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Saving Lives vs Saving the Economy: Getting This Wrong Could be Devastating

By Julie King |


This live article will track Covid-19 financing programs for Canadian businesses

The pandemic is a nightmare. A concept once relegated to the realm of post apocalyptic fiction has suddenly become a worldwide reality and one thing is clear: most nations were not ready.

Now, as intense measures are implemented to reduce the spread of the virus, the impact on economies has been nothing short of devastating.

Our economies are based on having constant, ongoing supply based on delicate just-in-time systems. They are not designed to have a “pause” button. As a result, they are not equipped to cope with the situation we find ourselves in now. The long-term consequences could be as severe as a global depression and at best a short-term recession.

This has led to a new rallying cry to reopen the economy, even if it costs lives. In the so-called interest of ‘saving the economy’ we have even seen some on the political right say that elderly citizens are willing to risk death if the trade-off is restoring the economy, a push that was ignited by Lt. Gov. of Texas Dan Patrick, age 69, when he appeared on the Tucker Carlson Tonight show on March 23, 2020.

“No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” Patrick said. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” 

The critical question Carlson failed to ask is this:
What expert evidence is there that having people return to work, which would surely results in a spike in Covid-19 cases, would actually lead to a better economic outcome than the current approach that aims to “flatten the curve”?

The idea that reopening the economy would reasonably be expected to restore the economy is an error of “affirming the consequent” that must be challenged.

Affirming the consequent, which is often called a converse error, occurs when an incorrect conclusion is drawn by assuming that the converse of a true statement is also true. For example, you might incorrectly conclude that because a broken lamp will emit no light, a lamp that emits no light must be broken, when there are other possible reasons no light is emitted, such as the light being turned off or not plugged in.

It is reckless to assume during this active pandemic that because self-containment measures have devasted the economy, that removing those measures would help restore the economy. It is similarly reckless to assume that because there are a large number of deaths each year from car accidents, swimming pool drownings and even the flu that deaths from Covid-19 would have the same impact on our societies.

If these converse assumptions are in fact incorrect, then it is possible that reopening the economy in a way that endangers health on a broad scale could make things significantly worse.

So what should we do?

To understand the possible ramifications of reopening the economy carte blanche we need models for how this could impact the underlying infrastructure – supply chains, policing, ambulance, fire, care workers and healthcare – that we all depend on for our personal and economic security.

What percentage of police, fire and ambulance services can be off sick at the same time without a breakdown of these systems? Where is the threshold that farmers and migrant laborers can handle before food production is interrupted? What stresses can our shipping and logistics systems handle before they break down? Where is the tipping point between stability and anarchy?

Isn’t it possible, likely even, that if we were to allow Covid-19 cases to spike in an uncontrolled fashion that we would not only see a horrific number of deaths, but also a breakdown in our core societal infrastructure?

It is reckless to talk about this as though it was an either-or situation, with opening the economy on one side and aggressive Covid-19 containment measures on the other. We need evidence-base models that show how our economic and societal systems would be impacted by a reduction in containment measures.

A key problem with the covid-19 outbreak is that it is really a mathematical problem and people are generally not very good at math.  Angela Merkel defined the problem at hand recently with exceptional clarity when she outlined models of how covid-19 transmissions work.

“We are now at a reproduction factor of 1, so one person is infecting another one,” said Merkel [source].

“If we get to the point where everybody infects 1.1 people, then by October we will reach the capacity level of our healthcare system with the assumed number of intensive care beds. If we get to 1.2 people, so everyone is infecting 20% more … then we will reach the limit of our healthcare system in July. And if it’s up to 1.3 people, then in June we will reach the limits of our health system.”

“So that’s where we can see how little the margin is. And the whole evolution is based on the fact that we assume we have an infection figure that we can monitor, that we can track... but it is thin ice.”

Thin ice. Let that sink in.

In one scenario we can manage the outcomes. Yet with the smallest shift we may find ourselves in a scenario where our health systems are overwhelmed. That would mean that a large number of citizens would be infected. Which in turn would mean that other systems would be strained and possibly at the risk of failing.

The health impacts of a population overwhelmed by Covid-19 infections cannot, as some have recklessly put forth, be equated to the number of deaths by other causes such as car crashes or swimming pool drownings. Because those deaths are not contagious! There is no relationship between one death and another. Their growth rate is not exponential. While tragic, they do not put our healthcare and other systems at risk.

The secondary impacts of the economic shutdown could be devastating and as such we absolutely do need fast and strong efforts to reopen our economy. We need to find ways to get people back to work and get money in our economies flowing again.

The goal is clear. Yet to achieve that goal, to be responsible, we must take a holistic approach that considers the interdependencies between our health and economic systems. Until those models exist, we have little choice but to depend on those being proposed by the healthcare experts.

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