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The Risks of Contracting Mass Hysteria: Why Panicky Pandemic Measures Can Lead To ‘Behavioral Fatigue’ & Societal Disaster

The Global Warming Policy Forum

GWPF Newsletter 20/03/20

It’s too easy to just blame the media for hyping something that turns out not to be as fearful as people thought. But the reason why the media reports things that way is they pick up those messages from health professionals, from scientists, themselves. And often [that’s] because there are these gaps in our knowledge and there is often a level of uncertainty. It always comes back to this idea of how much we know and how much more there is to know. — Mark Honigsbaum, author of The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris.

1) Do We Suffer ‘Behavioural Fatigue’ For Pandemic Prevention Measures?
Mind Hacks, 20 March 2020

2) Green Deal Facing Delays Due To Coronavirus, EU Admits

EurActiv, 19 March 2020

3) A Fiasco In The Making? As The Coronavirus Pandemic Takes Hold, We Are Making Decisions Without Reliable Data
John P.A. Ioannidis, Stat News, 17 March 2020

4) Josef Joffe: On Coronavirus, Beware the Totalitarian Temptation
The American Interest, 18 March 2020

5) Matt Ridley: We Are About To Find Out How Robust Civilisation Is
The Spectator, 20 March 2020

6) Terence Corcoran: The Soaring Costs Of COVID-19 Pandenomics
Financial Post, 20 March 2020
7) WSJ: Rethinking The Coronavirus Shutdown 
The Wall Street Journal, 20 March 2020 1) Do We Suffer ‘Behavioural Fatigue’ For Pandemic Prevention Measures?
Mind Hacks, 20 March 2020

The Guardian recently published an article saying “People won’t get ‘tired’ of social distancing – and it’s unscientific to suggest otherwise”. “Behavioural fatigue” the piece said, “has no basis in science”.

‘Behavioural fatigue’ became a hot topic because it was part of the UK Government’s justification for delaying the introduction of stricter public health measures. They quickly reversed this position and we’re now in the “empty streets” stage of infection control.

But it’s an important topic and is relevant to all of us as we try to maintain important behavioural changes that benefit others.

For me, one key point is that, actually, there are many relevant scientific studies that tackle this. And I have to say, I’m a little disappointed that there were some public pronouncements that ‘there is no evidence’ in the mainstream media without anyone making the effort to seek it out.

The reaction to epidemics has actually been quite well studied although it’s not clear that ‘fatigue’ is the right way of understanding any potential decline in people’s compliance with prevention measures. This phrase doesn’t seem to be used in the medical literature in this context and it may well have been simply a convenient, albeit confusing, metaphor for ‘decline’ used in interviews.

In fact, most studies of changes in compliance focus on the effect of changing risk perception, and it turns out that this often poorly tracks the actual risk. Below is a graph from a recent paper illustrating a widely used model of how risk perception tracks epidemics.

Notably, this model was first published in the 1990s based on data available even then. It suggests that increases in risk tend to make us over-estimate the danger, particularly for surprising events, but then as the risk objectively increases we start to get used to living in the ‘new normal’ and our perception of risk decreases, sometimes unhelpfully so.

What this doesn’t tell us is whether people’s behaviour changes over time. However, lots of studies have been done since then, including on the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic – where a lot of this research was conducted.

To cut a long story short, many, but not all, of these studies find that people tend to reduce their use of at least some preventative measures (like hand washing, social distancing) as the epidemic increases, and this has been looked at in various ways.

When asking people to report their own behaviours, several studies found evidence for a reduction in at least some preventative measures (usually alongside evidence for good compliance with others).

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2) Green Deal Facing Delays Due To Coronavirus, EU Admits
EurActiv, 19 March 2020The European Commission is having to re-order its priorities in the face of the coronavirus crisis, with “non-essential” initiatives like the biodiversity strategy and the farm-to-fork strategy likely to be delayed by several weeks, EURACTIV understands.

Officially, the show must go on. But in private, officials admit that Brussels is having to review its priorities in order to throw all its weight behind the ongoing fight against the coronavirus crisis.

