It was the best of exponential growth, it was the worst of exponential growth. The worst, of course, is the way that viral diseases tend to spread through a population. One person infects three, those three infect nine, and so on.
On the plus side, the main reason that social distancing has a chance to save lives during the COVID-19 crisis is that we live in such an enormously prosperous era, made possible by many decades of exponential economic growth.
If you understand compound interest you know how this works. An economy that grows three percent each year is not four times as wealthy after a century but twenty times. Although real-world growth is messier, in 1900 U.S. GDP per person was a little over $6,000; in 2000 it was over $45,000.
Growth is good for people. As economist Tyler Cowen summarizes, “Wealthier societies have better living standards, better medicines, and offer greater personal autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun.” Usually.
The paradox of this COVID-19 crisis is that we are temporarily confined by our wealth. Why? Consider what it means to “flatten the curve,” to slow the spread of the disease through social distancing. Doctors can save the lives of many people with severe cases of COVID-19 by putting them on ventilators and providing them with generally excellent care. The problem is that if the virus runs away from us and lots of people get sick at the same time, the disease threatens to overload our hospitals and kill many people who otherwise could be saved. (Recently I talked with Colorado physician Bryan Alvarez about such matters.)
During the flu epidemic of 1918, there was no such thing as a ventilator. The “iron lung” was invented in 1928, and medical ventilators didn’t come online until the ’50s. Without effective medical interventions, flattening the curve would be largely pointless. Absent some other change, such as reduced virulence or permanent distancing, roughly the same number of people would die, it would just be a matter of when.
No doubt the shutdowns have caused severe hardships for countless individuals. Still, because of our relative wealth, we can shut down large swaths of the economy without causing mass starvation. Many people are able to work from home with the aid of ubiquitous computers and robust internet and cellular networks.
An orange can illustrate our opulence. I shared on Twitter the story of how my grandmother was lucky as a child to get a single orange for Christmas. It was something she looked forward to and savored. A friend of mine related that Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot, was so happy to get an orange as a child that he ate it peel and all. The general confirmed this story.
So there I was in the middle of a global pandemic, chatting with General Chuck Yeager via social media (well, he did answer “right”) while ordering a box of oranges and other foods gathered from around the globe and delivered from Costco to my doorstep. I suggest that, for most of us, the glass remains half full.
Still, it is worth noticing that the glass is emptier than it needed to be. The major story about the spread of this pandemic in the U.S. is the catastrophic failure of the federal government in throttling the rollout of testing. It would have been dramatically better had government simply done nothing in this regard. Instead, regulators actively suppressed testing efforts by researchers and private companies. In my “Covid-19 Resources” page, I quote a story from USA Today: “Scientists around the country found themselves shackled as the disease spread.”
By contrast, countries including South Korea, Singapore, and Germany were able to roll out testing much faster, get a handle on the disease, and limit the economic damage. To a large degree, the economic shutdown we are now suffering through is a consequence of our government’s massive failure.
Here in Colorado, just days after I praised Governor Jared Polis for taking a relatively light approach to restricting economic activity, he issued a statewide “stay at home” order. Many details about the restrictions raise an eyebrow. For example, marijuana went from being outlawed for decades to being allowed for medical purposes in 2000 and legalized for recreational use in 2012. And now it is a “critical” industry, along with liquor stores and gun shops, and hence open for business (with restrictions). Why are so many other businesses denied that freedom? I am perplexed by why camping is largely shut down; it seems like being out in the woods is a great way to prevent viral spread.
At least tech-savvy Polis carefully explained his rationale for increasing social distancing. We might complain about his methods, but at least he has thought carefully about the problem. He claims that by increasing our social distancing to 60 percent we can cut peak hospital need down to something manageable. Without mass testing it’s hard to say, but Polis’s claims seems plausible.
Things are relatively bad right now, no doubt. Some people are economically devastated, which is bad enough. Others are sick or dying or putting themselves at profound risk to care for the sick. But most of us would do well to stiffen our upper lips and take a page from Monty Python. “If you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle. And this’ll help things turn out for the best. Always look on the bright side of life.” Or a lockdown.