Why Just Re-Opening and Ignoring COVID is a Total Crock

The Niskanen Center has historically been an almost-libertarian think tank, but one much more focused on economic reality than many of its peers. In the past six months or so, it’s become my favorite think tank to read, not because I always agree with it — I certainly do not, although I do think the Center may have drifted a bit left, i.e. inwards towards the center from the fringier right-wing domains it started in — but because its positions are so often well-reasoned and well-supported.

The most recent essay from Niskanen on why libertarian proposals to just re-open everything and wait for herd immunity to solve the COVID problem, The Useful Libertarian Idiocy of The Great Barrington Declaration, is typically good (and also fairly long compared to the average sound bite). Here’s one of my favorite parts:

“Adopting measures to protect the vulnerable should be the central aim of public health responses to COVID-19,” according to the [libertarian Great Barrington Declaration Declaration]. However, it offers no assurance that they can be successfully protected when those who aren’t especially vulnerable hasten to “resume life as normal,” as the authors recommend. As John Barry of the Tulane School of Public Health recently wrote in the Times:

One can keep a child from visiting a grandparent in another city easily enough, but what happens when the child and grandparent live in the same household? And how do you protect a 25-year-old diabetic, or cancer survivor, or obese person, or anyone else with a comorbidity who needs to go to work every day? Upon closer examination, the “focused protection” that the declaration urges devolves into a kind of three-card monte; one can’t pin it down.

The idea that we can protect the vulnerable through a strategy that cheers on soaring rates of infection is dumbfounding. It seems that the only way to protect the elderly, immunocompromised, and otherwise at-risk while simultaneously encouraging the spread of infection through the community would be to seal them off from the rest of the population, which simply isn’t possible, practically or politically.

Consider a single mom, Maria, with an autoimmune problem (rheumatoid arthritis, say) who needs to take an immunosuppressant to function as a breadwinner and a parent. Surely it’s better for the whole family if the kids are attending school in the flesh. That means that Maria can support her family by continuing to clean hotel rooms. But now suppose everything simply returns to normal with the conscious aim of getting the bulk of the population infected. How do we protect Maria? She certainly won’t be able to go to work at the hotel to support her kids. And it becomes very likely that her kids will get infected at school, which may not harm them, but could pose a mortal risk to her. In that case, who will take care of them? How will they afford groceries?

Reflecting on cases like these, which could be multiplied indefinitely, the proposal comes to seem pointless. Nobody is going to do this. What’s even the idea here? That a governor or mayor or city council will one day announce that it is now officially a Great Barrington “focused protection” jurisdiction and everyone will just shout “Hurrah!” and sprint to the nearest massage parlor or high step it to the hoe down whilst Maria and the old folks across the street and the neighbor kid with a rare lymphatic disorder …. what? They’re issued impermeable bubbles? We all know that nobody’s getting a taxpayer-funded bubble. And very few of us are willing to simply allow the virus to cull the weak. Which is why next to nobody’s going to try the Great Barrington strategy. And if somebody does try it, it obviously can’t work.

“Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home,” the Declaration’s authors argue. “Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume.” This is all very easy to say! But you can’t believe most people are actually going to go along with this amid soaring infection rates unless you think people are generally a bunch of amoral idiots.

I’m no angel, but it’s nevertheless important to me, as a matter of elementary moral duty, to avoid becoming a link in a chain of viral transmission that could kill somebody. But even if you’re completely bereft of any sense of responsibility for the lives and welfare of others, it remains that there are plenty of selfish reasons to steer clear of the maskless rager over at the Sig Ep house (an unfortunate reality here in Iowa City.) Lots of folks who get sick from the coronavirus take months to recover. There are widespread reports of lingering neurological effects. The virus seems to cause lasting damage to the hearts and lungs of many who get infected, including in those who showed no symptoms. John Barry notes that “One recent study of 100 recovered adults found that 78 of them showed signs of heart damage. We have no idea whether this damage will cut years from their lives or affect their quality of life.”

