Covid-19: What Should the Government Do?

The Covid-19 pandemic is caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. It’s highly contagious with an R0 around 2 — an infected person passes the virus on to two others on average. Exponential growths always end up in large numbers pretty rapidly, contrary to our basic intuition. They are explosive, like in uncontrolled nuclear reactions. Once a few people in a population get the virus, nearly everyone gets it without proper containment.

Communicable diseases can be controlled and stopped, as has been demonstrated by the eradication of smallpox viruses (certified in 1980.) Smallpox eradication was mainly done by governmental and multinational health organizations. It could not have been otherwise since the non-governmental sectors (markets and civil society) were not up to the task.

The world has changed since then. Markets and civil societies are much more sophisticated today than they were half a century ago. Consequently the role of the government in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic is significantly reduced.

Covid-19 is an international public health issue. The globalized world of cheap international travel has enabled it. That bit cannot be wished away. Governments around the world have a role in fixing the problem. The first thing that governments should do is to reduce the rate of infection. This it can do by banning large gatherings and restricting international travel to some degree, and funding testing and quarantine facilities.

Governments and multi-national agencies could fund research and development of vaccines, the results of which should be deemed public property. That also allows the private (the pharma companies) and voluntary sectors (foundations) to do their bit and make the results proprietary or public.

(See this post for a brief discussion on private and public goods, and private and public property.)

In a post from Oct 1st, 2018 What Should Governments Do?, I argued that governments must not be allowed to be involved in any activity that does not intrinsically involve violence and force. Thus the government should be barred from providing and/or funding of education, manufacturing, transportation, utilities, etc. All those activities can be done by the voluntary sector.

What do I mean by the voluntary sector? Example, the market. In markets, people buy and sell voluntarily. Sellers persuade people to buy, and buyers choose to buy or not. Persuasion, not force, is the coin of that realm. Charitable organizations are a major component of the non-market voluntary sector. People freely choose to contribute to organizations that meet their preferences. If you refuse to contribute to your neighborhood food-bank drive, you will not find yourself in prison.

You will find yourself in prison if you refuse to fund the government’s “charitable” activities. In India, for instance, if you refuse to pay for madrassas (schools that teach Islam) or refuse to pay for people going on pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, the Indian government will imprison you, even as you are declared an enemy by Islam.

The voluntary sector uses persuasion; the government sector uses (ultimately lethal) force.

Alright, what should the government do? Let’s make that question a bit more concrete: what should the US government (the federal govt) do? I think the US government should fund R&D for public health issues (communicable diseases only.) And it should abolish regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has done enough damage already and this pandemic has clearly indicated that it is time for the FDA to be abolished.

What should the Indian government do? I don’t know what. But I know this for a fact: whatever the Indian government does, it will make matters worse than it would be otherwise.

It’s all karma, neh?

Author: Atanu Dey


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