26 May 2020 – Tuesday – #72

I’ve been craving homegrown tomatoes for years. When Brad and I rented Casa Solar at the end January, I finally had the perfect terrace to grow tomatoes. With all the rigmarole of moving in and obtaining my Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero, though, there was no time to order plants before the lockdown.

The first full day of Phase 1 in Barcelona gave me plenty of time to shop for the new vegetable and flower garden.

Flower and vegetable garden.

It’s weird how Phase 1 has changed life. For some reason when businesses are closed and outdoor time is restricted, I found it hard to get anything done, even things like cleaning that I could do any time. Yesterday, I cleaned house, did laundry, blogged, set up the jardinito, and had a friend over for vermut. All in one day!

So, what’s next?

One of the many ongoing Covid-19 debates is lockdowns versus the economy. A lockdown saves lives, but slows the economy and creates “excess” deaths from non-Covid causes. On the other hand, not locking down creates “excess” Covid-19 deaths, but may reduce “excess” non-Covid deaths and may have a smaller impact on the economy. I use the word may because, in either case, it’s difficult to model the outcomes.

Anti-lockdown proponents claim, for instance, that people avoid cancer diagnoses during a lockdown. However, it seems unlikely someone avoiding a cancer diagnosis during a lockdown will run to see their oncologist while an unchecked Covid-19 contagion ravages their healthcare system. The anti-lockdown proponents so sure life is better without any lockdown might want to take a look at Ecuador in the wake of what was effectively its Covid-19 non-response.

How much does a lockdown slow the economy and create excess deaths? Ditto for the case of no lockdowns. As Dr. Spencer points out on Fox News, the choice between lockdown and the economy is a false dichotomy.

Dr. Craig Spencer on Fox News regarding public health and the economy.

The tricky part of our dance with Covid-19 has been balancing public health and the economy, especially at the beginning of the pandemic when so little was understood about the disease other than it was spreading like wildfire and killing people. Would the lockdown cure be worse than the disease? Who knew?

There is no question that the Covid-19 lockdowns crushed the world economy, nor is there any question that a bad economy is bad for health. As someone noted on one of my social feeds, public health officials measure success in terms lives saved and economists in terms of per capita GDP. In other words, the solution for what to do after the economy is in tatters and before we have a treatment or vaccine may depend on the way you’re trained to look at the world.

What we do know now from the Swedish “lockdown lite” experiment is that avoiding a full lockdown doesn’t necessarily lead to a better economic or public health outcome. Sweden’s Covid-19 mortality is relatively high, its economy is performing about the same as its neighbors, and the country is nowhere near achieving the herd immunity it sought.

Another thing we know is that a bad economy with all is attendant health problems is baked in. No matter what we do at this point, there will be excess non-Covid-19 deaths.

Finally, we know that staying locked down is not a viable long-term, or even medium-term solution. Is there a better way than for each country to go it alone?

Here’s a UK group that’s investigating Covid-19 policies to move forward in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs).

Over the coming weeks we will share the findings of a scoping review (see here our call for resources and here for a teaser of what we’re finding) that maps data and evidence to a conceptual framework to help understand the multifaceted nature of the indirect health effects. We will also share a simple tool to support the estimation of indirect health effects, in terms of excess non-COVID-19 mortality (and also reductions in non-COVID mortality, e.g. road traffic deaths). 

Center for Global Development, “More Harm Than Good? The Net Impact of COVID-19 Policies Is What Matters for Health,” 15 May 2020.

As the Center for Global Development and other organizations develop nuanced Covid-19 policies, the next question is whether countries have the government and leadership skills to implement those policies. In countries like the US, Brazil, and Russia that already have demonstrated poor Covid-19 responses, it’s not clear.

And what of the world economy? Nouriel Roubine predicts a decade of depression. Sorry, I know that’s probably not what you wanted to read today. Roubini says monetary stimulation may help financial markets over the next year or two, but that inflation seems likely after the dust settles. There’s a lot to chew in this interview.

Thirty-five to 40 million people have already been fired. When they start slowly rehiring some of them (not all of them), those workers are going to get part-time jobs, without benefits, without high wages. That’s the only way for the corporates to survive. Because they’re so highly leveraged today, they’re going to need to cut costs, and the first cost you cut is labor. But of course, your labor cost is my consumption. So in an equilibrium where everyone’s slashing labor costs, households are going to have less income. And they’re going to save more to protect themselves from another coronavirus crisis. And so consumption is going to be weak. That’s why you get the U-shaped recovery.

Intelligencer, “Why Our Economy May Be Headed for a Decade of Depression,” 22 May 2020.

The on-shoring of factory jobs Trump keeps saying he wants may bring manufacturing back to the US, but, according to Roubini, not jobs. On-shoring that results from the Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate supply chain innovations that use more AI and robotics and less labor. All this exacerbates existing US income and wealth inequality.

The cynic in me thinks that maybe government is happy to have us argue about whether we’re better with lockdowns or without. It’s a distraction from bigger issues, like how the rich get even richer.

If you’ve been wondering how different Covid-19 is for the 1%, well, VistaJet now offers a transportation service designed to avoid Covid-19 infection when you fly to your yacht.

I’m ending today with something Dana sent to me, a report of seven successful Cannonball runs and a new record set during the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m sure you’re wondering, how does one set a Cannonball run record? “To set a Cannonball Run record, you must traditionally start at the Red Ball Garage in Manhattan, then traverse the entire United States of America as fast as possible to finish at the Portofini Inn in Redondo Beach, California,”

Seven Cannonball runs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Reportedly someone took advantage of light traffic during the pandemic to drive coast-to-coast in under 26 hours. There’s something so apt these days about a sport where you win by breaking the law.

I’m going to go back to watching my tomatoes grow.

%d bloggers like this: