For clarity, start with this charming interpretive one-act on public health policy in 2020. You might find it a little sardonic, but that’s the point. It was one of the more entertaining tweets of the day, from @boriquagato.
A growing body of research shows that stringent non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) — “lockdowns” is an often-used shorthand — are not effective in stemming the transmission and spread of COVID-19. A compendium of articles and preprints on the topic was just published by the American Institute for Economic Research (AEIR): “Lockdowns Do Not Control the Coronavirus: The Evidence”. The list was compiled originally by Ivor Cummins, and he has added a few more articles and other relevant materials to the list. The links span research on lockdowns across the globe. It covers transmission, mortality, and other health outcomes, as well as the economic effects of lockdowns. AIER states the following:
“Perhaps this is a shocking revelation, given that universal social and economic controls are becoming the new orthodoxy. In a saner world, the burden of proof really should belong to the lockdowners, since it is they who overthrew 100 years of public-health wisdom and replaced it with an untested, top-down imposition on freedom and human rights. They never accepted that burden. They took it as axiomatic that a virus could be intimidated and frightened by credentials, edicts, speeches, and masked gendarmes.
The pro-lockdown evidence is shockingly thin, and based largely on comparing real-world outcomes against dire computer-generated forecasts derived from empirically untested models, and then merely positing that stringencies and “nonpharmaceutical interventions” account for the difference between the fictionalized vs. the real outcome. The anti-lockdown studies, on the other hand, are evidence-based, robust, and thorough, grappling with the data we have (with all its flaws) and looking at the results in light of controls on the population.”
We are constantly told that public intervention constitutes “leadership”, as if our well being depends upon behavioral control by the state. Unfortunately, it’s all too typical of research on phenomena deemed ripe for intervention that computer models are employed to “prove” the case. A common practice is to calibrate such models so that the outputs mimic certain historical outcomes. Unfortunately, a wide range of model specifications can be compatible with an historical record. This practice is also a far cry from empirically testing well-defined hypotheses against alternatives. And it is a practice that usually does poorly when the model is tested outside the period to which it is calibrated. Yet that is the kind of evidence that proponents of intervention are fond of using to support their policy prescriptions.
The other day a friend told me “your data points always seem to miss the people points.” He imagines a failure on my part to appreciate the human cost of the coronavirus. Evidently, he feels that I treat data on cases, hospitalizations, and deaths as mere accounting issues, all while emphasizing the negative aspects of government interventions.
This fellow reads my posts very selectively, hampered in part by his own mood affiliation. Indeed, he seems to lack an appreciation for the nuance and zeitgeist of my body of blogging on the topic… my oeuvre! This despite his past comments on the very things he claims I haven’t mentioned. His responses usually rely on anecdotes relayed to him by nurses or doctors he knows. Anecdotes can be important, of course. But I know nurses and doctors too, and they are not of the same mind as his nurses and doctors. Anecdotes! We’re talking about the determination of optimal policy here, and you know what Dr. Fauci says about relying on anecdotes!
Incremental Costs and Benefits
My friend must first understand that my views are based on an economic argument, one emphasizing the benefits and costs of particular actions, including human costs. COVID is dangerous, but primarily to the elderly, and no approach to managing the virus is free. Here are two rather disparate choices:
Mandated minimization of economic and social interactions throughout society over some time interval in the hope of reducing the spread of the virus;
Laissez faire for the general population while minimizing dangers to high-risk individuals, subject to free choice for mentally competent, high-risk individuals.
To be clear, #2 entails all voluntary actions taken by individuals to mitigate risks. Therefore, #1 implies a set of incremental binding restrictions on behavior beyond those voluntary actions. However, I also include in #1 the behavioral effects of scare mongering by public officials, who regularly issue pronouncements having no empirical basis.
The first option above entails so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) by government. These are the elements of so-called lockdowns, such as quarantines and other restrictions on mobility, business and consumer activity, social activities, health care activities, school closures, and mask mandates. NPIs carry costs that are increasing in the severity of constraints they impose on society.
And before I proceed, remember this: tallying all fatal COVID cases is really irrelevant to the policy exercise. Nothing we do, or could have done, would save all those lives. We should compare what lives can be saved from COVID via lockdowns, if any, with the cost of those lockdowns in terms of human life and human misery, including economic costs.
NPIs involve a loss of economic output that can never be recovered… it is gone forever, and a loss is likely to continue for some time to come. That sounds so very anodyne, despite the tremendous magnitude of the loss involved. But let’s stay with it for just a second. The loss of U.S. output in 2020 due to COVID has been estimated at $2.5 trillion. As Don Boudreaux and Tyler Cowen have noted, what we normally spend on safety and precautionary measures (willingness-to-pay), together with the probabilities of losses, implies that we value our lives at less than $4 million on average. Let’s say the COVID death toll reaches 300,000 by year-end (that’s incremental in this case— but it might be a bit high). That equates to a total loss of $1.2 trillion in life-value if we ignore distinctions in life-years lost. Now ask this: if our $2.5 trillion output loss could have saved every one of those 300,000 lives, would it have been worth it? Not even close, and the truth is that the sacrifice will not have saved even a small fraction of those lives. I grant, however, that the economic losses are partly attributable to voluntary decisions, but goaded to a great extent by the alarmist commentary of public health officials.
The full depth of losses is far worse than the dollars and cents comparison above might sound. Output losses are always matched by (and, in value, are exactly the same as) income losses. That involves lost jobs, lost hours, failed businesses, and destroyed careers. Ah, now we’re getting a bit more “human”, aren’t we! It’s nothing short of callous to discount these costs. Unfortunately, the burden falls disproportionately on low-income workers. Our elites can mostly stay home and do their jobs remotely, and earn handsome incomes. The working poor spend their time in line at food banks.
Yes, government checks can help those with a loss of income compete with elites for the available supply of goods, but of course that doesn’t replace the lost supply of goods! Government aid of this kind is a palliative measure; it doesn’t offset the real losses during a suspension of economic activity.
Decimated Public Health
The strain of the losses has been massive in the U.S. and nearly everywhere in the world. People are struggling financially, making do with less on the table, depleting their savings, and seeking forbearance on debts. The emotional strains are no less real. Anxiety is rampant, drug overdoses have increased, calls to suicide hotlines have exploded, and the permanence of the economic losses may add to suicide rates for some time to come. Dr. Robert Redfield of the CDC says more teenagers will commit suicide this year than will die from COVID (also see here). There’s also been a terrifying escalation in domestic abuse during the pandemic, including domestic homicide. The despair caused by economic losses is all too real and should be viewed as a multiplier on the total cost of severe NPIs.
More on human costs: a health care disaster has befallen locked-down populations, including avoidance of care on account of panic fomented by so-called public health experts, the media, and government. Some of the consequences are listed here. But to name just a few, we have huge numbers of delayed cancer diagnoses, which sharply decrease survival time; mass avoidance of emergency room visits, including undiagnosed heart attacks and strokes; and unacceptable delays in cardiac treatments. Moreover, lockdowns worldwide have severely damaged efforts to deal with scourges like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.
The CDC reports that excess mortality among 25-44 year-olds this year was up more than 26%, and the vast bulk of these were non-COVID deaths. A Lancet study indicates that a measles outbreak is likely in 2021 due to skipped vaccinations caused by lockdowns. The WHO estimates that 130,000,000 people are starving worldwide due to lockdowns. That is roughly the population of the U.S. east coast. Again, the callousness with which people willfully ignore these repercussions is stunning, selfish and inhumane, or just stupid.
Can we quantify all this? Yes we can, as a matter of fact. I’ve offered estimates in the past, and I already mentioned that excess deaths, COVID and non-COVID, are reported on the CDC’s web site. The Ethical Skeptic (TES) does a good job of summarizing these statistics, though the last full set of estimates was from October 31. Here is the graphic from the TES Twitter feed:
Note particularly the huge number of excess deaths attributable to SAAAD (Suicide, Addiction Abandonment, Abuse and Despair): over 50,000! The estimate of life-years lost due to non-COVID excess deaths is almost double that of COVID deaths because of the difference in the age distributions of those deaths.
Here are a few supporting charts on selected categories of excess deaths, though they are a week behind the counts from above. The first is all non-COVID, natural-cause excess deaths (the vertical gap between the two lines), followed by excess deaths from Alzheimer’s and dementia, other respiratory diseases, and malignant neoplasms (cancer):
The clearest visual gap in these charts is the excess Alzheimer’s and dementia deaths. Note the increase corresponding to the start of the pandemic, when these patients were suddenly shut off from loved ones and the company of other patients. I also believe some of these deaths were (and are) due to overwhelmed staff at care homes struck by COVID, but even discounting this category of excess deaths leaves us with a huge number of non-COVD deaths that could have been avoided without lockdowns. This represents a human cost over and above those tied to the economic losses discussed earlier.
Degraded Education and Health
Lockdowns have also been destructive to the education of children. The United Nations has estimated that 24 million children may drop out of school permanently as a result of lockdowns and school closures. This a burden that falls disproportionately on impoverished children. This article in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network notes the destructive impact of primary school closures on educational attainment. Its conclusions should make advocates of school closures reconsider their position, but it won’t:
“… missed instruction during 2020 could be associated with an estimated 5.53 million years of life lost. This loss in life expectancy was likely to be greater than would have been observed if leaving primary schools open had led to an expansion of the first wave of the pandemic.“
Lockdowns just don’t work. There was never any scientific evidence that they did. For one thing, they are difficult to enforce and compliance is not a given. Of course, Sweden offers a prime example that draconian lockdowns are unnecessary, and deaths remain low there. This Lancet study, published in July, found no association between lockdowns and country mortality, though early border closures were associated with lower COVID caseloads. A French research paper concludes that public decisions had no impact on COVID mortality across 188 countries, U.S. states, and Chinese states. A paper by a group of Irish physicians and scientists stated the following:
“Lockdown has not previously been employed as a strategy in pandemic management, in fact it was ruled out in 2019 WHO and Irish pandemic guidelines, and as expected, it has proven a poor mitigator of morbidity and mortality.”
One of the chief arguments in favor of lockdowns is the fear that asymptomatic individuals circulating in the community (and there are many) would spread the virus. However, there is no evidence that they do. In part, that’s because the window during which an individual with the virus is infectious is narrow, but tests may detect tiny fragments of the virus over a much longer span of time. And there is even some evidence that lockdown measures may increase the spread of the virus!
Lockdown decisions are invariably arbitrary in their impact as well. The crackdown on gyms is one noteworthy example, but gyms are safe. Restaurants don’t turn up in many contact traces either, and yet restaurants have been repeatedly implicated as danger zones. And think of the many small retailers shut down by government, while giant competitors like Wal-Mart continue to operate with little restriction. This is manifest corporatism!
Then there is the matter of mask mandates. As readers of this blog know, I think masks probably help reduce transmission from droplets issued by a carrier, that is, at close range. However, this recent Danish study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that cloth masks are ineffective in protecting the wearer. They do not stop aerosols, which seem to be the primary source of transmission. They might reduce viral loads, at least if worn properly and either cleaned often or replaced. Those are big “ifs”.
To the extent that masks offer any protection, I’m happy to wear them within indoor public accommodations, at least for the time being. To the extent that people are “scared”, I’m happy to observe the courtesy of wearing a mask, but not outside in uncrowded conditions. To the extent that masks are required under private “house rules”, of course I comply. Public mask mandates outside of government buildings are over the line, however. The evidence that those mandates work is too tenuous and our liberties are too precious too allow that kind of coercion. And private facilities should be subject to private rules only.
So my poor friend is quite correct that COVID is especially deadly to certain cohorts and challenging for the health care community. But he must come to grips with a few realities:
The virus won’t be defeated with NPIs; they don’t work!
NPIs inflict massive harm to human well-being.
Lockdowns or NPIs are little or no gain, high-pain propositions.
“The lockdowns and other restrictions on economic and social activities are astronomically costly – in a direct economic sense, in an emotional and spiritual sense, and in a ‘what-the-hell-do-these-arbitrary-diktats-portend-for-our-freedom?’ sense.”
This doctor has a message for the those denizens of social media with an honest wish to dispense helpful public health advice:
“Americans have admitted that they will meet for Thanksgiving. Scolding and shaming them for wanting this is unlikely to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, though it may earn you likes and retweets. Starting with compassion, and thinking of ways they can meet, but as safely as possible, is the task of real public health. Now is the time to save public health from social media.”
Writing about COVID as a respite from election madness is very cold comfort, but here goes….
COVID deaths in the U.S. still haven’t shown the kind of upward trend this fall that many had feared. It could happen, but it hasn’t yet. In the chart above, new cases are shown in brown (along with the rolling seven-day average), while deaths (on the right axis) are shown in blue. It’s been over six weeks since new case counts began to rise, but deaths have risen for about two weeks, and it’s been gradual relative to the first two waves. Either the average lag between diagnosis and death is much longer than earlier in the year, or the current “casedemic” is much less deadly, or perhaps both. It could change. And granted, this is national data; states in the midwest have had the strongest trends in cases, especially the upper midwest, as well as stronger trends in hospitalizations and deaths. Most of those areas had milder experiences with the virus in the spring and summer.
What’s tricky about this is that both case reports and death reports in the chart above are significantly lagged. A COVID test might not take place until several days after infection (if at all), and sometimes not until hospitalization or death. Then the test result might not be known for several days. However, the greater availability of tests and faster turnaround time have almost certainly shortened that lag.
Deaths are reported with an even a greater delay, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to the media or some of the organizations that track these statistics, such as Johns Hopkins University and the COVID Tracking Project. Thus far, they only tell you what’s reported on a given day. This article from Rational Ground does a good job of explaining the issue and the distortion it causes in discerning trends.
Deaths by actual date-of-death
I’ve reported on the issue of lagged COVID deaths myself. The following graph from Justin Hart is a clear presentation of the reporting delays.
Reported deaths for the most recent week (10/24) are shown in dark blue, and those deaths were spread over a number of prior weeks. Actual deaths in a given week are represented by a “stack” of deaths reported later, in subsequent weeks. One word of caution: actual deaths in the most recent weeks are “provisional”, and more will be added in subsequent reporting weeks. Hence the steep drop off for the 10/17 and 10/24 reporting weeks.
Going back three or four weeks, it’s clear that actual deaths continued to decline into October. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell us much about the recent trend or whether actual deaths have started to rise given the increase in new cases. I have seen a new weekly update with the deaths by actual date of death, but it is not “stacked” by reporting week. However, it does show a slight increase in the week of 10/10, the first weekly increase since the end of June. So perhaps we’ll see an uptick more in-line with the earlier lags between diagnosis and death, but that’s far from certain.
Another important point is that the number of deaths each week, and each day, are not as high as reported by the media and the popular tracking sites. How often have you heard “more than 1,000 people a day are dying”. That’s high even for weekly averages of reported deaths. As of three weeks ago, actual daily deaths were running at about 560. That’s still very high, but based on seroprevalence estimates (the actual number of infections from the presence of antibodies), the infection fatality keeps dropping toward levels that are comparable to the flu at ages less than 65.
Where is the flu?
Speaking of the flu, this chart from the World Health Organization is revealing: the flu appears to have virtually disappeared in 2020:
It’s still very early in the northern flu season, but the case count was very light this summer in the Southern Hemisphere. There are several possible explanations. One favored by the “lockdown crowd” is that mitigation efforts, including masks and social distancing, have curtailed the flu bug. Not just curtailed … quashed! If that’s true, it’s more than a little odd because the same measures have been so unsuccessful in curtailing COVID, which is transmitted the same way! Also, these measures vary widely around the globe, which weakens the explanation.
There are other, more likely explanations: perhaps the flu is being undercounted because COVID is being overcounted. False positive COVID tests might override the reporting of a few flu cases, but not all diagnoses are made via testing. Other respiratory diseases can be mistaken for the flu and vice versus, and they are now more likely to be diagnosed as COVID absent a test — and as the joke goes, the flu is now illegal! And another partial explanation: it is rare to be infected with two viruses at once. Thus, COVID is said to be “crowding out” the flu.
Waiting for data
There is other good news about transmission, treatment, and immunity, but I’ll devote another post to that, and I’ll wait for more data. For now, the “third wave” appears to be geographically distinct from the first two, as was the second wave from the first. This suggests a sort of herd immunity in areas that were hit more severely in earlier waves. But the best news is that COVID deaths, thus far this fall, are not showing much if any upward movement, and estimates of infection fatality rates continue to fall.
Joe Biden is a weak figurehead, a one-time moderate faltering over a coalition of leftists. If you wonder why Nancy Pelosi floated legislation to establish a committee on “presidential capacity,” don’t think so much about her loathing for Donald Trump; think about poor Joe Biden. He might be shunted aside just as soon as the power grab isn’t too obvious. They know well how Barack Obama famously said, “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to f*ck things up.” But whether Joe Biden is in control of anything, think about who he stands with:
The Violent Left: Marxist Antifa and Marxist BLM; opposed to law and order; burning cities; spewing eliminationist rhetoric; hissing n*g**r at black cops;
Police Defunders: won’t acknowledge good policing is needed more than ever, especially in minority communities;
Critical Race Theorists: a Marxist front whereby every word and action is viewed in the context of racial bias and victimization; they want reparations; on your knees.
The Scientistic: who labor under the delusion that “science” should guide all administrative and political decisions. Or someone’s version of science. The very idea is antithetical to the scientific domain, which deals only with falsifiable hypotheses. Few matters of value can be addressed using the tools of science exclusively, nor can they address matters of ethics.
Fear Mongers: would rule by precaution; risks are always worth exaggerating to existential proportions;
Lockdown Tyrants: refuse to acknowledge the steep public health costs of lockdowns; stripping individual liberties indefinitely, including the right to contract, free practice of religion, and assembly;
Insurrectionists: who fabricated a Russian collusion hoax to subvert the 2016 election, and later to overthrow a sitting president;
Gun Confiscators: they will if we let them;
Abortionists: would use federal tax dollars to fund the murder of millions of babies late into pregnancy, primarily black babies;
Taxers: won’t stop with punitive taxes on the wealthy and employers; it’s just not easy to milk high earners in a way that’s sufficient to pay for the fiscal debauchery demanded by the Biden-Harris constituency. Joe says he will raise taxes by $3.4 trillion.
Spenders: $2 trillion of new federal education outlays, including universal pre-K and free community college; the Green New Deal (see below). After all, the democrats are the party that can’t tell the difference between a cut in spending and a reduction in spending growth. If you think Trump is a big spender, their plans are astonishing;
Green New Dealers: would spend trillions to restrict energy choices, transfer U.S. wealth overseas in the name of international carbon reduction, and reduce our standard of living;
Redistributionists: would tax job creators not simply for the benefit of supporting the needy, but for anyone regardless of need (see UBI); this extends to plans to bail out blue states and cities with insolvent public employee pension funds;
Interventionists: would regulate all phases of life, including straws, sugary drinks, and your fireplace; they will burden private initiative; create artificial, politically-favored winners skilled at manipulating regulatory rules for competitive reasons; and create losers who are typically too small to handle the burden;
Medical Socialists: will strip your private health insurance, dictate the care you may receive, fix prices, and regulate physicians and other providers. You’ll love the care abroad, if you can afford to get out when your sick.
Public School Monopolists: poorly performing, beholden to teachers’ unions, unresponsive to taxpayers and often parents; they would happily revoke school choice;
Federal Suburb Rezoners: demanding low-income housing in every community;
Court Packers: to destroy the independent judiciary;
Iran Apologists: give them cash on the tarmac, let them develop their “peaceful” nuclear program; alienate the rest of the Middle East;
I could go on and on, but Harris-Biden voters should get a strong taste of their compatriots from the list above. It reflects the overriding prescriptive, bullying, and sometimes violent nature of the Left. They’d have you think all material goods can be free. Presto! They presume to have the knowledge and wisdom to plan the economy and your life better than you, Better than free markets and free people. What they’ll need is a lot of magic, or it won’t go well. You’ll get poverty and tears. I’m not sure Joe has the desire or the wherewithal to rein in his coalition of idiots.