So mere personal prudence is enough to lead many of us to decline invitations to weddings, retire our gym memberships, and eschew dine-in restaurants. It’s enough to keep managers and business owners from calling their workers back to the office. Now add a functioning moral compass to mix. In that case, a moderate level of entirely voluntary self-isolation and avoidance of un-distanced and/or mask-free social situations becomes practically inevitable.

There’s loads more where that came from.

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19 Responses to Why Just Re-Opening and Ignoring COVID is a Total Crock

  1. Eric says:

    The exception does not prove the rule.

    All things considered, lockdowns create more harm than good.

  2. 16.5% of the population iis over 65.
    13.4% is Black
    I don’t know the % with immunocompromise but I imagine it’s near the overlap of the above ie circa 3%

    So right off the bat we’re talking a quarter of the population at increased risk. Hardly an exception….

    • Eric says:

      If a vaccine does not prove to be a silver bullet, then what?

      • Cross that bridge when we come to it?

        • Eric says:

          Shouldn’t the vulnerable population be preparing for that possibility out of an abundance of caution?

          You know, like having the government mandate what they eat, forcing them to exercise one hour per day and stop them from smoking?

          They will complain about their liberty but it’s for the greater good.

          • I can’t tell if you are being intentionally obtuse or faking it, but given the (admittedly rather low) risk that someone might come along and read this, I will try one last time:

            Leaving aside the issue of what well-advised people might do to protect themselves, there is a fundamental difference between regulating actions you choose not to take that would benefit you and regulating those you choose to do that have a material chance of harming others. If you can’t see why regulation is much more easily justified if you are creating risks for others, then I cannot help you..

            This is not to say that I necessarily oppose all rules that are designed to protect the individual from their own carelessness (e.g. seatbelt laws), just that I think the two categories are very different and usually require different sorts of justification.

            • Eric says:

              Please do not call me obtuse, there is no need for such insulting behavior.

              Why are your demands on the healthy population fundamentally different from their demands on the unhealthy population?

              We are in a pandemic and we all need to do our part to stop the spread. The healthier you become, the less likely you will need to go to a hospital if you get infected.

              Do you disagree with that analysis?

              • The demand is the same on all members of the population: to limit behavior that harms others.

                Being old or Black or immunocompromised is not a behavior that harms others.

                • Eric says:

                  The demands are not the same.

                  Retired citizens are not required to stop working in order to stop the spread.

                  Perhaps the baby boomers should donate their retirement portfolios to a generalized fund that pays for all the workers sacrificing their wages to keep them safe?

                  • “Retired citizens are not required to stop working in order to stop the spread.”

                    This is like attacking a tort rule prohibiting battery because some people have placid tempers and are unlikely to hit others.

                    Also, lots of folks over 65 are still working, or want to, because they have no pensions.

                    That some people have different tastes or propensities which might make it particularly easy for them to comply is not a reason to critique a valuable rule of general application.

  3. Eric says:

    Regardless of one’s physical condition, there’s always room for improvement.

    Almost every single member of the population can reduce their risk of complications by taking actions to increase their health. This in turn reduces the likelihood they will need to go to the hospital, take up needed space and potentially infect the staff (in addition to other patients and those patients’ families).

    Notwithstanding the legal differences between positive and negative rights, I am attempting to demonstrate the requirement for bidirectionality in the policies justifying the new normal. In other words, the fight against the virus is a two-way street.

  4. Eric says:

    (There is no room to continue the reply chain under the first comment.)

    “That some people have different tastes or propensities which might make it particularly easy for them to comply is not a reason to critique a valuable rule of general application.”

    Let us assume that the lockdowns are indeed the best way of protecting the vulnerable population. What valuable rules of general application can be applied to the vulnerable population that help protect their fellow citizens from the effects of lockdown?

    Could there be an emergency wealth tax on the baby boomers? Any ideas?

    • As a practical matter, bringing tax policy into a public health debate is a certain way to stymie anything from happening. (And that’s without getting into any issues of federalism, which is very relevant in public health since the relevant police power is at the state level, while a tax policy would likely need to be national.) So I’m not going there.

