As the country is becoming more and more anxious about ending COVID lockdowns (with some states opening while others rein further in), Tyler Cowen had an interesting post about the timing of lockdowns:
Let’s say you have a simple model of political sustainability where Americans will tolerate [???] months of lockdown — shall we say two? — but not much more. (Maybe three months if we had Merkel as president.) Then, if you scare/lock down in parts of the country where the virus is not yet evident, you create economic misery but not many public health gains. Who after all thinks that Seattle should have been locked down last September? Right?
Many parts of America now hate the lockdown, as they see the economic devastation, are not witnessing overloaded hospital systems, and just don’t quite “get it.” And they are now taking off the lockdown, through both legal and informal means, before it is optimal to do so.
We now think we know many details about the virus which in hindsight align pretty closely with what intuition would tell you: outdoor, open air spaces are good, closed, poorly ventilated spaces are bad, masks can help, densely-populated areas are riskier, high traffic points and large gatherings are dangerous (subways, sporting events). What’s interesting to think about here, some of which is water-under-the-bridge at this point, is what could’ve been different with the economic impact and the perceptions around lockdowns if we’d eased into them more reasonably than we did. In areas that at the time hadn’t been impacted yet, what if we’d started by instituting masks, sanitation, and distancing without government-mandated lockdown right out of the gate? Could we have had largely the same curve-bending impact, but waited to start a harder lockdown, therefore extending our patience for the economic and social impacts further into the year?
Many towns began lockdowns in step with what was happening in larger cities, even before there was material presence of the virus. It’s hard to criticize that approach in hindsight as the downside risk of shelter-in-place was much lower than that of continued spread of an unknown pathogen.
I’ll say what everyone else does: I’m not an expert in any of this. I wish more people that say that would then actually stop preaching or promoting one technique or another as if it is the categorically correct response, when it’s been proven time and again over the last 3 months that no one has the answers.
A lesson learned here in how the COVID pandemic has played out is that we need to think more about the sociopolical sustainability of whatever the plan is, assuming there even is a plan, which is another criticism you could level at the situation.