“At this point in time, we do not have any comment to make on any knock-on effect that this could have on legislative work in general,” said Eric Mamer, chief spokesperson of the European Commission, during a regular press briefing on Tuesday (17 March).

However, he also suggested that a reshuffling of priorities was underway at the EU executive, also because of constraints posed by teleworking.

“For legislative activity to work, we need to have the institutions able to operate,” Mamer admitted, saying Commission services and other EU institutions “will definitely have to prioritise their work in order to cater for the current needs.”

As a result, “non-essential” initiatives like the biodiversity strategy and the farm-to-fork strategy are likely to be delayed by a few weeks, EURACTIV understands.

According to the Commission’s work programme, those were supposed to be adopted before the end of March. Other Green Deal-related initiatives likely to be delayed include the raw materials strategy.

“If we adopt those strategies in two or three weeks, that won’t make such a big difference,” one official told EURACTIV on condition of anonymity. “We have to concentrate on the corona crisis,” the official explained.

But that doesn’t mean Europe should “forget about the Green Deal” to focus on the coronavirus, as suggested by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš on Monday. Nor will the Commission put its carbon trading scheme on hold, like Poland requested through the voice of its Deputy Minister for State Assets, Janusz Kowalski, officials said.

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3) A Fiasco In The Making? As The Coronavirus Pandemic Takes Hold, We Are Making Decisions Without Reliable Data
John P.A. Ioannidis, Stat News, 17 March 2020

The current coronavirus disease, Covid-19, has been called a once-in-a-century pandemic. But it may also be a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.

At a time when everyone needs better information, from disease modelers and governments to people quarantined or just social distancing, we lack reliable evidence on how many people have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 or who continue to become infected. Better information is needed to guide decisions and actions of monumental significance and to monitor their impact.

Draconian countermeasures have been adopted in many countries. If the pandemic dissipates — either on its own or because of these measures — short-term extreme social distancing and lockdowns may be bearable. How long, though, should measures like these be continued if the pandemic churns across the globe unabated? How can policymakers tell if they are doing more good than harm?

Vaccines or affordable treatments take many months (or even years) to develop and test properly. Given such timelines, the consequences of long-term lockdowns are entirely unknown.

The data collected so far on how many people are infected and how the epidemic is evolving are utterly unreliable. Given the limited testing to date, some deaths and probably the vast majority of infections due to SARS-CoV-2 are being missed. We don’t know if we are failing to capture infections by a factor of three or 300. Three months after the outbreak emerged, most countries, including the U.S., lack the ability to test a large number of people and no countries have reliable data on the prevalence of the virus in a representative random sample of the general population.

This evidence fiasco creates tremendous uncertainty about the risk of dying from Covid-19. Reported case fatality rates, like the official 3.4% rate from the World Health Organization, cause horror — and are meaningless. Patients who have been tested for SARS-CoV-2 are disproportionately those with severe symptoms and bad outcomes. As most health systems have limited testing capacity, selection bias may even worsen in the near future.

The one situation where an entire, closed population was tested was the Diamond Princess cruise ship and its quarantine passengers. The case fatality rate there was 1.0%, but this was a largely elderly population, in which the death rate from Covid-19 is much higher.

Projecting the Diamond Princess mortality rate onto the age structure of the U.S. population, the death rate among people infected with Covid-19 would be 0.125%.

But since this estimate is based on extremely thin data — there were just seven deaths among the 700 infected passengers and crew — the real death rate could stretch from five times lower (0.025%) to five times higher (0.625%). It is also possible that some of the passengers who were infected might die later, and that tourists may have different frequencies of chronic diseases — a risk factor for worse outcomes with SARS-CoV-2 infection — than the general population. Adding these extra sources of uncertainty, reasonable estimates for the case fatality ratio in the general U.S. population vary from 0.05% to 1%.

That huge range markedly affects how severe the pandemic is and what should be done. A population-wide case fatality rate of 0.05% is lower than seasonal influenza. If that is the true rate, locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.

