By Nicholas Gruen

March 24, 2020


It’s an intimidating picture. But the weaker the freeze, the more people die in overburdened hospitals — and the longer it ultimately takes for the economy to restart.

Donald G. McNeil Jr in the NYT

Yes folks, I normally don’t go in for all that MALARKY WITH CAPITAL LETTERS IN A POST, BUT THIS TIME IT’S DIFFERENT.

The government didn’t take coronavirus seriously at first. As it’s amped up the seriousness of its response, it’s done so reluctantly and now it’s in no man’s land, with strong social-distancing measures that will cost the economy a bomb. But those measures are not strong enough to rid the country of the virus. So they’re with us until we gain herd immunity, which will take the best part of the year.

We’ve picked a scenario that is the second-worst for health (the worst being doing nothing) but it seems to me to be the worst possible option for the economy. (The best is probably to do nothing — but that was never an option — the people would rightly have rejected it.)

Right now, panic is the friend of anyone who doesn’t want to get this disease, which continues to surprise on the downside (i.e. the bad side). Thus in yesterday’s Fin:

China is not reporting any new cases in Hubei province, but the deaths continue, as patients who are healthier and younger lose their long battles with the virus. This has pushed China’s death rate from the 2.3 per cent cited in the study to 4 per cent today.

Those ratios are misleading because the denominator is people who have tested positive to coronavirus, not all people who actually had it. But they still show how important humility is in all this. There’s still much we don’t know, including the stability of immunity.

Extreme social distancing is effective, however, in massively reducing the rate of spread and getting the rate at which one person infects others (the “R0” we’ve all suddenly adopted to demonstrate our coronasavvy) from around 2.5 to below 1. And, as complexity scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam concluded on Joseph Walker’s excellent podcast two weeks ago now, once R0 falls below 1, exponential growth goes from being your enemy to being your friend. The virus runs out of business halving, then halving again, and so on to oblivion.

Then one rebuilds the world from ‘green zones’ (they’re probably called something else on that podcast but this is an emergency). Life as normal can resume and the only economic restriction remaining is strong restrictions on travel. However, even here this will be mitigated by a system of building travel links between other ‘green zone’ countries and various forms of certified safe travelling that would include placing all arrivals not able to certify their coronavirus-free status into self-funded quarantine for 14 days before release.

This would produce extreme disruption in the short term — but it’s hard to imagine it being more than (say) 50% worse than what we have now or will have by the end of the week. But we ought to be able to announce some relaxation of the more extreme measures within six weeks. By then, tracing and testing would be massively improved, so we might be able to return to normal relatively quickly. Rather than have this thing drag on for the rest of the year as the travel restrictions will have to — although our own and other countries doing the same will draw other countries into wanting to be in the green zone if they haven’t twigged already.

I’d also like the government to publicly commit to some timetable letting us know when it thinks it can meet certain milestones. They should also commit to releasing an independent report on the state of play each week, with expert recommendations on whether and when to relax measures and in what order. It would be clearly telegraphed where we were meeting and missing our targets (there’d likely be a mix of both).

But I think people would be impressed that their interests were being taken into account — as fairly and as efficiently as practically possible.

Postscript: Since writing the words above, it seems New Zealand has adopted the strategy I’ve suggested — right down to the specification of targets by which it is hoped to have the virus under control and safely heading towards zero — perhaps with the odd breakout which is rapidly tracked down.

I’ve also watched tonight’s episode of Q&A on which the Deputy CMO repeated the idea that this will inevitably go on for six months or so. That’s doesn’t seem to be what Jacinta Ardern has been advised and I can’t see why it makes sense. However though Norman Swan didn’t directly challenge the Deputy CMO on the point he did say that we’re about to observe the results of the first easing up of restrictions in China — although at least at the epicentre, it will be from a much more heavily infected area than anywhere in Australia is — at this stage.

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