Acceptance of risk is a necessary part of a good life, and extreme efforts to avoid it are your own business. Government has no power to guarantee absolute safety, nor should we presume to have such a right. Ongoing COVID lockdowns are an implicit assertion of exactly that kind of government power, despite the impotence of those efforts, and they constitute a rejection of more fundamental rights.
Lockdowns have had destructive effects on health and economic well being while conferring little if any benefit in mitigating harm from the virus. The lockdowns were originally sold as a way to “flatten the curve”, that is, to avoid a spike in cases and an overburdened health care system. However, this arguably well-qualified rationale later expanded in scope to encompass the mitigation of smaller and much less deadly outbreaks among younger cohorts, and then to the very idea of extinguishing the virus altogether. It’s become painfully obvious that such measures are not capable of achieving those goals.
In the U.S., the ongoing lockdowns have been a cause célèbre largely on the interventionist Left, and they have been prolonged mainly by Democrats at various levels of government. In a way, this is not unlike many other policies championed by the Left, often ostensibly designed to help members of the underclasses: instead, those policies often destroy or wrongly obviate incentives and promote dependency on the state. In this case, the plunge into dependency is a reality the Left would very much like to ignore, or to blame on someone else. You know who.
The lockdowns have been largely unsuccessful in mitigating the spread of the virus. At the same time, they have been used as a pretext to deny constitutional rights such as the free practice of religion, assembly, and a broad range of unenumerated rights under the “penumbra” of the Bill of Rights and the Ninth Amendment. What’s more, the severity of the economic blow caused by lockdowns has been borne disproportionately by the working poor and the small businesses who employ so many of them.
Lockdowns are deadly. It’s not clear that they’ve saved any lives, but they have massively disrupted the operation of the health care system with major consequences for those with chronic and undiagnosed conditions. The lockdowns have also led to spikes in mental health issues, alcoholism, drug abuse, and deaths of despair. A recent study found that over 26% of the excess deaths during the pandemic were non-COVID deaths. Those deaths were avoidable or accelerated, whereas the lockdowns have failed to meaningfully curtail COVID deaths. Don’t tell me about reduced traffic fatalities: that reduction is relatively small relative to the increase in non-COVID excess deaths (see below).
The Ethical Skeptic (TES) on Twitter has been tracking a measure of lockdown deaths for some time now. The following graphic provides a breakdown of excess non-COVID deaths since the start of the pandemic. The total “pie” shows almost 320,000 excess deaths through September 26th (avoiding less complete counts in recent weeks), as reported by the CDC. COVID accounted for 202,000 of those deaths, based on state-level reporting. Of the remaining 117,000 excess deaths, TES uses CDC data to allocate roughly 85,000 to various causes, the largest (more than half) being “Suicide, Addiction, Abandonment, and Abuse”. Other large categories include Cardio/Diabetes, Stroke, premature Alzheimers/Dementia death, and Cancer Access. Nearly 32,000 excess deaths remain as a “backlog”, not yet reported with a cause by states.
Also of interest in the graphic are estimates of life-years lost. The vast bulk of COVID victims are elderly, of course, which means that any estimate of lost years per victim must be relatively low. On the other hand, most non-COVID, lockdown-related deaths are among younger victims, with correspondingly greater life-years lost. TES’s aggregate estimate is that lockdown-related excess deaths involve double the life-years lost of COVID deaths. Of course, that is an estimate, but even granting some latitude for error, the reality is horrifying!
John Tierney in City Journal cites several recent studies concluding that lockdowns have been largely ineffective in Europe and in the U.S. While Tierney doesn’t rule out the possibility that lockdowns have produced some benefits, they have carried excessive costs and risks to public health going forward, such as lingering issues for those having deferred important health care decisions as well as disruption in future economic prospects. Ultimately, lockdowns don’t accomplish anything:
“While the economic and social costs have been enormous, it’s not clear that the lockdowns have brought significant health benefits beyond what was achieved by people’s voluntary social distancing and other actions.”
Tierney also discusses the costs and benefits of lockdowns in terms of life years: quality-adjusted life-years (QALY), which is a widely-used measure for evaluating of the use of health care resources:
“By the QALY measure, the lockdowns must be the most costly—and cost-ineffective—medical intervention in history because most of the beneficiaries are so near the end of life. Covid-19 disproportionately affects people over 65, who have accounted for nearly 80 percent of the deaths in the United States. The vast majority suffered from other ailments, and more than 40 percent of the victims were living in nursing homes, where the median life expectancy after admission is just five months. In Britain, a study led by the Imperial College economist David Miles concluded that even if you gave the lockdown full credit for averting the most unrealistic worst-case scenario (the projection of 500,000 British deaths, more than ten times the current toll), it would still flunk even the most lenient QALY cost-benefit test.”
We can now count the World Health Organizationamong the detractors of lockdowns. According to WHO’s Dr. David Nabarro:
“Lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer…. Look what’s happened to smallholder farmers all over the world. … Look what’s happening to poverty levels. It seems that we may well have a doubling of world poverty by next year. We may well have at least a doubling of child malnutrition.”
In another condemnation of the public health consequences of lockdowns, number of distinguished epidemiologists have signed off on a statement known as The Great Barrington Declaration. The declaration advocates a focused approach of protecting the most vulnerable from the virus, while allowing those at low risk to proceed with their lives in whatever way they deem acceptable. Those at low risk of severe disease can acquire immunity, which ultimately inures to the benefit of the most vulnerable. With few, brief, and local exceptions, this is how we have always dealt with pandemics in the past. That’s real life!
Joe Biden has claimed that he and Barack Obama had left Donald Trump with a “booming” economy to start his term in office. Of course, if he had anything to do with economic performance during the Obama Administration, it may have been his oversight of the mismanaged and ineffective “shovel-ready” stimulus program of 2009, For his sake, one might hope (and suspect) his oversight was nominal. In any case, his characterization of the Obama economy is not really accurate, as this editorial at Issues and Insights demonstrates. I could argue with a few of their points, but the thrust of it is correct. The economy weakened in 2015 and 2016, and expectations were for continued slow growth or possibly a recession in 2017 or after. At that point, many economists thought the aging expansion might be on its last legs. But economic growth exceeded expectations after Trump took office. As for job growth, economists predicted relatively sluggish growth in 2017-2019, but actual job growth exceeded those projections by more than three times.
Finally, Biden’s assertion that “Trump caused the recession” was laughable, especially when the punchline is his willingness to “shut down the economy“! He insists “I would listen to the scientists”, presumably the same knuckleheads who don’t understand the public health tradeoffs between the pandemic itself and lockdown risks (and who don’t understand the Constitution). Biden might not understand that the President lacks constitutional powers to demand a nationwide shutdown. Trump was quite sensibly persuaded to leave non-pharmaceutical interventions in the hands of the private sector as well as state and local governments, with guidance from federal health authorities. That some state and local leaders instituted draconian policies, which were largely ineffective and often damaging. was and is a terrible misfortune. The more sensible approach is to protect the most vulnerable and allow others to gauge their own risks, as we always have in earlier pandemics.
