This is Joshua Wehner's archaic Blog

The Great Unknowns

The virus response in the US, UK, and NL are all controversially underwhelming. I don’t know what to think. I don’t like the idea of being naively optimistic. On the one hand, the US response seems chaotic, conflicted, and confused – on the other, I can only apply some of that to the UK and NL: UK and NL have both communicated they are under-responding more-or-less on purpose.

It’s not hard for me to believe that they’ve “done the math”, but it’s harder to know whether this is good news or bad. The optimistic case might be that not everywhere is going to be Italy (Europe’s “oldest country”, demographically), and small things like “how many respirators do we own” can make a big difference.

All the “flatten the curve” stuff draws “system capacity” as a theoretical line, but the governments are (I hope?) drawing the real lines (and capacity is probably not actually a straight line?) and maybe “low-key social distancing” is enough for the lines in these countries?

There’s a sort of morbid or pessimistic case, though, where 4% or 10% or more of the population will die, and no amount of curve-flattening will make a difference. In that case, the government can have mortality and a giant hole in the economy or mortality and a smaller hole in the economy.

There are probably other trade-offs – a disease that kills 15% of 80+ year olds is bad, but social isolation for weeks-to-months will also kill the elderly, as certainly as will economic collapse. It’s not hard to believe that there are other “lines” we could draw on the charts – and that maybe a government is taking the balance into account as well. (At one point, the Dutch PM said that they were calculating the curve-flattening effect of school closure vs the likely percentage of medical workers who would be unable to work with kids at home.)

And, of course, there’s always the cynical case – that the underwhelming response is based on craven political calculations, laziness, stupidity, or other forms of malfeasance and/or negligence.

I’d prefer to believe the optimistic case – they’ve done the math, gentle distancing is enough – but probably because I’d rather be generally optimistic about this disease and the future of our world. I’m still bracing myself (and our family) for this to head south, though, and worried about how rapidly that turn could come.

For the US, I’m honestly more worried about what I’d call the “fantasyland scenario” – the one where lots of people die tragically, and we kind of just… move on by? Like when the I-35 bridge collapsed in MN and we all said “we should probably do something about infrastructure” and … nothing. Or how the opioid crisis was already killing people and overwhelming the medical system and … nothing. Or how kids were murdered in Sandy Hook and Parkland and all the other places and … nothing.

The US has an decades-long, demonstrated ability to absorb these tragedies and move beyond them that can feel like fortitude and also ignorance at the same time.

Permalink • Posted in: 2020, coronavirus, netherlands