When trying to decide how to respond to some emergency, there are two categories of questions that need to be asked. First, how do we avoid serious problems right now? Second, what’s the ultimate goal? What’s the end game?
When The Great Hysteria began in March, there was some understandable caution. The whole world was shutting down at the same time and The Vaunted Experts were predicting millions of dead. So things shut down. And they stayed shut down. And they are still somewhat shut down.
If you’ve followed my blog for any of its short life, you probably know I’m skeptical of the things we’ve done (and continue to do) to avoid serious problems right now. I don’t think the stuff works, and I cite as my evidence not experiments on how much air masks trap or how well they work on hamsters (yes, those are real). I cite as my evidence the fact countries and states with different policies represent real-world laboratories where we can see what works.
However, what I haven’t seen discussed very much is the end game. What is the ultimate goal here? Normalcy? When? Some believe we’ll wear masks, “social distance”, avoid gatherings, and surrender liberties for the rest of our lives, lest the dread plague (IFR under 0.4%, making it like a bad flu) come and kill the small fraction of vulnerable people who used to die from other things back when we ignored death.
Asking about the end game is important, though, because whether masks or lockdowns or school closures or anything else actually works is irrelevant if you don’t have your end game figured out. If a meteor is crashing into the earth tomorrow, reinforcing your house isn’t that big of a deal. If instead it’s a meteor shower coming, then you probably don’t need to be out buying hardware in defense.
The end game for many countries, as it turns out, was missed entirely. Take New Zeeland for example. The country shut down all travel into the nation, destroying the economy. It was labelled a “success” because it has had 100 days without any new infections. Jordan Schactel writes:
On Sunday, New Zealand marked 100 days without any detected community spread of the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China. The media, government bureaucrats, and politicians worldwide congratulated Wellington for its “success” in keeping its people free (temporarily) from infection. The chattering classes took to social media, discussing how “lucky” New Zealand was to have its apparent capable and wise leadership in their government.
New Zealand is indeed temporarily free from the coronavirus, which has killed an estimated 0.2% of people it infects, but at what cost did they pay — and what will the future consequences be — to become the latest “success story” nation?
People are getting a lot poorer. The country entered into a recession in June. A new jobs report found that in addition to the 4% of the workforce that cannot find a job, some 346,000 Kiwis are underemployed. Bloomberg reports that the nation is expected more economic woes ahead
New Zealand doesn’t appear to have a set end game on how it will deal with the coronavirus. Officials appear to be banking on a widespread vaccine with unprecedented efficacy to keep them sheltered from the virus. However, that’s a pipe dream, according to the people on the front lines of the vaccine development process.
Anyone relying on a vaccine to save the world has more faith than many Christians do in God. Vaccines normally aren’t very good. We get lucky sometimes, but often they end up like the flu vaccine. We have flu epidemics fairly often, and the viruses that cause the flu kill tens of millions every single year. And yet, again, we have a flu vaccine. It’s very likely that any vaccine for the coronavirus (which would be the first vaccine for a coronavirus) will be as ineffectual. In fact, given how likely you are to survive this bug, it’s likely any particular vaccine will be more dangerous, even if the risk is very low.
To bring this back to where I began, it is vital to know the end to which you are acting, and the end to which your policies are directed. If it is to stop the virus, then you’re work is futile. Contagious upper-respiratory viruses don’t magically disappear. The threat will always exist. You can temporarily stop it (like New Zeeland and, I’d argue, South Korea), but doing so makes you incredibly fragile. You are waiting for another infection to start the whole nightmare over.
Or, you could choose a different end. You could choose the normal end that humanity has chosen for every virus – intentionally or not – since our Creation. You could choose herd immunity. 2020 belongs to Sweden.
If the goal is herd immunity, then treating outbreaks of this virus as scarier than similarly deadly illnesses (the flu is more deadly for most people) is the wrong approach. We shouldn’t seek outbreaks, but we should understand that they will happen and that when they do, it just makes it drastically less likely to happen again. If the goal is herd immunity, then fretting about amulets of safety is a waste of time. We ought to instead protect the truly vulnerable and then get things back to normal.
I didn’t even mention it yet, though the article did, but when you don’t have an end game in mind, you lose perspective on cost. The costs of shutting down, of splitting families, churches, and communities over the power of masks, and the costs of physical separation are not null. Without a reasonable end in mind, we imagine there are no costs; we consider no alternative and so have no other number to compare.
Turns out the fragile policy didn’t save them. Cases are back. The clueless people responding that this is no big deal because they have “proper track and trace protocols” should probably ask how a virus can reappear in a country with closed borders after 102 days and elude those “proper protocols”.