Policymakers, public health experts, and the media responded to the coronavirus in ways that have often undermined public health and magnified the deadly consequences of the pandemic. Below I offer several examples of perverse politics and policy prescriptions, and a few really bad decisions by certain elected officials. Some of the collateral damage was intentional and motivated by an intent to inflict political damage on Donald Trump, and people of good faith should find that grotesque no matter their views on Trump’s presidency.
“On May 27, I published an article in theAmerican Journal of Epidemiology(AJE) entitled, ‘Early Outpatient Treatment of Symptomatic, High-Risk COVID-19 Patients that Should be Ramped-Up Immediately as Key to the Pandemic Crisis.’ That article, published in the world’s leading epidemiology journal, analyzed five studies, demonstrating clear-cut and significant benefits to treated patients, plus other very large studies that showed the medication safety. …
Since [then], seven more studies have demonstrated similar benefit. In a lengthy follow-up letter, also published by AJE, I discuss these seven studies and renew my call for the immediate early use of hydroxychloroquine in high-risk patients.”
Risch is careful to couch his statements in forward-looking terms, but this also implies that tens of thousands of lives could have been saved, or patients might have recovered more readily and without lasting harm, had use of the drug not been restricted. The FDA revoked its Emergency Use Authorization for HCQ on June 15th, alleging that it is not safe and has little if any benefit. An important rationale cited in the FDA’s memo was an NIH study of late-stage C19 patients that found no benefit and potential risks to HCQ, but this is of questionable relevance because the benefit appears to be in early-stage treatment or prophylaxis. Poor research design also goes for this study and this study, while this study shared in some shortcomings (e.g., and no use of and/or controls for zinc) and a lack of statistical power. Left-wing outlets like Politico seemed almost gleeful, and blissfully ignorant, in calling those studies “nails in the coffin” for HCQ. Now, I ask: putting the outcomes of the research aside, was it really appropriate to root against a potential treatment for a serious disease, especially back in March and April when there were few treatment options, but even now?
Then we have the state governors who restricted the use of HCQ for treating C19, such as Gretchen Whitmer (MI) and Steve Sisolak (NV). Andrew Cuomo (NY) decided that HCQ could be dispensed only for hospital use, exactly the wrong approach for early stage treatment. And all of this resistance was a reaction to Donald Trump’s optimism about the promise of HCQ. Yes, there was alarm that lupus patients would be left without adequate supplies, but the medication is a very cheap, easy to produce drug, so that was never a real danger. Too much of the media and politicians have been complicit in denying a viable treatment to many thousands of C19 victims. If you were one of the snarky idiots putting it down on social media, you are either complicit or simply a poster child for banal evil.
Seeding the Nursing Homes
The governors of several states issued executive orders to force nursing homes to accept C19 patients, which was against CMS guidance issued in mid-March. The governors were Andrew Cuomo (NY), Gretchen Whitmer (MI), Gavin Newsom (CA), Tom Wolf (PA), and Phil Murphy (PA). This was a case of stupidity more than anything else. These institutions are home to the segment of the population most vulnerable to the virus, and they have accounted for about 40% of all C19 deaths. Nursing homes were ill-prepared to handle these patients, and the governors foolishly and callously ordered them to house patients who required a greater level of care and who represented an extreme hazard to other residents and staff.
Party & Protest On
Then of course we had the mayor of New York City, Bill De Blasio, who urged New Yorkers to get out on the town in early March. That was matched in its stupidity by the array of politicians and health experts who decided, having spent months proselytizing the need to “stay home”, that it was in their best interests toendorse participation in street protests that were often too crowded to maintain effective social distance. That’s not a condemnation of those who sought to protest peacefully against police brutality, but it was not a good or consistent recommendation in the domain of public health. Thankfully, the protests were outside!
Testing, Our Way Or the Highway
The FDA and CDC were guilty of regulatory overreach in preventing early testing for C19, and were responsible for many lives lost early in the pandemic. By the time the approved CDC tests revealed that the virus was ramping up drastically in March, the country was already behind in getting a handle on the spread of the virus, quarantining the infected, and tracing their contacts. There is no question that this cost lives.
Masks… Maybe, But Our Way Or the Highway
U.S. public health authorities were guilty of confused messaging on the efficacy of masks early in the pandemic. As Joel Zinberg notes in City Journal, Anthony Fauci admitted that his own minimization of the effectiveness of masks was motivated by a desire to prevent a shortage of PPE for health care workers:
“In discouraging mask use, Fauci—for decades, the nation’s foremost expert on viral infectious diseases—was not acting as a neutral interpreter of settled science but as a policymaker, concerned with maximizing the utility of the limited supply of a critical item. An economist could have told him that there was no need to misinform the public. Letting market mechanisms work and relaxing counterproductive regulations would ease shortages. Masks for health-care workers would be available if we were willing to pay higher prices; those higher prices, in turn, would elicit more mask production.”
Indeed, regulators made acquisition of adequate supplies of PPE more difficult than necessary via compliance requirements, “price gouging” rules, and import controls.
Bans on Elective Surgery
Another series of unnecessary deaths was caused by various bans on elective surgeries across the U.S. (also see here), and we’re now in danger of repeating that mistake. These bans were thought to be helpful in preserving hospital capacity, but hospitals were significantly underutilized for much of the pandemic. Add to that the fright inspired by official reaction to C19, which keeps emergency rooms empty, and you have a universe of diverse public health problems to grapple with. As I said on this blog a couple of months ago:
“… months of undiagnosed cardiac and stroke symptoms; no cancer screenings, putting patients months behind on the survival curve; deferred procedures of all kinds; run-of-the-mill infections gone untreated; palsy and other neurological symptoms anxiously discounted by victims at home; a hold on treatments for all sorts of other progressive diseases; and patients ordinarily requiring hospitalization sent home. And to start back up, new health problems must compete with all that deferred care. Do you dare tally the death and other worsened outcomes? Both are no doubt significant.”
The lockdowns were unnecessary and ineffectual in their ability to control the spread of the virus. A study of 50 countries published by The Lancet last week found the following:
“Increasing COVID-19 caseloads were associated with countries with higher obesity … median population age … and longer time to border closures from the first reported case…. Increased mortality per million was significantly associated with higher obesity prevalence … and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) …. Reduced income dispersion reduced mortality … and the number of critical cases …. Rapid border closures, full lockdowns, and wide-spread testing were not associated with COVID-19 mortality per million people.”
That should have been obvious for a virus that holds little danger for prime working-age cohorts who are most impacted by economic lockdowns.
