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Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Drift Towards Viral Eradication

My view is that the lack of alternatives is forcing authorities to drift into the same strategy: mechanical eradication of the COVID 19 virus. Anything else is entirely reliant on hopes: for a vaccine, that the virus is less deadly than advertised, or for a miracle medical cure. Unless one of those hopes is realised, keeping the reproduction rate below one is the only palatable alternative.

Hope is not a Hedge

There are a lot of hope-based theories floating around.
  • Hope that there is a vaccine.
  • Hope that there is a much higher asymptomatic population, and so we are closer to "herd immunity" than expected.
  • Hope that post-infection immunity is long enough that herd immunity exists.
  • Hope that the long-term effects of infection on survivors are not greatly dangerous.
  • Hope that the virus mutates to a less-lethal form (fairly typical), and not a more lethal variant (as in the Spanish Flu).
Market wisdom suggests that "hope is not a hedge." Policymakers have one palatable non-hope based option: mechanical eradication of the virus. That is, drive the replication rate below one, and keep it there. This can either be done via quarantine-like policies, or test-and-trace. I am unconvinced that test-and-trace capacity can be ramped up in the short term in North America, and so quarantine-style policies it will have to be.

There are still believers in the "herd immunity" strategy, that social distancing measures are just delaying the inevitable. However, this is reliant upon hopes about herd immunity, and it is not a particularly compelling argument, as it runs counter to the objective of eradication.

The Economy, And All That

Although various right wing groups in the United States are using recent events as yet another excuse to run around with weapons, capitalist power structures are on the side of eradication. Although we have heard reports of various rich people scurry off to hiding places, they may have noticed that they will have to handle the menial tasks of keeping themselves alive -- which somewhat defeats the point of being rich. Unless they plan on learning to do dental and surgical procedures on themselves, they need to have contact with outside society. Perhaps the richest might be able to arrange quarantines for visitors, but not everyone in the hierarchy can manage such expensive arrangements. Meanwhile, what is the point of spending hundreds of millions for a sport team if the team is unable to play?

In order for capitalist production to be run in the interests of capitalists, people are needed to supervise workers. These supervisors are likely not exactly happy to be treated as cannon fodder. Even if young people are willing to run risks, older cohorts control a large amount of wealth and income. If they withdraw spending, the economy will not function for young people either, given the income drain.

New Zealand appears to be on track for the elimination of the virus. Sooner or later, people may decide that hope is not an option, and other countries will decide that eradication is actually the quickest option for a return to something resembling normality. Although the techno-optimists will be bubbling on about test-and-trace, those efforts are likely only an option at low case levels (which are seen in many jurisdictions in the mid-west of North America). My feeling is that cyclic hard lockdowns targeted at hotspots will be a feature of the coming months (barring some good news), and then test-and-trace for picking off the straggling remnants of the virus.

(c) Brian Romanchuk 2020

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