When Will It End?

San Francisco, Calif., March 20, 2020
(Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Congressman Chip Roy (R., Texas) argued on the homepage Friday that the “government needs to make a decision about when we are going to free up the economy.” From the true premises that uncertainty is bad for the economy and that an indefinite shutdown of social life is as uncertain as it gets, Roy makes the case that the government must select a date to lift the shutdown — a virus “D-Day.” By that date, the government will vow to have the epidemic under control, and it’ll mobilize all federal, state, and local resources toward keeping that vow. Our current path risks economic devastation and its attendant downsides.

There’s something attractive about this argument, but in an article in The New Atlantis, Ari Schulman gives the obvious objection:

It is not possible to place meaningful estimates on the true economic cost of [the worst-case scenario in which the virus spreads unchecked], except to say that there is good reason to believe it would be worse than the current shutdown. We simply do not have a good frame through which to view this future. Our world is too different from 1918 for the Spanish flu pandemic to offer much guidance. . . .

The most urgent task for the president and national leaders is to articulate the purpose of the shutdown, what it aims to achieve, and how we will know when we have. The current answer — “15 days to slow the spread” — is arbitrary and unpersuasive. The question is not How many more weeks or months? but Under what conditions can we relax blanket national closures?

Various answers suggest themselves. We might say that the shutdown can end when the case curve bends: That is, when new daily confirmed cases peak and decline. We might also look for the share of tests returning positive to steadily decline, suggesting that testing is finally widespread enough to capture most cases. Perhaps most importantly, we might look for a peak and decline in Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

That doesn’t mean the shutdown is the only way to deal with the pandemic. As Schulman goes on to argue, the U.S. was forced to take such an extreme measure only because our early response was insufficient:

We already have a gold standard for fighting epidemics: early identification of symptomatic patients, contact tracing, isolation of those infected and exposed, and widespread random sampling of the population to detect new outbreaks among unidentified contacts. Only by identifying and isolating the sick can the healthy get back to work.

The crucial lesson is that we need not endure mass closure for the duration of the pandemic. We are only stuck doing it now because we were caught with our pants down, failing to implement the normal methods early enough.

This is not a hypothetical point: South Korea managed to control its outbreak without ever resorting to mass closures. It did so through a combination of massive testing, rigorous contact tracing, and isolation of the infected. Not only were people with symptoms tested and quarantined, but authorities went through considerable effort to track down people who may have been in contact with the sick and test them as well.

Daniel Tenreiro’s invaluable homepage updates make clear that we will satisfy the “massive testing” part of that formula. A reliable test-and-trace regime may be the road to normalcy.

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