Like the moratoria on elective surgeries, lockdowns did more harm than good. Livelihoods disappeared, business were ruined, savings were destroyed, dreams were shattered, isolation set in, and it continues today. These kinds of problems are strongly associated with health troubles, family dysfunction, drug and alcohol abuse, and even suicide. It’s ironic that those charged with advising on matters pertaining to public health should focus exclusively on a single risk, recommending solutions that carry great risk themselves without a second thought. After all, the protocol in reviewing new treatments sets the first hurdle as patient safety, but apparently that didn’t apply in the case of shutdowns.
Even as efforts were made to reopen, faulty epidemiological models were used to predict calamitous outcomes. While case counts have risen in many states in the U.S. in June and July, deaths remain far below model predictions and far below deaths recorded during the spring in the northeast.
One last note: I almost titled this post “Attack of the Killer Morons”, but as a concession to what is surely a vain hope, I decided not to alienate certain readers right from the start.
This post is devoted to a few coronavirus policies and positions that trouble me.
Counting Deaths: People have the general impression that counting COVID-19 cases and deaths is straightforward. The facts are more reminiscent of the following exchange in the film Arsenic and Old Lace, when Jonathan Brewster angrily insists he has offed more souls than his sweet little aunties have poisoned with elderberry wine:
Dr. Einstein: You cannot count the one in South Bend. He died of pneumonia! Jonathan Brewster: He wouldn’t have died of pneumonia if I hadn’t shot him!
Here, Dr. Einstein wears the shoes of public health authorities who claim that C19 deaths are undercounted. But lives counted as lost from C19, in many cases, are individuals who also had the flu, pneumonia, stroke, kidney failure, and a variety of other co-morbidities. Yes, other causes of death might be induced by the coronavirus, but like Johnny’s victim in South Bend, many would not have died from C19 if they hadn’t had a prior health event. In addition, otherwise unexplained deaths are often attributed to C19 with little justification.
Lockdowns: almost all of the “curve flattening” in late March and April was accomplished by voluntary action, which I’ve covered beforehere. The lockdowns imposed by state and local governments were highly arbitrary and tragic for many workers and business owners who could have continued to operate as safely as many so-called “essential” businesses. Lockdowns in certain areas were also blatant violations of religious rights. There is little to no evidence that lockdowns themselves led to any actual abatement of the virus. And of course, people are fed up!
The Beach: Right now I’m at a wonderful beach condo in Florida for a week. There are other people on the beach, mostly families and a few groups of friends, but there is plenty of open space. You will not catch the coronavirus on a beach like this. And there is almost zero chance you’ll catch it on any beach. In fact, the chance you’ll catch it anywhere outside is minuscule unless you’re jammed so tightly among hundreds of protesters that you can’t even turn around. Yet government officials have closed beaches in many parts of the country while allowing the protests to go on. Oh sure, they think people will CROWD onto beaches as if they’re at a BLM protest… except they’re not. Ah, then it must be banned! That takes a special kind of dumbass.
Waiting for Results: How could we have spent trillions of dollars as a nation on economic stimulus, much of it skimmed off by grifters, but we can’t seem to get sufficient resources to make calls to those awaiting test results? This is a case of misplaced priorities. Even now, people are waiting more than a week for their results, and many are wandering around in the community without knowing their status. Wouldn’t you think we’d get that done? We can conduct well over a half million tests a day, but can’t we find a few bucks to deliver results via phone, email, or text within 24 hours of processing results. This is truly absurd.
Vaccine Candidates: A similar point can be made about vaccine development: We are spending $5 billion on Operation Warp Speed to build capacity in advance for five promising vaccine candidates. These will be identified over the next few months, and it looks as if all five will come from established pharmaceutical majors. There are many more vaccine candidates, however, some being developed by smaller players using inventive new techniques. The OWS expenditure looks pretty meager when you compare it to the trillions in funds the federal government is spending on economic stimulus, especially when finding an effective vaccine would obviate much of the stimulus.
Treatment: Hydroxycloroquine has been found to lower the death rate from COVID-19 in a large controlled trial. Congratulations, morons, for trashing HCQ as a potential treatment, solely because Trump mentioned it. Way to go, dumbasses, for banning the use of a potential treatment that could have saved many thousands of lives.
Air Conditioning: I’m shocked that public health experts haven’t been more vocal about the potentially dangerous effects of running air conditioners at high levels in public buildings. The virus is known to thrive in cool, dry environments, which is exactly what AC creates, yet this seems to have been almost completely ignored.
Vitamin D: Likewise, I think public health experts have been far too reticent about the connection between Vitamin D deficiencies and the severity of C19 (also see here and here). The accumulating evidence about this association offers an explanation for the disturbingly high severity of cases among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnics (BAME), not to mention a possible role in C19 deaths among the generally D-deficient nursing home population. For the love of God, get the word out to the community that Vitamin D supplements might help, and they won’t hurt, and otherwise, tell people to get some sun!
Masks: I’m not in favor of strict mask mandates, but I have trouble understanding the aversion to masks among certain friends. Of course, there’s been way too much mixed messaging on the benefits of masks, and it didn’t all come from politicians! Scientists, the CDC, and the World Health Organization seemingly did everything possible to squander their credibility on this and other issues. However, a consensus now seems to have developed that masks protect others from the wearer and seem to protect the wearer from others as well. It should be obvious that masks offer a middle ground on which the economy can be restarted while mitigating the risks of further contagion. But even if you don’t believe masks protect the wearer, but only protect others from an infected wearer, donning a mask inside buildings, and when social distancing is impossible, still qualifies as a mannerly thing to do.
President Trump was in a festive mood last Friday, pleased with the May employment report, as he should be. But in his Rose Garden word jam, he made some questionable and unnecessary claims about coronavirus policies in the U.S. and the Swedish experience. I credit Trump for pushing to end the lockdowns as it became clear that they were both unhealthy and unsustainable. However, he’s now way too eager to cover his earlier tracks. That is, he is now defensive about the precautions he advocated on the advice of his medical experts in March and early April.
In the Rose Garden, Trump said that lockdowns were necessary to stop the spread of the virus. But to assert that lockdowns “stopped” or even slowed the spread of the virus is speculation at best, and they had deadly effects of their own. Most of the social distancing was achieved through voluntary action, as I have argued previously. Lockdown advocacy lacked any semblance of geographic nuance, as if uniform application makes sense regardless of population density.
Trump went on to say that Sweden was in “bad shape” because it did not impose a lockdown during the pandemic. This is not a new position for the president, but the facts are anything but clear-cut. Again, there is mixed evidence on whether mandatory lockdowns have a real impact on the spread or mortality of the coronavirus (also see here). That’s not to say that social distancing doesn’t work, but much of the benefit comes from private decisions to mitigate risk via distancing. Of course, that also depends on whether people have good information to act on. And to be fair, Sweden did take certain measures such as banning gatherings of more than 50 people, closing schools, and limiting incoming travel.
