Saturday, May 16, 2020
Re-Opening Narratives Too Short-Term
(I am slowly working on the paperback edition of Recessions: Volume I, and clearing up other projects. I hope to finish a more substantive article either today or tomorrow.)
This partisan wrangling has created enough noise to flood out any signal in the discussion of the pandemic. As I live on the edge of an infection hot spot, my views match that of the apparent majority of the populace around me: we want the virus under control, so that the necessities of life do not require consultation with actuarial tables. I have little reason to be deeply concerned what rural Americans do to themselves -- since they are unlikely to ever to be able to visit Montreal without undergoing some form of quarantine for a very long time.
From the economic debate perspective, it is way too early to draw any conclusions. We have found out the hard way that the virus rips very rapidly through enclosed populations: senior homes, subways, meatpacking plants, most hospitals built in the West, penitentiaries, ships, etc. (Mask-wearing appears to reduce risks in things like public transport, but it is unclear whether that is sufficient, as other factors like hand-washing frequency also matter.) Those venues were either closed, protected, or already infected. We now face relatively slow transmission modes. However, it seems complacent to believe that just because cases are not doubling every three days that the problem has gone away.
In particular, there seems to be a tendency to believe that just violating physical distancing protocols will be enough to cause infection, and so one sees a chorus of "just wait two weeks" takes on social media in response to every photo of crowds. The reality is that the patrons of a crowded bar in the middle of nowhere are not running much of a statistical risk right now -- previous lockdown measures will have flushed out most of the infections. However, if they keep going to the bar, sooner or later an infected person will show up, fill the air with a viral mist after a couple sneezes, setting off a super-spreader incident.
Observed cases will follow with a considerable lag after the essentially random spreading incidents. We will not be able to draw any conclusions about the effects of policy changes (which only have a limited relationship to actual behaviour), given this uncertainty.
(c) Brian Romanchuk 2020