      • Eric says:

        This is a novel situation and tax policy must be considered.

        Can you think of any other general laws that should be enacted to help stop the severity of the virus that applies to everyone in general (such as mandatory physical fitness training and dietary restrictions with reasonable accommodations)?

        And since you brought it up – how is Trump responsible for the public health response if you just indicated it’s a state issue?

        • sigh You have to ask???

          Mask rule and rules about personal behavior generally are mostly state.

          Trump is to blame for

          1) Lying to the nation about the seriousness of the problem, thus making it hard to impossible for other actors to react swiftly or at all. Started in Jan/Feb and still doing it.

          2) Actively undermining state efforts eg mask rules. Endorsing political (and physical!) attacks on governors who tried to take aggressive anti-COVID measures

          3) Politicizing the CDC suppressing their scientific response. Sidelining experts eg Dr. Fauci. Putting Jared in charge.

          4) Not taking proper care of national stockpiles, letting key areas expire, run down (due to focusing on ‘threats’ of bio warfare instead)

          5) allocating from stock piles according to crass political considerations (e.g. which governors suck up to him)

          6) failing to invoke and use relevant federal powers like National Defense Act to control production/distribution of key PPE and prevent bidding wars in shortage situations.

          …and that’s off the top of my head without doing a lick of research. I’m sure there’s lots more that I didn’t think of in the first 10 seconds.

          • Eric says:

            Please do not make me feel bad for seeking your guidance.

            I already admitted how much I look up to you. “Sigh” makes it sound like I’m a stupid child that needs patient understanding by a wise parent. How does that help discourse on a topic as important as this? In fact, as you said in an earlier discussion with Vic, the most effective advocacy requires civility.

            Please let me know if I am allowed to continue the discussion and respond to those points about Trump. The last thing I want is to upset you and will I respect your decision to stop posting on this blog if that is what you want.

  5. Eric says:

    With respect to imposing lockdown restrictions on healthy people, Dr. Fauci said:

    “In all the history of respiratory-borne viruses of any type, asymptomatic transmission has never been the driver of outbreaks. . . . An epidemic is not driven by asymptomatic carriers.”

    https://youtu.be/vrAvjU2LBkg

    With respect to imposing mask requirements on healthy people, Dr. Fauci said:

    “When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And often, there are unintended consequences – people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.”

    https://youtu.be/P0jY47CskAQ

    With respect to blaming Trump on the lack of response, Dr. Fauci initially provided quite different messages in the beginning. It’s quite possible that Trump is following this advice considering it represents decades of research on the topic.

    With that being said, I will respectfully stop posting anything else on your blog.

    • I have work stuff to do so can’t reply fully, but as regards Fauci/masks, he was indeed dubious initially, then changed his mind saying the science (comparing countries/regions with hi mask usage to low) had convinced him that for this pandemic mask wearing was a very effective technique and should be used.

      This change happened some time ago, and has only gotten more pronounced. Trump, however, was anti-mask at all relevant times, and had mass rallies in which he failed to encourage mask-wearing. And there wasn’t any. Data released this week shows a very significant spike in COVID cases in counties where he had rallies shortly afterwards. https://crooksandliars.com/2020/10/cnn-there-s-probably-99-chance-someone

      But I have to go do my day job…..

  6. Eric says:

    “The shielding approach aims to reduce the number of severe COVID-19 cases by limiting contact between individuals at higher risk of developing severe disease (‘high-risk’) and the general population (‘low-risk’). High-risk individuals would be temporarily relocated to safe or ‘green zones’ established at the household, neighborhood, camp/sector or community level depending on the context and setting. They would have minimal contact with family members and other low-risk residents.

    Current evidence indicates that older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19. In most humanitarian settings, older population groups make up a small percentage of the total population. For this reason, the shielding approach suggests physically separating high-risk individuals from the general population to prioritize the use of the limited available resources and avoid implementing long-term containment measures among the general population.”

    https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/global-covid-19/shielding-approach-humanitarian.html

    (It seems that the GBD actually copied the playbook from the CDC.)

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