Like everyone else, I’m deeply concerned about the COVID-19 virus and everything connected with it. This virus has turned the world upside down, affecting us in a way most of us have never experienced before.
I’m certainly concerned for my mother, who is currently in a nursing home which is on lockdown for the foreseeable future. The administration there is doing all it can to protect its residents, of course, but it seems almost inevitable that eventually the virus will make its way into the facility. The present protocol, as I understand it, is that when the staff arrives for work each day, their temperature is taken, and if it isn’t normal, they are sent home. The problem with that is that new research shows that asymptomatic people can still carry the virus, so this protocol may not be particularly effective. Testing for the virus itself will help in that regard, but I’m not sure how soon nursing homes will have testing kits readily available to them.
I’m also concerned about our current course of action to suppress the disease. It seems to me that our singular goal right now is simply to slow the spread of the virus (“flatten the curve”) which involves mandatory social distancing, isolation, quarantine, and so on in which many—estimates are over 100,000,000—people in the U.S. will still eventually contract the virus. That may indeed keep our healthcare capacities from being overwhelmed, but it also involves committing economic suicide along the way, which will inevitably negatively affect healthcare dramatically as well. It strikes some of us as burning down the village in order to save it.
How will we know afterward if what we did was really effective? Dr. Dustin Krutsinger, Assistant Professor of Medicine at The University of Nebraska Medical Center, wrote this to me in an email:
It is hard, if not impossible, to prove a counterfactual. How do we know what would have happened if we just went about our lives and did not implement social distancing? We can retrospectively try to examine the outcomes in different regions that may have implemented more or less stringent shutdowns. You would have to account for other differences such as population density, weather, timing of initial infections, age, and comorbidity differences in the population. It’s what epidemiologists do, and I’m sure there will be many trying to answer that question when this is all said and done.
This current course of action, even if effective, is unsustainable.
An unimaginable amount of wealth has been lost already in the stock market, and we apparently haven’t hit bottom yet. But that’s only a part of the picture. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board wrote this yesterday:
The costs of this national shutdown are growing by the hour, and we don’t mean federal spending. We mean a tsunami of economic destruction that will cause tens of millions to lose their jobs as commerce and production simply cease. Many large companies can withstand a few weeks without revenue but that isn’t true of millions of small and mid-sized firms.
Even cash-rich businesses operate on a thin margin and can bleed through reserves in a month. First they will lay off employees and then out of necessity they will shut down. Another month like this week and the layoffs will be measured in millions of people.
That raises the question of how soon, if at all, we can recover from this. The WSJ editorial continues:
The deadweight loss in production will be profound and take years to rebuild. In a normal recession the U.S. loses about 5% of national output over the course of a year or so. In this case we may lose that much, or twice as much, in a month…
The politicians in Washington are telling Americans, as they always do, that they are riding to the rescue by writing checks to individuals and offering loans to business. But there is no amount of money that can make up for losses of the magnitude we are facing if this extends for several more weeks. After the first $1 trillion this month, will we have to spend another $1 trillion in April, and another in June?
Speaking to the societal effects, William Jacobson, Clinical Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, recently wrote this stark assessment:
I’m not sure how long this can go on before things come apart. I’m thinking Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, and New York during numerous blackouts. But it’s more.
For now the food supply is stable, as are the electric grid, and water and energy supplies. But should scarcities appear as factories shut down, then the social breakdown will not be limited to big cities.
You can’t just stop an economy, and expect it not to tear at the seams that hold society together.
I don’t know when the end comes. I think we’re okay for the current 15-day “social distancing” period. Maybe another 15 days after that. But not for several months.
The approaching cash stimulus to people and business assistance will buy a little time. But not indefinite. The government cannot bail out an entire economy.
At some point, we’re going to have to weigh the risk of a virus against the risk of ripping our societal bonds. I think the economic shutdown inflection point comes sometime in May, June at the latest. Beyond that, the center will not hold.
I also have concerns about civil liberties being crushed and the Constitution being ignored because of this crisis, but I’ll maybe address those concerns in another post. I’ll end this one with a final quote from The Wall Street Journal:
But no society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its overall economic health. Even America’s resources to fight a viral plague aren’t limitless—and they will become more limited by the day as individuals lose jobs, businesses close, and American prosperity gives way to poverty. America urgently needs a pandemic strategy that is more economically and socially sustainable than the current national lockdown.
Perhaps one last thought: All things great and small, including my mother’s well being, are in the hands of our gracious God, (Psalm 124:8).