Tl;dr — this post ran a little long. If you get bored, scroll down to the bottom to see the cool math.
It’s been over three months since we all fled to our bunkers in terror of the coronavirus. Many parts of the country have now partially re-opened, but there still appears to be a massive media push favoring re-closing everything. Or, at least, to keep the inchoate fear of the virus burning bright in as many minds as possible. Infuriatingly, it’s become a political question, with people on the left (even the center-left) generally having higher levels of risk aversion regarding the virus than those on the right. Massive streams of exaggeration and misinformation spew from the leftist legacy media, and coupled with the explosion of overtly Communist anti-American hatred coming from that same sector, one can’t help but suspect the real aim has nothing to do with protecting people from the virus, but rather to terrorize administrators into shutting down the economy again in order to exacerbate tensions and ultimately achieve a genuine revolutionary collapse of the American system.
It’s all bullshit. Nobody should still be worrying about this virus – not because it isn’t dangerous, but because the way forward is, or at least should be, clear. In March, it was still something of a mystery – we didn’t know what the actual death rate was, or how many people had it, or how it spread, etc – but now we have a much better understanding of all of these things. Here, I am going to make a case that it is time to re-open nearly all aspects of American life with minimal ongoing antivirus precautions.
1. THERE ISN’T GOING TO BE A VACCINE. One of the biggest problems with the shutdowns, and one that is causing the biggest hassle for administrators now, is that there was never a clear end-game. Originally, the argument for shutdown – which was a good argument – was that we needed to slow the transmission of the virus enough to keep from overwhelming hospitals. But we now know that was an over-reaction. In March, the possibility existed that the virus would kill as much as 4% of its victims – much higher than the real rate of ~0.5%. The huge surge of ICU victims for the most part never materialized – because the virus was not as dangerous as we thought. Unfortunately, the rampant fear-mongering in the media about the virus changed the focus of the shutdown from “slowing the spread” to “eradicating the virus”, which was an impossible goal without a vaccine. So, the implicit endgame became “the shutdown ends when a vaccine or a highly effective treatment is available”. And despite the fact that great labs are working on both, there is simply no reason to expect that either of these things will ever be available, at least not within the next few years. The fastest deployment of a vaccine I remember was the ebola vaccine, which was first announced 4 or 5 years after the first really big ebola outbreak. That was an amazing effort – but it still took 5 years… hence my second point:
2. WE CANNOT KEEP THE UNITED STATES SHUT DOWN FOR FIVE YEARS. In a previous post I analyzed the relative lethality of a massive pandemic in comparison to a massive economic depression. The latter is vastly worse, and the depression that would be caused by literally arresting the economy would be worse than any depression that has ever occurred in the free world. Indeed, it would likely resemble the conditions experienced in socialist countries – massive shortages, starvation, privation on an unimaginable scale. Indeed, with the rise of overt Marxist revolutionary politics as the de facto norm on the American left, this threat looms even larger. An economic collapse caused by prolonged shutdown would almost certainly be used to “dismantle” the system and replace it with a totalitarian nightmare “to protect us” from the virus. But another thing…
3. WE CAN’T ENFORCE A SHUT DOWN FOREVER EVEN IF WE WANTED TO. People aren’t going to allow any of these things to happen. As the situation gets more dire – either on each person’s individual plane, or on the broader societal plane – people of strong convictions will break quarantine and do what needs to be done. You have already seen this all over the country. People go back to work despite government threats of fines. “Protesters” churn out into the streets to attack the government they have been convinced is hurting them. People flock to bars and beaches to achieve the social connections we have evolved to need as prosocial animals. The only way to prevent these things is with wholesale coercion by force – but imagine that! Police rousting up twenty-somethings from bars by the hundreds, shutting down business establishments, crushing protests by force. Number one, it would encourage an even faster collapse of the social order than is already happening – but number two, it would also require EVEN MORE close contact between people, as police arrested them and as they were housed in cramped detention facilities. Force used to stop the virus would ultimately increase the virus’ spread.
4. WE’RE CLOSER TO HERD IMMUNITY THAN YOU THINK. Ultimately the only way out of this thing is to achieve herd immunity. Once most people have had the virus and therefore become at least partially immune to future infection, it will become harder for an infected person to find a vulnerable person to spread the virus to, and it will start to die off (although it will probably never die out). The proportion of the population that has to be infected to achieve this is determined by the R0 value of the virus, or the average number of people an infected person will infect before they recover if they live in a population of completely susceptible people. Early estimates for the coronavirus were R0 = 3, although this value is open for debate and was probably high based on the spotty data available early on. But let’s run with it. At an R0 of 3, 1-1/R0 or 67% of the population has to have been infected to achieve herd immunity (this is based on an equilibrium solution for the “SIR” epidemiological model, explained eloquently here). In the US, that means about 220 million people will have to have the virus before we get herd immunity. According to the current numbers, there have been about 3 million cases in the US and 130,000 deaths. 3 million is so far away from 220 million that it seems impossible we can get there! But it’s also misleading, because there are vast sums of undiagnosed cases remaining out there. A more realistic estimate of the number of cases can be reached by multiplying the death toll by 200 (assuming that the age-integrated overall death rate is 0.5%), which suggests that there have been 26,000,000 cases so far in the US – almost 12% of the way to herd immunity. Moreover, the effective R0 can be lowered dramatically by relatively small changes in behavior, such as reasonable mask-wearing and taking temperatures in high-traffic buildings, plus it’s also necessarily lower in the low-density rural communities that cover most of the landmass of the US – all of which would lower even further the threshold for herd immunity. It’s an achievable goal, in other words.
