Coronavirus fatalism

I remain very skeptical of the claim that, over time, roughly the same number of people will be infected by the Wuhan coronavirus no matter what approach, short of a permanent lockdown, is used to prevent the virus’ spread. Under this fatalistic view, the only saving of life that occurs thanks to lockdowns (and I guess thanks to any precaution we take) stems from improved treatment of the sick that may result from lengthening the period during which the population becomes infected.

But why is this so? The Wuhan coronavirus spreads through human contact. Sharply reduce the amount of human contact and you sharply reduce the spread during the limitation period.

During that period, some of those infected at the time the lockdown was imposed will die and the rest will recover. Assuming that, after recovery, one can no longer become infected, the ability to transmit the virus by those infected at the time of the lockdown will have been very significantly curtailed.

This doesn’t mean that the virus will have been stamped out. It won’t have been. No lockdown can bring about a total end to new infections.

This why the fatalists say that, as soon as a lockdown ends, the virus will begin spreading quickly through the population. Further, they say, it will eventually infect virtually all of those who escaped infection during the lockdown.

It’s the second of these propositions that I question. If the number of infected people at the end of the lockdown period is significantly lower than the number infected before, and if our ability to identify, trace, and isolate infected people has substantially improved in the interim, it seems to me that we can contain the virus in the post-lockdown period. In fact, even if the number of active cases is not very low, we can still contain the virus if our ability to identify and trace has become sufficiently enhanced.

Most of the infected will be identified through tracing and testing. Isolated, they will either die or get better and (we think) no longer be vulnerable to infection. The rest of the population will mostly avoid infection, although the tracing/testing/isolation will have to be be continued until a vaccination is developed or a great cure is found, because not every infected person will be located.

This containment approach seems to have worked in South Korea, at least so far. According to Worldometer, new cases there peaked in the very beginning of March at around 800 per day. By mid-March, the number of reported new cases was below 100. In the past four days, it has averaged less than 30. Active cases have fallen from almost 7,500 to fewer than 3,000, and are declining every day. (Note, however, that in Singapore there has been a second wave of the virus.)

South Korea has reported only 217 deaths from the Wuhan coronavirus.

South Korea never locked the country down because it was able to curb the spread right away through tracing/testing/isolation. A jurisdiction that curbed the spread through a lockdown might well be able, post-lockout, to limit the spread through the same techniques used in South Korea. If so, that jurisdiction could limit infections and, in so doing, limit deaths

To be clear, I’m not advocating lengthy lockdowns throughout the U.S. Lockdowns come with a heavy cost. The lengthier, the costlier.

I believe there are many jurisdictions where continuing a lockdown is the wrong policy. It may very well be that in some jurisdictions, lockdowns were always the wrong policy.

I assume that, in many jurisdictions, “reopening” will be gradual. For example, some restrictions likely will remain in place in retirement homes. The elderly and others at high risk will be encouraged to stay home for a while longer.

The number of people allowed on the same premises at any one time will increase, but probably in stages. Sports teams will be encouraged (if not ordered) not to play in front of live audiences for a while. And people will still be encouraged to wash their hands.

This raises a question for fatalists: Why any of these policies and practices? It seems to me that if lockdowns are futile, so are all social distancing measures — from declining to shake hands/kiss, to taking precautions at retirement homes, to refusing to allow 54,000 people to flock to Yankee Stadium for a doubleheader in May — assuming New York City hospitals are sufficiently staffed and equipped. (Many precautions carry few, if any any, adverse economic costs. Thus, I suppose the true fatalist should be indifferent to them, rather than opposed.)

I think many of us will want to proceed somewhat cautiously with our daily lives even after the government restores our full freedom to move and congregate. We will not behave like coronavirus fatalists.

I think we will be wise not to.

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