Morgan Housel, more often than not, makes us think. This post is no different (ht: Rohit Rajendran). How human minds work is fascinating. Not fully understood.
England is a fascinating example because of the relentless night bombings that took place during the Blitz. Sebastian Junger writes in his book Tribe:
Before the war, projections for psychiatric breakdown in England ran as high as four million people, but as the Blitz progressed, psychiatric hospitals around the country saw admissions go down. Emergency services in London reported an average of only two cases of “bomb neuroses” a week. Psychiatrists watched in puzzlement as long-standing patients saw their symptoms subside during the period of intense air raids.
Junger writes about the bomb shelters nearly all Londoners crowded into while their city above was decimated:
Conduct was so good in the shelters that volunteers never even had to summon the police to maintain order. If anything, the crowd policed themselves according to unwritten rules that made life bearable for complete strangers jammed shoulder to shoulder on floors that were at times awash in urine.
Of course, human minds can soar to greater heights and also plumb depths in crises. This is the other example: AIR INDIA staff not beng allowed to return to their homes in housing societies because they flew to Covid-19 hotspots and ferried Indians stranded there. This too is unsurprising.
Had to buy essentials and to attend to some chores on Monday. Stepped out after, quite a gap of spending time at home except for evening walks, in Singapore. In ‘Parkway Parade’ mall, it appeared to be business as usual on Monday morning. ‘Cold Storage’ Supermarket practised social distancing in the checkout queue. But, customers queueing up to enter the United Overseas Bank Branch were not doing that.
Singapore announced further restrictions on Tuesday evening: shutting down bars and movie theatres and guidelines on how restaurants must seat customers. Religious congregations are closed. Some predictable surge in supermarket last night. Overall, the Singapore government management of the virus outbreak has come in for high praise and deservingly so.
That said, more and more voices are questioning the tightening of the social distancing measures across the world resulting in virtual shutdowns of societies and economies. The trade-off between health-lockdown and economic lockdown is coming into sharper relief.
John Authers had alluded to a paper from the University of Bristol that models the inflection point at which the economic pains (including its impact on human health and life expectancy) begin to exceed the gains from the lockdowns that are currently in force in many parts of the world. The paper deals with the UK situation but the author points out its relevance for the rest of the world.
In a way, he provides the formal quantification for the questions posed by two economists and also by two professors of medicine. Writing for the New York Times, Paul Romer and Alan Garber question whether the US economy would die before the virus does. Specifically, they write:
Loan guarantees and direct cash transfers will stave off bankruptcy and default on debt, but these measures cannot restore the output that is lost when social distancing keeps people from producing goods and services.
To protect our way of life, we need to shift within a couple of months to a targeted approach that limits the spread of the virus but still lets most people go back to work and resume their daily activities….
If we keep up our current strategy of suppression based on indiscriminate social distance for 12 to 18 months, most of us will still be alive. It is our economy that will be dead. [Link]
Two professors of medicine at Stanford Medical School, writing for the Wall Street Journal, pose the same question in different words:
A universal quarantine may not be worth the costs it imposes on the economy, community and individual mental and physical health. We should undertake immediate steps to evaluate the empirical basis of the current lockdowns. [Link]
They are simply saying that the world does not know the true number of infected persons. All that it knows is the number of people dying. But, the first number is vastly understated, perhaps. Therefore, the true fatality rate must be much lower.
Actually, that point comes out in this article on the number of people infected and who died from the virus, aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship:
3700 passengers and crew aboard Diamond Princess; 800 infected; 46.5% were asymptomatic; 9 died [Link]
Confirmation comes from another source too:
Another team used data from the ship to estimate2 that the proportion of deaths among confirmed cases in China, the case fatality rate (CFR), was around 1.1% — much lower than the 3.8% estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The WHO simply divided China’s total number of deaths by the total number of confirmed infections, says Timothy Russell, a mathematical epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. That method does not take into account that only a fraction of infected people are actually tested, and so it makes the disease seem more deadly than it is, he says. [Link]
Michael Levitt, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (2013) and Stanford biophysicist, also points to the evidence from the cruise ship Diamond Princess as indicating a not-so-scary picture. He is supposed to have correctly anticipated China’s total number of infections and the deaths. He makes one point about the media:
…he also blames the media for causing unnecessary panic by focusing on the relentless increase in the cumulative number of cases and spotlighting celebrities who contract the virus. By contrast, the flu has sickened 36 million Americans since September and killed an estimated 22,000, according to the CDC, but those deaths are largely unreported. [Link]