You can feel the shift in the public perception of coronavirus lockdowns. Politicians, always trustworthy wind vanes, will find some obfuscating way to respond to the shift and save face, but there is a reason why there is suddenly a lot of talk about re-opening businesses and lightening up on social restrictions and a lot of optimistic jabbering about passing the peak of infections and deaths. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is apparent to me that the depth of economic damage took everyone by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. What comes next is a dangerous phase in terms of public acceptance of reality in regard to the epidemic and economy.
Many people seem to have a false understanding of the likely course of the epidemic. I don’t believe that we are eradicating the virus, so it isn’t going away. In fact, it is likely that this coronavirus and its future mutations, will become a regular component of the mix of infectious agents we encounter on a routine basis. That means it will still be causing infections and to the extent we do loosen the number of contacts people are permitted to have, that will likely cause more infections. I also suspect, however, and the research evidence for this is mounting, as I have summarized here, that a much higher percentage of the population than we are currently assuming has been infected, and that a significant number of people are simply resistant to infection. So it appears that even with a loosened set of socializing rules, the transmissibility of the virus will be significantly reduced. But the key message to the population should be, and I give the Governor of Minnesota credit for emphasizing this, the virus is not going away.
And now that we see how deep the economic and employment decline is, and when we consider the psychological shock we have given to the public and the residual anxiety of the population in regard to the possibility of getting sick; there is no way we are bouncing back quickly economically. Consumer spending drives our economy and people will be more inclined to save and some won’t even want to go out. The damage is too great. People want jobs to immediately return and everything to go back to the very healthy economy we had, but again, we need to be realistic and patient. Nothing like this has ever happened before. People are beginning to see and acknowledge the depth of the economic injury we have given ourselves, but seem less understanding about the length of the recovery period.
My perception is that the economic and jobless concerns and the unwillingness to be locked in our homes indefinitely will very shortly predominate over fears about infection, serious illness and death for the majority of the population and states will be forced to relax the shutdowns, even if it means more infections and deaths. With targeted mitigation of spread efforts still in place, we can limit those cases of serious illness and deaths. This is a much more balanced approach, one that considers the best interests of all the citizens.
And it is really inexcusable that this was not the strategy adopted initially. We knew very early on that the virus only posed a significant risk to certain sub-populations and we should have known the level of economic and non-economic injury we would inflict on ourselves with the lockdown orders. It is easier to model that economic and non-economic harm than it is to model the course of an epidemic.
So we are going to end up where we should have started, but only after learning the lesson in a very painful manner. We just have to have the political will to stick to the strategy.