Shutdowns: What’s the Point?

When the federal government recommended closing down much economic and social activity, and nearly all governors obliged by issuing shutdown orders that were more or less comprehensive, there was an explicit and coherent rationale: the shutdowns were needed to flatten the curve, to spread out the time during which the coronavirus would be active so that hospitals would not be overcrowded by a sudden onset of critically ill patients. That rationale was coherent, but it turned out to be wrong. Almost everywhere, the predicted crush never materialized and hospital capacity went untaxed.

Our governors could have declared victory and lifted their shutdown orders, but they didn’t. Ever since, as my colleague Kathy Kersten put it in the Star Tribune, the shutdowns have been “a tactic in search of a strategy.”

Robert Skidelsky, a member of Britain’s House of Lords and Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University, addresses this issue in an essay titled “The Unspoken Reason for Lockdowns.” The essay covers a lot of territory and is well worth reading in its entirety, but I want to focus on his conclusion:

Today, epidemiologists cannot tell us what the effects of the current COVID-19 policy mix will be. “We will know only in a year or so,” they say.

The outcome will therefore depend on politics. And the politics of COVID-19 are clear enough: governments could not risk the natural spread of infection, and thought it too complicated or politically fraught to try to isolate only those most at risk of severe illness or death, namely the 15-20% of the population aged over 65.

The default policy response has been to slow the spread of natural immunity until a vaccine can be developed. What “flattening the curve” really means is spacing out the number of expected deaths over a period long enough for medical facilities to cope and a vaccine to kick in.

But this strategy has a terrible weakness: governments cannot keep their populations locked down until a vaccine arrives. Apart from anything else, the economic cost would be unthinkable. So, they have to ease the lockdown gradually.

Doing this, however, lifts the cap on non-exposure gained from the lockdown. That is why no government has an explicit exit strategy: what political leaders call the “controlled easing” of lockdowns actually means controlled progress toward herd immunity.

Governments cannot openly avow this, because that would amount to admitting that herd immunity is the objective. And it is not yet even known whether and for how long infection confers immunity. Much better, then, to pursue this goal silently, under a cloud of obfuscation, and hope that a vaccine arrives before most of the population is infected.

Emphasis added. I think Skidelsky is right, and governments across the Western world are engaged in an elaborate charade in which the real strategy they are pursuing–if there is one–is never truthfully disclosed. Governors in the U.S. say they are lifting restrictions when it is “safe” to do so. But how is it safe? The virus hasn’t gone away, and it isn’t going to go away.

I would only add that if Skidelsky wants to see a real “cloud of obfuscation,” he should come to Minnesota and listen to Governor Tim Walz blather incoherently through his frequent press conferences.

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