangers of exposing our friends and the general public to the disease if we might have it. Public policy should educate the public to the dangers of covid-19 and how best to protect ourselves and should minimize the financial incentive to continue working when sick. State coercion (mandatory quarantines) should only be applied to those testing positive for the virus. This approach will allow all firms and stores to operate whose employees and customers judge them to be safe and will give businesses maximum incentive to make themselves safe.
Covid-19 will be around for at least another year or two until an effective vaccine is available and then distributed to more than 60 percent of the world population. The most effective way to contain its spread in the interim is to undertake widespread, quick, and accurate testing and to quarantine those who test positive with efficient contact tracing. Adding the newly available tests for antibodies indicating immunity to the virus will identify those who are no longer susceptible to acquiring or spreading the disease. They should be safe in public. Other corona viruses have created immunity in those who have had them and SARS-CoV-2 is expected to do the same, though this has not yet been established.
The U.S. has belatedly increased its testing for the virus. Initially it impeded the development and supply of test kits. As of April 16, the U.S. has tested 10,266 people per million while Germany has tested twice that. The U.S. by that date had 105 deaths per million while Germany had less than half that. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should get out of the way and allow profit seeking entrepreneurs to flood the market with test kits. The government should focus its (our) money on a large increase in testing for the virus and quarantining those testing positive and those they contacted and should offer significant financial prizes for an effective vaccine and for the development (or discovery) of effective treatments. Unlike patents as an incentive, this will encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing among those attempting to develop treatments.
On April 16 President Trump outlined guidance for the phased reopening of closed businesses and activities that is consistent with the approach outline above. The government’s traditional public health role is important. But much more discretion should be given to individual case by case judgements about risks and entrepreneurial initiatives about remedies rather than broad based government edicts.
We will not return and cannot be required to return to the public square until we believe it is safe to do so. Individual shops and firms have a financial incentive to find convincing approaches to being safe and will get there quicker than even the best-intentioned government official issuing instructions and mandates. The government has an important role to play in fighting this virus and facilitating our return to normal life, but it should remove impediments it often creates to the private sector’s management of the related risks and the huge and unnecessary damage it imposes on the economy.