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Covid 19 Lockdown: How Soon Should We Open Up?

Posted on Friday, Apr 17th 2020

Time Square New York City, March 31, 2020 – Photo credit: Robert/Flickr.com

We are in the midst of an anthropological event. An unprecedented situation. A moment of history that we are living. That posterity will read about.

I have received requests from my readers to synthesize my thoughts on the Covid-19 crisis. I can only synthesize my current thoughts right now, but as I learn more, they may/will morph. I think, this needs to be the current spirit of all discussions. 

With that, here is a summary of a few points:

First, timeline of economic reopening: I would like things to be mostly shutdown until the risk becomes manageable. Treatment, tests, vaccine, and hospital capacity are the core determining factors. Seventy vaccine projects are under way at drug companies and universities. Numerous drug trials as well. We need to buy time. How much? A lot, it seems. But the answer is a TBD through further careful, scientific analysis by experts, not by politicians with reelection agendas, nor by people concerned about their stock portfolios. This virus is terribly contagious.

Angela Merkel, Andrew Cuomo, as well as others are openly discussing a sensible, scientific strategy. Merkel is a PhD in Physics. Unfortunately, America is not led by such an educated person.

At the core of the “suppress and lift” strategy is one key number: Rt, or the real-time effective reproductive number. Rt tells us a virus’s actual transmission rate at a given time, t. That is, in a particular population at a particular time, how many other people will catch the disease from a single infected person? This is the concept that Merkel explained so well yesterday. She noted that the Rt in Germany was currently around one, meaning that on average a person with the virus infects one other person. One is the critical threshold: below one, the epidemic gradually fades out. Above one, it will grow, possibly exponentially.

Second, the economic effect of such shutdown on those who cannot earn a livelihood by working from home. In the trade-off between life and livelihood, we’re facing a moral question. My conclusion is that for a while, livelihood disruption needs to be compensated by governments and billionaires. In America, $2000 a month for a year – say $25k per family for a year x 100 million families = $2.5 Trillion. Expensive, but in this situation, worth considering. In India, $2k x 300 million families = $600 billion – also doable.

Globally, we’re talking many trillions, but so be it. It is not forever. It is for a year, may be two. Extreme case. We won’t remain shutdown for that long. But I’m just presenting a theoretical framework to think about the issue.

Third, personal liberty and privacy. Effective contact tracing on an ongoing basis requires giving up personal liberty and privacy. If what’s at stake is life and death, this is a no-brainer. Technology can play a big role. Again, need to buy time to create the right architecture, but it is eminently doable. Has to be done through global inter-governmental collaboration, coordinated by the WHO. Now is not the time to defund the WHO.

Fourth, democracy. Direct democracy has never been a good model. We’re facing use cases showing the limits of that model in religious gatherings that become viral spread hotspots, spring breakers going out to party on beaches, and numerous others. Indirect democracy, governments run with the help of proper expertise like Dr. Fauci, is a perfectly reasonable model. I don’t think a better one exists right now. Policy drives behavior. We have to assume great stupidity exists in society, and use policy for common good. If we don’t prevent stupid people making independent decisions, the casualty level of this crisis will be much higher. 

Given where we are currently, the next decade is likely to face an immense Darwinian process, an anthropological rationalization. Tremendous global suffering is in order. 

I think, most of the world will organize into two buckets: humanists and fascists. Fascists would want self-preservation and cleansing of the weaker segments of the population. Humanists, while acknowledging the inevitability of this evolutionary process, would try to mitigate the suffering and slow down the eradication of parts of the species.

I am a Humanist. 

What are you?

I leave you with a simple question: if you are advocating opening up of the economy, are you willing to go out there and take the personal risk of getting infected and potentially dying? 

Or are you advocating that other people take those risks on your behalf, while you continue to self-quarantine?

Note 1: We, on the favorable side of the digital divide, can afford to self-quarantine. We can live, work, learn from our computers. In this survival of the fittest battle, we are fitter than most of the species.

Note2 : “The world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population, reveals a new report from Oxfam today ahead of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.” [Source: Oxfam] This adds up to close to $10 trillion currently.

Photo credit: Robert/Flickr.com

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