My attitude almost from the start of this nightmare has been to take the libertarian view that information, not restrictions, will see us through. You don’t need to close any businesses. All you need to do is make sure that the public has good, up-to-date information on the extent of the threat in their community and they’ll handle the rest. As community spread gets worse, people will pull back voluntarily from commercial activities. Let the market decide which businesses need to close, not halfwit top-down authorities like Andrew Cuomo.
There’s a minor flaw in that logic, though. What if people … don’t behave rationally based on the information you give them?
Or, rather: What if people behave rationally based on the threat COVID poses to them individually but not rationally based on the threat COVID poses to their community? A 21-year-old is at practically zero risk of dying if he and his friends have a pub crawl and pick up coronavirus on the way. But the chains of transmission each of them will have started stand a decent chance of causing severe illness to people they end up having contact with later, especially if some of those people are elderly.
Here’s the graph of new cases in the U.S. It’s been rising for two months now.
Recently we’ve set daily records in cases, hospitalizations, *and* deaths. And yet many millions of people traveled during Thanksgiving week despite experts pleading with them not to gather, knowing that that would amount to spraying gasoline on a raging fire. According to Apple’s mobility data, despite the virus’s ferocious surge, the decline in travel among Americans has been modest lately:
So, I don’t know. *Some* people will alter their behavior based on information as the pandemic worsens, even if businesses are open. But many won’t. Whether because of quarantine fatigue or skepticism about the severity of the crisis, some will proceed more or less normally even if they’re told that hospital beds are becoming scarce — which is what happened in California last week, as John noted at the time. That’s why Fauci ended up on the pro-lockdown side in CA during an interview this morning on CNN. If hospital capacity is being threatened and no volume of “please stay home!” requests will convince enough people to stay home, that’s when draconian measures are on the table.
Fauci spoke Monday with CNN on the same morning that President-elect Joe Biden named him as chief medical adviser on Covid-19 in addition to director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He said he was consulted by California officials before they moved forward on their stay-home order and that he “absolutely” agreed with the state’s approach.
“In fact, I have been in discussion with the health authorities from the state of California who called me and asked,” Fauci said. “You know, they said, ‘We feel we need to do this, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘You know, you really don’t have any choice. When you have the challenge to the health care system, you’ve got to do something like that.'”
Another argument for partial lockdowns is the fact that Europe recently resorted to them to try to stamp out the explosive growth of infections that some countries were experiencing. It seems to have worked. Note the trends in France, Italy, and Belgium especially, where case counts had climbed to frightening levels and are now moving in the opposite direction.
One researcher at Harvard told Axios that that data is great news for both sides of the lockdown debate. Not only does it suggest that lockdowns can turn the tide of an outbreak that’s out of control, it suggests that *full* lockdowns of indefinite duration aren’t necessary. “We have so much more information now that we can respond a lot more quickly and in a more targeted manner — really just shutting down the types of activities that contribute most to the spread,” he said. It can also be done with an exception made for schools, as Europeans kept schools open during their “limited lockdown” experiment.
One more data point. The ultimate proving ground for the idea that everything can stay open and a well-informed public can adjust its exposure to risk accordingly is Sweden, of course. They resisted lockdowns in the spring when most of the western world was shutting businesses down and they stuck to their guns for most of the fall as case counts began to climb again, hoping that their population had achieved a degree of herd immunity that would limit new infections. They were wrong. Cases continued to climb. They finally threw in the towel two weeks ago and, for the first time, imposed state restrictions on gatherings to try to slow the virus’s spread. Ironically, their refusal to lock down may have ended up hurting their economy on balance because that also reduced the government’s urgency to provide aid to businesses during the slowdown:
Meanwhile, Sweden’s laissez-faire pandemic strategy has failed to deliver the economic benefits its proponents had predicted. In the first half of the year, Sweden’s gross domestic product fell by 8.5% and unemployment is projected to rise to nearly 10% in the beginning of 2021, according to the central bank and several economic institutes.
Businesses such as restaurants, hotels and retail outfits are facing a wave of closures; unlike in the rest of Europe, where governments coupled restrictions with generous stimulus, Swedish authorities have offered comparatively less support to businesses since they didn’t impose closures.
“This is worse than a lockdown and it has been a catastrophic year for everyone in the business: They haven’t closed us so they don’t give us any substantial support, yet they say to people ‘don’t go to restaurants’,” said Jonas Hamlund, who was forced to close one of his two restaurants in the coastal city of Sundsvall, laying off 30 people.
Note in the graph above that Sweden’s cases have also leveled off over the past few weeks, as the partial lockdown has taken effect.
Here’s Fauci this morning on CNN. His comments about California come towards the end of the clip.
Dr. Fauci says he is “not surprised” by the current surge in Covid-19 cases in the US.
“It was predictable … We had a high baseline of cases to begin with. Even at the time when things seemed to have been calming down, it never got down to a low baseline” pic.twitter.com/QkvEzCkST9
— New Day (@NewDay) December 7, 2020