The Backtracking on Shutdowns Begins

By April 8, 2020 Commentary

A brief recap on how we got to this awful place, using my home state as an exemplar.  The coronavirus appeared.  Good information was hindered by China’s lack of transparency, but what information was available suggested the new strain was quite transmissible and fairly lethal, at least to some sub-populations.  At first, people thought it could be contained, but in our globalized world that was always a false hope.   When it arrived, public health experts started building models, with limited actual data on which to build key parameters, and ran scenarios.  The most outlandish and unrealistic scenarios of course were highlighted by the media.  Politicians panicked and were stampeded into taking extreme actions to prevent the spread of infections and deaths.  They shut the economy down.  Tens of millions of jobs and up to 25% or more of GDP have been erased.  Now that reality is setting in and people are getting antsy about the lockdown, to say the least.

Minnesota is a perfect example.  Some geniuses at the University of Minnesota and the State Department of Health came up with a model which at least in one extreme scenario predicted that 74,000 people in the state would die of coronavirus disease.  The Governor used that to justify a comprehensive shutdown of business and social life in the state.  He failed to tell people, and it later came out, that 50,000 people were projected to die even with the order.  And that 24,000 difference was attributed to a supposed overwhelming of health resources, leading to untreated cases.  This is one of the biggest omissions by politicians everywhere, that the actions they are taking are intended to slow spread, not prevent deaths, except in the very unlikely scenario that health resources really could be overwhelmed.  At the time of the shutdown order, there was a very small number of infections and an even smaller number of serious illnesses in the state.  And it was apparent from data elsewhere that the disease was almost exclusively targeting the elderly and the seriously ill.  Any reasonable person would conclude that the number of deaths being used to justify the order was simply not even a possibility, so why was it used?  I answered that yesterday in a post about how you can save a million lives from coronavirus.

The state, despite requests, has not released the model, the computer code under it, the changes that have been made to it since it was initially run or any of the associated documentation.  Nor has it released any studies or other information relating to the economic and other harms that would result from the shutdown.  Presumably such studies were done and alternative courses of action considered.  In such an immense crisis this level of transparency is absolutely critical.  The public is entitled to know what is behind the actions being taken.

Now of course, it is apparent that the models, as everyone should have expected, are deeply, deeply flawed and erroneous in their projections.  And it is equally apparent that we have massacred the economy and jobs with shutdown orders and that this loss of jobs is creating social and health impacts of its own.  So now of course, Governors are beginning to backtrack and rethink.  And that is what is happening in Minnesota, as the Governor is apparently considering lightening up on the shutdown, although the extent of this change is unclear.  Of course, this is justified by saying that our wonderful shutdown order is working so well, although we still need to be cautious.

Here is what a person of integrity would do.  He or she would say:  I made a mistake.  I allowed myself to be swayed by information that I clearly should have known had no credibility.  I should have consulted a wider range of experts.  I should have more carefully considered the harms that would be done by such an extreme shutdown of business.  I should have considered whether there were not alternative actions that would protect vulnerable populations, without wreaking havoc on our economy and jobs.  And I should have been clearer that in any event, measures we take are likely only deferring the spread of the virus and the occurrence of infections, infections which do have the effect of boosting the natural immunity rate in the population.

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