5. THE EFFECTS OF RE-OPENING ARE LESS BAD THAN YOU ARE BEING TOLD. Ever since most of the “red states” re-opened their economies, the legacy press has been ranting about how horrible it is. Look at the “spike in cases” in places like Alabama! But it’s bullshit. As I mentioned above, there is a VAST undiagnosed pool of cases throughout the US because most people who contract the coronavirus have mild to no symptoms. The “spike” in cases is almost certainly related to improved discovery of these individuals by improved testing. If it were not, then we would be seeing a concomitant spike in hospitalizations and deaths, but we are in fact seeing the opposite. In my own state of Alabama, the rate of new cases per day increased substantially in June, but the rate of new deaths per day has not changed since April. To the degree that the “spike” might be caused by new cases, it’s probably linked to mostly younger people – who are exactly the people we need to get the virus in order to reach herd immunity, because they have the lowest risk from it!
So how many people are going to die from coronavirus in the end? I believe there is good reason to think that the coronavirus will evolve to become milder as time goes by, but let’s assume that it retains the same lethality that has been measured so far. Let’s also assume that no vaccine or cure is forthcoming and that we have to reach herd immunity before the spread stops. The first thing you have to understand is that, in the absence of age-structuring of infections (see below), the same number of people will ultimately die of coronavirus regardless of whether we remain shut down or whether we re-open; they will just die somewhat more slowly in one case. (Of course, it’s likely that more locked-down people will be carried off by sequelae of economic depression and social isolation such as suicide, addiction, and violent crime…) The second thing you have to understand, though, is that the main point of policy should be to make sure that the right people get sick on the way to herd immunity – that is, the people with the lowest risk of death or other serious complications. In other words, young otherwise healthy people. The age structure of the United States and the death rate by age from the coronavirus can be used to calculate the number of people in each age bin who would die if all of them became infected:
|Age||Death Rate (%)||People||Total Deaths|
We can then ask, what are the consequences in terms of number of dead if we take different policies. On the one hand, we could take no action, and then a random 220,000,000 get sick. The age-integrated average death rate based on this data is about 0.8%, so after 220,000,000 get the virus we expect about 1.8 million dead. Yikes! Another possibility – which unfortunately seems to match the policy adopted in New York City and other major US population centers early during the outbreak – is that we could see the most vulnerable, older age bin disproportionately affected. If spread occurs mainly through health care facilities and community contact with health care workers and patients, which is what we might expect during a shut down, this is likely to be close to the case. In such a situation, we could look at the cumulative percentage, starting with the oldest bin and moving younger, and keep going until we reach 67%, totaling up the dead until we reach that point. In that case, we can calculate that in this worst-case scenario we would see about 2.8 million dead. Holy smokes!
But what if we enacted policies that caused the disease to spread primarily in the youngest age group? For instance, we re-open schools with no precautions of any kind, we re-open businesses possibly with mild precautions such as taking temperatures at the beginning of everybody’s shift, and then we provide extensive government assistance to people over 60 and people with pre-existing risk factors to help them stay home and stay protected for extended periods of time and also to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to maximize their safety. In that best-case scenario, going up the age ladder until we reach 67% of the population we could have gotten to herd immunity with as few as 40,000 dead! That’s just a little more than 2% as many dead as in the “do nothing” category – and with minimal disruption to the economy.
We obviously have already passed that point, and it’s largely because we have taken dysfunctional and paranoid worst-case scenario steps to control the virus, and have now become unwilling to admit that fact and change course. Importantly, these are not steps chosen by President Trump, but rather by the health care professionals (e.g. the CDC) that advise him. The idea that a real estate mogul should be an expert on epidemiology is ridiculous; he was entirely dependent on the advice he received form the supposed experts, almost all of which was half-baked. In retrospect it seems like the CDC had no concrete plans to offer him at all, and the response has been entirely ad hoc and ineffectual as a consequence.
Many universities, including mine, are nervously planning the 2020-2021 school year and are attempting to incorporate piles of pointless “security theater” that will greatly disrupt instruction and the all-important social maturation of the young people who come of age in our institutions, while doing nothing to lower the ultimate death rate in our country. I have shown here that, in fact, preventing the spread of the coronavirus amongst 20-something college students will almost certainly increase the overall death rate in the long run. It is high time that we accept this fact, completely rework our approach to dealing with the coronavirus, and get about the much more pressing business of saving our country from economic collapse and totalitarian revolution.