Panic and pandemic 18

Is it prudent or stupid to lay in a stock of necessities in a time when shortages are likely? If most of us do it, shortages are ensured. If some of us for that very reason do not, we could find ourselves helplessly regretting it.

Is it prudent or stupid for political leaders to stress the seriousness of the coronavirus epidemic, advise extreme caution (such as not going to the office, working from home), and order the closing down of schools, theaters, sport meetings, swimming-pools, public transport …?

Theodore Dalrymple writes at Law & Liberty:

The first casualty of war is truth. It is also the first casualty of epidemics.

When serious epidemics make their presence felt, a dialectic between complacency and panic is set up in the minds of both the public and the political class. Only after the epidemic is over can a proper assessment of whether too much or too little was done to halt it be made. Since life is lived forward rather than backward, it is only with hindsight that what would have been the right response becomes clear; but if the epidemic has killed a large number of people, recrimination is almost inevitable.

Politicians who have never given a moment’s thought to the science of epidemiology before are suddenly thrust into the roles of expert and prophet, while at the same time having to keep an eye on their ratings in the opinion polls. If they admit their ignorance, they are accused of lack of foresight and leadership; but if they make definite pronouncements they are bound soon to be contradicted by their opponents, if not by the facts themselves. …

Error is not the same as foolishness or wickedness, of course, though in dire situations it is often treated as if it were. The desire then for a scapegoat is almost overwhelming. …

If the epidemic is contained, [President] Trump will claim the credit; if it is not, he will blame others. His opponents will do the same, but the other way round: if the epidemic is contained, they will praise others; if it is not they will blame Mr. Trump.

In the next paragraph, the wise doctor puts the Dem in the panic, showing how the pandemic can be used by the unscrupulous Left to serve its political interest. (We plead guilty to the word play. Frivolity over the virus is not felt or intended.)

There is thus a disturbing grain of truth in the assertion that Democratic politicians would not be altogether sorry to see the epidemic spread, at least spread enough to turn the population against the administration: one extra death might be worth a thousand votes. The desire for power distorts everyone’s scale of values, whichever party they belong to. This, unfortunately, is the human condition, and even the most stringent authoritarianism or dictatorship can only paper over the cracks for a time.

Much is still unknown about the virus and its mode of spread. Even its fatality rate is unknown because many infections may have been without symptoms and therefore not come to the attention of the public health authorities. If this is indeed the case, the fatality rate would be considerably lower than the 2 per cent at present estimated, though it would also indicate that the spread is more difficult to control.

All that can be said for certain is that the old are more at risk than the young, as are those with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. If a vaccine were developed but was initially in short supply, it is they who should be immunised first; but in any case, it is unlikely that one will be developed quickly enough to affect the course of the epidemic. (Even the need to immunize the old first might be disputed, for more years of human life might be saved by preventing the death of one thirty year-old than by preventing the deaths of five eighty year-olds.)

It is a serious ethical dilemma, about which Mark Steyn writes:

A lady who claims to be “COVID-19 Positive” but has been thrice denied a test argues that restricted testing is intentional and strategic:

The Official Policy of the Trump Administration is Eldercide. They have seen the statistics from China and decided “Well, if grandma & grandpa die that won’t hurt the economy.” Make no mistake, these people don’t believe the Government should do anything.

I like a conspiracy theory as much as the next chap, and I’m willing to entertain the proposition that COVID-19 is Deep State payback or Politburo bio-warfare retaliation for the Trump trade war or all kinds of other things. But the above theory makes no sense. If “Eldercide” is anybody’s strategic goal, it’s surely the left’s: Their position is that it’s the geezer vote that provided the margin of victory for Trump and Brexit and everything else they revile, but that this is a last gasp of a xenophobic homophobic Islamophobic transphobic gerontocracy and as soon as the old coots are six feet under the triumph of the new utopia is inevitable.

If that’s the case, why would Trump kill off the only demographic keeping him in business?

To return to Theodore Dalrymple – he says:

As in the Cold War, we now talk of containment rather than of eradication. Early hopes that the United States might be spared the epidemic have proved what they always were, illusory. It is not only goods that are globalised.

For the moment, containment relies on case-finding, contact-tracing, and isolation or quarantine. In essence we are employing the methods used during the Black Death of 1347-1349. (They were unsuccessful in the Black Death, which killed a third to one half of the population of Europe, because, unknown at the time, the disease was carried mainly by a non-human vector.) Those who have symptoms of the disease, and those who have been in contact with them, are asked to isolate themselves for two weeks, until they are no longer—according to current ideas—infectious to others. Large gatherings are to be cancelled or postponed, as during the Black Death, and people are advised to travel as little as possible, especially by public transport, where the possibility of contagion is high. In the fourteenth century, walls were washed with vinegar and fumigated with burning herbs; we are told to wash our hands often and not to touch our own eyes or mouths, though how far this is actually effective in preventing spread to oneself is unknown. Sometimes it is necessary to go beyond the evidence.

It is hardly surprising that such advice—no doubt good—should lead to panic buying in supermarkets. Staying home as much as possible is the best way of avoiding contracting the disease even if one knows no one who has it, and more people than ever can continue to work from home. But of course, staying at home requires considerable stocking up of food and other necessities. Stocks of goods in supermarkets without re-supply are notoriously sufficient only for a few days even in times of normal buying. At the first sign of panic, it was obvious that the shelves would soon empty, which could only increase the initial panic. …

Is this prudence or stupidity? … [Most people do not] refuse to leave their homes because of the chance of a road accident. … [But] while it is perfectly possible that the numbers of deaths from coronavirus will grow at a rapid exponential rate, it is unlikely, to say the least, that the rate of death from road accidents … will do likewise. …

Epidemics do not go on for ever, and by the time this epidemic is over it is likely that, by the standards of the catastrophic Spanish flu of 1918-19, it will prove to have been relatively minor. It is always possible, however, that the next epidemic of a novel virus will be worse, so that the dialectic of complacency and panic will continue.

The epidemic might well have effects far beyond any that its death rate could account for. The world has suddenly woken up to the dangers of allowing China to be the workshop of the world and of relying on it as the ultimate source for supply chains for almost everything, from cars to medicines, from computers to telephones. No doubt normal service will soon resume once the epidemic is over, even if at a lower level, but at the very least supply chains should be diversified politically and perhaps geographically; dependence on a single country is to industry what dependence on monoculture is to agriculture. And just as the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of, so countries may have strategic reasons that economic reasons know not of.

Which  is to say the prudent country grows its own food and makes its own weapons and medicines, regardless of the economic case for international division of labor.

Posted under China, Economics, Health, United States by Jillian Becker on Tuesday, March 10, 2020

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