While the full tale has not been told, and Sweden’s death rate is high on a per capita basis, several other Western European countries that imposed lockdowns have had even higher death rates. The following chart is from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE). It is expressed in terms of coronavirus deaths per 100,000 of population. The orange line is Sweden, the purple line is Belgium, and the light blue line is the UK. Actuals are reported through June 4th. While Sweden’s death toll has a somewhat steeper gradient, the level remains well below both Belgium and the UK. It is also lower than the death rates for Italy and Spain, and it is about the same as France’s death rate. Yes, a number of other countries have lower death rates, including the U.S., but the evidence is hardly consistent with Trump’s characterization.
Sweden’s big mistake was not it’s decision to rely on voluntary social distancing, but in failing to adequately protect highly vulnerable populations. The country’s elderly skew older than most countries by several years. Residents of nursing homes have accounted for about half of Sweden’s coronavirus deaths, an international outlier. Inadequate preparedness in elder care has been a particular problem, including a lack of personal protective equipment for workers. There was also a poorly implemented volunteer program, intended to fill-out staffing needs, that appears to have aggravated transmission of the virus.
Sweden has also experienced a concentration of cases and deaths among its large immigrant population. It has the largest immigrant population among the Nordic countries, with large numbers of low income migrants from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia and parts of Eastern Europe. Earlier in the pandemic, according to one estimate, 40% of coronavirus fatalities in Stockholm were in the Somali population. These immigrants tend to live in dense conditions, often in multigenerational households. Many residents with health problems tend to go untreated. Conditions like Vitamin D deficiency and high cholesterol, apparent risk factors for coronavirus severity, likely go untreated in these communities. In addition, language barriers and traditional trust relationships may diminish the effectiveness of communications from public health authorities. In fact, some say the style of Swedish public health messaging was too culturally idiosyncratic to be of much use to immigrants. And one more thing: immigrants are a disproportionately high 28% of nursing home staff in Sweden, implying an intimacy between two vulnerable populations that almost surely acts as a risk multiplier in both.
It might be too harsh to suggest that that Sweden could have prevented the outsized impact of the virus on immigrants. However, Sweden’s coronavirus testing has not been as intensive as other Nordic countries. More testing might have helped alleviate the spread of the virus in nursing homes and in immigrant communities. But the vulnerabilities of the immigrant population might be more a matter of inadequate health care than anything else, both on the demand and supply sides.
Contrary to Trump’s characterization, Sweden’s herd immunity strategy is not the reason for it’s relatively high death rate from the virus. Several countries that imposed lockdowns have had higher death rates. And Sweden’s death rate has been heavily concentrated among the aged in nursing homes and its large immigrant population. It’s possible that Sweden’s approach led to a cavalier attitude with respect identifying vulnerable groups and taking measures that could have protected them, including more intensive testing. Nevertheless, it’s inaccurate and unfair to scapegoat Sweden for not imposing a mandatory lockdown. The choice is not merely whether to impose lockdowns, but how to protect vulnerable populations at least cost. In that sense, general lockdowns are a poor choice.
It’s a bit early to fully evaluate President Trump’s performance in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, but there are a number of criteria on which I might assign marks. I’ll address some of those below, but in so doing I’m reminded of Jerry Garcia’s quip that he was “shopping around for something no one will like.” That might be how this goes. Of course, many of the sub-topics are worthy of lengthier treatment. The focus here is on the pandemic and not more general aspects of his performance in office, though there is some unavoidable overlap.
Many have criticized the Trump Administration for not being “ready” for a pandemic. I assign no grade on that basis because absolutely no one was ready, at least not in the West, so there is no sound premise for judgement. I also view the very general charge that Trump did not provide “leadership” as code for either “I don’t like him”, or “he refused to impose more authoritarian measures”, like a full-scale nationwide lockdown. Such is the over-prescriptive instinct of the Left.
Equally misleading is the allegation that Trump had “disbanded” the White House pandemic response team, and I have addressed that here. First, while the NSC would play a coordinating role, pandemic response is supposed to be the CDC’s job, when it isn’t too busy with diseases of social injustice to get it done. Second, it was John Bolton who executed a reorganization at the NSC. There were two high profile departures from the team in question at the time, and one one was a resignation. Most of the team’s staff remained with the NSC with the same duties as before the reirganization.
Finally, there was the matter of a distracting impeachment on false charges. This effort lasted through the first three years of Trump’s administration, finally culminating in January 2020. Perhaps the Administration would have had more time to focus on what was happening in China without the histrionics from the opposition party. So whatever else I might say below, these factors weigh toward leniency in my appraisal of Trump’s handing of the virus.
As usual, Trump’s messaging during the pandemic was often boorish and inarticulate. His appearances at coronavirus briefings were no exception, often cringeworthy and sometimes featuring misinterpretations of what his team of experts was saying. He was inconsistent in signaling optimism and pessimism, as were many others such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio. It shifted from “the virus is about like the flu” in February to a more sober assessment by mid-March. This was, however, quite consistent with the messaging from Dr. Anthony Fauci over the same time frame, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO). Again, no one really knew what to expect, so it’s understandable. A great deal of that can be ascribed to “the fog of war”.
Delegation and Deference: B
Trump cannot be accused of ignoring expert advice through the episode. He was obviously on-board with Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, Dr. Robert Redfield, and other health care advisors on the “15 Days to Slow the Spread” guidelines issued on March 16. His messaging wavered during those 15 days, expressing a desire to fully reopen the nation by Easter, which Vice President Michael Pence later described as “aspirational”. Before the end of March, however, Trump went along with a 30-day extension of the guidelines. Finally, by mid-April, the White House released guidelines for “Opening Up America Again“, which was a collaboration between Trump’s health care experts and the economic team. Trump agreed that the timeline for reopening should be governed by “the data”. There is no question, however, that Trump was chomping at the bit for reopening at several stages of this process. I see value in that positioning, as it conveys an intent to reopen asap and that people should have confidence in progress toward that goal.
International Travel Bans: A
If anyone wonders why the world was so thoroughly blindsided by the coronavirus, look no further than China’s failure to deliver a proper warning as 2019 drew to a close. Wuhan, China was ground zero; the virus spread to the rest of the world with travelers out of Wuhan and other Chinese cities. The White House announced severe restrictions on flights from China on January 31, including a two-week quarantine for returning U.S. citizens. In retrospect, it wasn’t a minute too soon, yet for that precaution, Trump was attacked as a racist by the Left. In early February, WHO actually said travel bans were unnecessary, among other missteps. Other bans were instituted on entry from Iran and Brazil, as well as entry from Europe in early March, as countries around the globe closed their borders. Trump’s actions on incoming travelers were prescient, so I’ll score this one for Trump. Some of these travel restrictions can and should be eased now, and certainly that is expected in coming months, so we’ll see how well that process is managed.
