BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL OF THE DEATHS THAT WILL RESULT FROM NOT OPENING THE ECONOMY?

Shout out to Russell Blake, who not only spared me from a long bout of procrastination, but also captured the spirit (almost word for word) of my thoughts regarding the question/statement: “the death toll from suicides, from drug abuse, from depression, from unemployment arising from closing the country is far greater than that of the virus.”

To prove that I put some thought into this prior to shamelessly sharing Russell’s thoughts below, I offer this in addition to the shared post:

Because we kept clinging to the false hope we could somehow salvage the economy by going “halfsies” with a robust and crafty virus that cares about one thing and one thing only—finding more hosts—we’re now stuck between a pandemic rock and an economic hard place. A place where much of the economy (the obviously visible part) is mortally wounded…and was wounded from the very arrival of the pandemic. Let’s be real. Retail. Travel. Entertainment. Gone as soon as the pandemic arrived. To me, that’s an important concept to accept. Reopening now instead of two or six weeks later won’t make a difference in those economic sectors. The initial damage is done, confidence is so low that the damage will continue no matter how many restrictions are lifted—so why kill and maim thousands upon thousands more and end up with the same economic result?

We’d honestly be better off starting from scratch, with a real lockdown lasting six weeks—not the piecemeal game we’ve played since mid-March. No air travel. No interstate travel. No non-essential travel or business at all. Masks on anyone leaving the house. Everything would come to the stand still.

And in six weeks, our numbers would look like New Zealand’s or The Czech Republic’s—and assuming we had testing in place, masks for everyone, contact tracing systems and other methods of carefully watching for hotspots…we could methodically restart the economy with better consumer confidence and better trust in the government.

AND NOW FOR RUSSELL BLAKE’S FAR MORE INTELLIGENT THOUGHTS:

A fair question that keeps coming up, or rather a statement that is framed as a certainty that in reality should be a question, is that of those who believe in reopening the country ASAP. It goes something like, “the death toll from suicides, from drug abuse, from depression, from unemployment arising from closing the country is far greater than that of the virus.”

Here’s my problem with that statement of putative fact:

It’s a twofold problem.

The first is that we don’t actually understand yet what the ultimate damage from the virus will be. We are in the second inning of a double header, and we just don’t know. We are looking at six or seven weeks of deaths in the US, and extrapolating that the crisis is largely over, or contained. Embedded in that idea is that the death toll won’t get much worse, maybe 100K all told, and thus this was all a Chinese fire drill (see what I did there?). 

Except that hasn’t happened. We aren’t at the ninth inning of the second game. We’re just guessing, working off models that have been largely wrong, and are assuming that the death toll will be, as we move forward and reopen, about what it has been with nearly the entire nation locked down.

The second is that I haven’t seen any reliable hard numbers on what the actual increase of suicides, drug abuse related deaths, depression related deaths (wouldn’t that be suicide?!), unemployment related death (also suicide, I presume) has been. If someone has hard numbers that speak to this presumed increase, kindly post a link.

I’m familiar with the decrease in life expectancy associated with lower employment (i.e. increased poverty), but that assumes that the lower employment lasts a lifetime. In other words, it is an extrapolation that assumes if we have 30% unemployment for a year, that will continue forever, and thus those folks will see a decrease in their life expectancies of however many years. So it’s a model based on a bunch of assumptions that don’t reflect reality, because most won’t stay unemployed forever.

This dearth of hard evidence of both the “toll in human suffering” wrought by quarantines, and of the ultimate toll in lives lost to the virus (as well as lives ruined due to fibrosis, organ damage, etc. in some percentage of survivors), is glaringly obvious to me. We simply don’t know. And we won’t know until we have a lot more data and better understanding of how RO will be affected by reopening.

I know the things we don’t know.

Those making declarative statements about their preferred mechanism for handling the virus crisis don’t seem to know what they don’t know.

That’s a problem.

I am on record saying that if we don’t alter our behavior, the US could expect as many as 10-40 million dead within a year. I based that on the country failing to change its approach (that statement was made in early Feb when I ran the exponential curve and took it to its logical conclusion based on 70% of the total population being infected, no quarantines to drop the RO below 1, the health system being quickly overwhelmed and the mortality rate jumping from a couple percent to more like 10-15%). It was an extrapolation of all known data at the time.

Thankfully, it now appears it was wrong. We won’t see a collapse in the health care system. We won’t see wildfire spread. We won’t see people unable to get care and thus die because the system’s overwhelmed. We won’t all live in NYC and take the subway and exist packed on top of each other.

So I have adjusted my model as more data becomes available. I have no problem admitting my early predictions were wrong – because they were wrong because WE CHANGED WHAT WE WERE DOING. We adapted. We altered how we interact.

We behaved, collectively, more intelligently than our leaders were advising us to behave when I made those predictions in early February – when we were being assured this wasn’t an issue, it was just the flu bro, that masks weren’t advisable, that we didn’t need to go draconian quarantine, that we didn’t need to take any steps to protect ourselves because for Americans it just wasn’t going to be a danger.

We got smart. Or smarter. Not nearly fast enough, with our now close to 70K dead (with an unknown percentage of those still in iffy shape, if all infection stopped today, also going to die) a testament to how damaging delaying taking this seriously was. States that took “draconian” measures, like Washington and California, dramatically flattened their curves and avoided the devastation NJ and NY have seen, and are still seeing.

The question is, “Is reopening as quickly as we can a good idea or a bad one?” The answer should be, “We really don’t know.” But what the answer is increasingly, is being spun along party lines of “Yes, absolutely we should reopen, because freedom and guns and the constitution!” or “No, because even one life lost from being reckless is not worth risking.”

Here are some unpleasant facts. The travel and leisure industries are dead on arrival. They were when it became obvious to even the dimmest a death plague was sweeping the planet. They won’t come back to life anytime soon if the country reopens tomorrow, or in six months. They are just as dead either way. People won’t be rushing back to get on planes, or cruise ships, or pack into casinos, or concerts or sporting events, any time soon. They won’t be anxious to stand beside others in bars or clubs. They won’t be in a hurry to lie on a hotel bed where a maid might have coughed or the prior guest might have. They won’t want to rent a car and be in an environment where the last driver, or even the guy who brought it to them, might be asymptomatic. They won’t go to the mall or the movies. They’ll be reluctant to go to a restaurant and breathe the same air you do, or have the staff touch their food and utensils, or sit in a booth or chair you just did.

They won’t be doing a lot of things they might have six months ago. They will probably forego buying that new car for a while until they see whether their job is stable or a second wave guts it. Ditto for buying a house – can they depend on their employer’s check to make the payment? Will the bank be anxious to lend them money given the uncertainty of the future outlook?

They will become more fiscally conservative. And that’s the lucky ones who have money or who didn’t lose their job. Those who did will have no real money to engage in any of those behaviors.

Because of the number of industries affected, many of those jobs will never come back.

That’s life. It happens. Nothing you write on FB and no opinion you hold will change that. You’re looking at extinction level events for many industries, and nothing you say or do will pull the mastodon from the tar pits. Accept that. It is horrible, but it has already happened, and reopening immediately, or in a few months, won’t change it. Those are horse and buggy businesses and Henry Ford in the form of a virus just made them obsolete with the advent of the assembly line.

The question of how to best move forward is a fair one, and a difficult one. I don’t have the answer. I do have one suggestion, though: first, do no harm.