The Chinese Virus
The cost of the latest Chinese virus, aka SARS-CoV-2, is now going to be tallied in trillions of dollars and perhaps hundreds of thousand, maybe millions, of deaths. All that seems to be pretty horrific, to be sure. But here I am going to argue that that cost is worth the benefit that is sure to arise. That is the conclusion of my argument that this Wuhan coronavirus is going to be a blessing in disguise. It will make the world a far, far better place than it would have been otherwise.
What is the appropriate response to the disease now called Covid-19? That depends on the time and place, and other contextual particulars. In early Dec 2019 when the first cases were detected, the appropriate measure (seen in hindsight) would have been total containment.
Total Lock Down
Imagine if the Chinese Center for Disease Control had drawn a wide circle around the epicenter of the outbreak — for instance the entire region around Wuhan — and forced a total lock down making sure that no one within that circle would be able to leave, and that people are given all possible protective gear to reduce community transmission. It would have been an absolutely draconian measure, and it would have been costly. But that would have spared the rest of the world the present dire situation.
It pays to be paranoid at the start of a deadly disease. Risks that are unknown should be treated as if their distribution were fat-tailed.
Anyway, there’s a time when lock down and quarantine is appropriate. Not letting anyone from an infected region to enter a disease-free region is wise; shutting down transportation links between regions that are already infected is not wise. Quarantining those infected, and “social distancing” the rest makes sense in the later stages of the epidemic.
In our present reality of globalization of production and international travel, it is not possible to isolate countries. Small communities living in sparsely populated areas can isolate themselves but that’s impossible for large countries.
India could not have avoided getting the Chinese corona virus. Given how densely populated it is, and how socioeconomically poor it is, it is impossible that SARS-CoV-2 would not exact a terrible toll on the people. In all likelihood, hundreds of thousand would die. What’s worse, the disease would cripple an already shaky economy. A large percentage of Indians live precariously at the edge of subsistence; this will push them over that edge. The true cost of socialism will be paid by the poor of India, while the leaders who pushed socialism will continue to thrive and prosper.
Should India do a complete and total lock down? The pros of that move is that it will definitely slow down community transmission, and therefore save some lives. The cons of that move would be lives lost due to the loss of economic activity — the production and distribution of goods and services which translate into income that is necessary for survival. Lives lost to economic shutdown could easily dwarf the lives lost to the virus.
It appears that the Covid-19 case fatality rate is between 2 and 3. Of 100 infections, around 90 people recover without hospitalization; around 10 have serious symptoms but recover with hospitalization, and around 2 or 3 people die. Of those who die, most are the elderly or otherwise frail.
If by locking down the economy, around 10 people die of malnutrition and starvation, that would be a case of a cure worse than the disease.
As noted above, the appropriate response depends on the specifics. A rich country like the US can survive a total lock down. Wealthy countries, like wealthy individuals, have the spare capacity to ride out economic downturns; poor countries and people cannot.
India does not have the option to do an economic lock down. It has to just do the best it can to do social distancing, hard though it is for people who don’t have the capacity to keep away from each other. India has to accept what it cannot avoid — that the annual death rate of 0.7 percent will go up, and even double for a couple of years. The herd will be thinned a bit and some of the herd will get immunity.
What cannot be avoided has to be endured, and what can be avoided must be eliminated. Vaccines for Covid-19 is a couple of years away. Until then, the best course for India is to continue to function as usual but with all affordable measure to limit transmission.
Do the movers and shakers of the Indian government understand that? Perhaps they do but I suspect that they don’t. They lack competency and the motivation for doing the right thing.
Let’s look at India’s system of governance, for a bit. The politicians are popularly elected. That means they are good at getting elected, and are not selected based on their wisdom, knowledge or competency. The bureaucrats have life-long tenure after having passed some irrelevant selection exam in their early 20’s. They don’t have any skin in the game. They are shielded from their incompetence. The percentage of politicians and bureaucrats that are corrupt far exceeds the levels in the general population.
I am a Bayesian. My bet is that in all likelihood, the Indian government’s moves are going to be wrong. There are many more ways of being wrong, than ways of being right — which is a general feature of the world. The odds are against being right. To beat those odds, you have to have expert advice and counsel — which in the case of the Indian government does not obtain.
Indian politicians are notorious for being uneducated. That comes with the territory. They have to spend all their years fighting elections and doing politics. That leaves very little time for them to learn anything other than how to move the masses. Their genius lies in their ability to lie to the public convincingly. They aren’t rocket scientists, and even those that claim to be rocket scientists merely fake it.
India’s 21-day lock down is going be immensely costly in terms of blood and treasure. The poor will pay a heavy penalty for the sins of their government. Instead of that, it would have been better for Indians to go about their lives, with whatever caution they could afford. The leaders should have set proper expectations, and communicated a message something like this:
“We are in for a hard time. Some people, mostly the elderly, who get the virus are going to die. That’s life. But we have to make sure that as far as possible we protect ourselves. Do the best you can, and get on with living.”
It’s all karma, neh.
The Silver Lining?
That’s in the next post.