Deference to States: A-
As a federalist, I was pleased that Trump and his team left most of the specifics on closures and bans on public gatherings up to state and local governments. That allowed more targeted mitigation efforts as dictated by local conditions and, to some extent, public opinion. This is a classic case of “laboratory federalism” whereby the most effective policies can be identified, though as we’ve seen, there’s no guarantee less successful states will emulate them. I grade Trump well on this one.
On reopening, too, Trump has been a consistent advocate of allowing flexility where local conditions permit, though he wrongly claimed he had “total authority” over ending social distancing rules. It’s hard to square that remark with his general stand on the issue of autonomy except as a tactic to strong-arm certain governors on other points.
CDC/FDA Snafus: D
I applaud the Administration for its emphasis on the salutary effects of deregulation, but Trump went along with some major pieces of “expert advice” that were not only poor from regulatory perspective, but an affront to federalism. One was a directive issued by the CDC to delay “all elective surgeries, non-essential medical, surgical, and dental procedures during the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak“. (See my post “Suspending Medical Care in the Name of Public Health“.)
This is exactly the kind of “one size fits all” regulatory policy that has proven so costly, sacrificing not just economic activity but lives and care for the sick, creating avoidable illnesses and complications. The idea was to assure that adequate health care resources were available to treat an onslaught of coronavirus patients, but that was unneeded in most jurisdictions. And while the contagion was in it’s early “exponential” phase at the time, a more nuanced approach could have been adopted to allow different geographic areas and facilities more discretion, especially for different kinds of patients, or perhaps something less than a complete suspension of care. In any case, the extensions into May were excessive. I must grade Trump poorly for allowing this to happen, despite what must have been extreme pressure to follow “expert advice” on the point and the others discussed earlier.
That’s not the only point on which I blame Trump for caving to the CDC. In a case of massive regulatory failure, the CDC and FDA put the U.S. well over a month behind on testing when the first signs of the virus appeared here. Not only did they prohibit private labs and universities from getting testing underway, insisting on exclusive use of the CDC’s own tests, they also distributed faulty tests in early February that took over a month to replace. The FDA also enforced barriers to imported N95-type masks during the pandemic. Trump tends to have a visceral understanding of the calcifying dangers of regulation, but he let the so-called “experts” call the shots here. Big mistake, and Trump shares the blame with these agencies.
Health Resources: B-
Managing the emergency distribution of PPE and ventilators to states did not go as smoothly as might have been hoped. The shortage itself left FEMA with the unenviable task of allocating quantities that could never satisfy all demands. A few states were thought to have especially acute needs, but there was also an obligation to hold stockpiles against potential requests from other states. In fact, a situation of this kind creates an incentive for states to overstate their real needs, and there are indications that such was the case. Trump sparred with a few governors over these allocations. There is certainly blame to be shared, but I won’t grade Trump down for this.
Vaccines and Treatments: C+
The push to develop vaccines might not achieve success soon, if ever, but a huge effort is underway. Trump gets some of the credit for that, as well as the investment in capacity now to produce future vaccine candidates in large quantities. As for treatments, he was very excited about the promise of hydroxychloraquine, going so far as to take it himself with zinc, a combination for which no fully randomized trial results have been reported (the recent study appearing in the Lancet on HCQ taken by itself has been called into question). Trump also committed an unfortunate gaffe when the DHS announced the results of a study showing that sunlight kills coronavirus in a matter of minutes, as do bleach and other disinfectants. Trump mused that perhaps sunlight or some form of disinfectant could be used as a treatment for coronavirus patients. He might have been thinking about an old and controversial practice whereby blood is exposed to UV light and then returned to the body. Later, he said he used the term “disinfectant” sarcastically, but he probably meant to say “euphemistically” …. I’m not sure he knows the difference. In any case, his habit of speculating on such matters is often unhelpful, and he loses points for that.
Fiscal Policy: B
The several phases of the economic stimulus program were a collaboration between the Trump Administration and Congress. A reasonably good summary appears here. The major parts were the $2.3 trillion CARES Act in late March and a nearly $500 billion supplemental package in late April. These packages were unprecedented in size. Major provisions were direct cash payments and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides loans and grants to small businesses. The execution of both was a bit clunky, especially PPP, which placed a burden on private banks to extend the loans but was sketchy in terms of qualifications. The extension of unemployment compensation left some workers with more benefits than they earned in their former jobs, which could be an impediment to reopening. There were a number of other reasonable measures in these packages and the two smaller bills that preceded them in March. A number of these measures were well-targeted and inventive, such as waiving early withdrawal penalties from IRA and 401(k) balances. The Trump Administration deserves credit for helping to shape these efforts as well as others taken independently by the executive branch.
Trump’s proposal to suspend payroll taxes did not fly, at least not yet. The idea is to reduce the cost of hiring and increase the return to work, if only temporarily. This is not a particularly appealing idea because so much of the benefits would flow to those who haven’t lost their jobs. It could be improved if targeted at new hires and rehires, however.
Trump’s proposal to grant liability waivers to reopened private businesses is extremely contentious, but one I support. Lockdowns are being eased under the weight of often heavy public and private regulation of conduct. As John Cochrane says in “Get Ready for the Careful Economy“:
“One worry on regulation is that it will provide a recipe for a wave of lawsuits. That may have been a reason the Administration tried to hold back CDC guidance. A long, expensive, and impractical list of things you must do to reopen is catnip when someone gets sick and wants to blame a business. Show us the records that you wiped down the bathrooms every half hour. A legal system that can sue over talcum powder is not above this.”
Indeed, potential liability might represent a staggering cost to many businesses, one that might not be insurable. Accusations of negligence, true or false, can carry significant legal costs. Customers and employees, not just businesses, must accept some of the burden of risks of doing business. I give Trump good marks for this one, but we’ll see if it goes anywhere.
Some of the proposals for new stimulus legislation from democrats are much worse, including diversity initiatives, massive subsidies for “green” technologies, and bailouts for state and local government for unfunded pension liabilities. None of these has anything to do with the virus. The burden of pension shortfalls in some states should not fall on taxpayers nationwide, but on the states that incurred them. The Trump Administration and congressional Republicans should continue resisting these opportunistic proposals.
Without assigning weights to the sub-topics covered above, I’d put the overall grade for Trump and his Administration’s handling of matters during the pandemic at about a B-, thus far. When it comes to politics, it’s often unfair to credit or blame one side for the promulgation of an overall set of policies. Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that Trump, could have done much better and could have done much worse. We will learn more with the passage of time, the continued evolution of the virus, the development of treatments or vaccines, and the course of the economy.
In advanced civilizations the period loosely called Alexandrian is usually associated with flexible morals, perfunctory religion, populist standards and cosmopolitan tastes, feminism, exotic cults, and the rapid turnover of high and low fads---in short, a falling away (which is all that decadence means) from the strictness of traditional rules, embodied in character and inforced from within. -- Jacques Barzun