Could the Covid-19 case fatality rate be that low? No, some say, pointing to the high rate in elderly people. However, even some so-called mild or common-cold-type coronaviruses that have been known for decades can have case fatality rates as high as 8% when they infect elderly people in nursing homes. In fact, such “mild” coronaviruses infect tens of millions of people every year, and account for 3% to 11%of those hospitalized in the U.S. with lower respiratory infections each winter.

These “mild” coronaviruses may be implicated in several thousands of deaths every year worldwide, though the vast majority of them are not documented with precise testing. Instead, they are lost as noise among 60 million deaths from various causes every year.

Although successful surveillance systems have long existed for influenza, the disease is confirmed by a laboratory in a tiny minority of cases. In the U.S., for example, so far this season 1,073,976 specimens have been tested and 222,552 (20.7%) have tested positive for influenza. In the same period, the estimated number of influenza-like illnesses is between 36,000,000 and 51,000,000, with an estimated 22,000 to 55,000 flu deaths.

Note the uncertainty about influenza-like illness deaths: a 2.5-fold range, corresponding to tens of thousands of deaths. Every year, some of these deaths are due to influenza and some to other viruses, like common-cold coronaviruses.

In an autopsy series that tested for respiratory viruses in specimens from 57 elderly persons who died during the 2016 to 2017 influenza season, influenza viruses were detected in 18% of the specimens, while any kind of respiratory virus was found in 47%. In some people who die from viral respiratory pathogens, more than one virus is found upon autopsy and bacteria are often superimposed. A positive test for coronavirus does not mean necessarily that this virus is always primarily responsible for a patient’s demise.

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4) Josef Joffe: On Coronavirus, Beware the Totalitarian Temptation
The American Interest, 18 March 2020

State control of information is a bridge to oppression democracies must never cross. Freedom of expression is among the holiest of holies in a liberal polity.

Totalitarianism is Stalin and Hitler, the NKVD and the Gestapo, the Gulag and the death camp. Correct, but take another look. It is also an eternal temptation that has infected Western minds great and small—from Martin “Sieg Heil!” Heidegger to Jean-Paul Sartre, who pitched for Communism until the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.

Among the lesser minds, Charles Lindbergh cozied up to Hitler, and Joseph Davies, the U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, penned a ringing apologia for Stalin’s Great Terror in Mission to Moscow. The book was turned into an even more awful movie. Add a herd of Western devotees and camp followers who cheered Mussolini, Mao, Castro, Che, and, lately, Hugo Chávez—this Stalinist caudillo attracted effusive praise from the actor Sean Penn.

Which takes us to China’s President Xi Jinping and an up-to-date example of cheerleading for the almighty state. While in Beijing, the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom extolled China as a model in the war against SARS-CoV-2, better known as “coronavirus.” According to China’s state media, he gushed that “China’s speed . . . and efficiency . . . is the advantage of China’s system.” The country deserved “praise” and “admiration” for its methods in routing the silent enemy that has spread the COVID-19 epidemic from Wuhan to Milan, from Alberta to Auckland.

Such an éloge needs to be tempered. First of all, the world owes the most recent iteration of the coronavirus to China, more precisely to Wuhan and its “wet markets” whence it sprang forth from bats, a delicacy of the local cuisine. That calamity may be ascribed to Chinese culture. But what followed was owed to the very system cheered by the WHO boss.

By the end of December, health workers warned that something was afoot. Yet totalitarians hate bad news, that’s in their DNA. Suppressing the reports, they blamed the messengers and detained them. There was “speed,” but the wrong kind. Instead of locking up the doctors, the regime might have closed down Wuhan Airport, which serves 32 cities around the world, including Paris, London, Rome, Seoul, Tokyo, and Sidney. With flights operating into February, the virus forged ahead while precious time was lost. In mid-March, the regime tried fake news, a classic agitprop tool, with the foreign ministry insinuating that the “U.S. army had brought the epidemic to Wuhan.”

So, why would the WHO director (and plenty of others) applaud the Communist emperor Xi? Because of political expediency, for one. You don’t bite the hand you need to feed in order to contain the Wuhan Virus. But China seems to be making up for its sins. Apparently, new cases have plummeted from 2,400 during the last week in February to single digits in mid-March. So, three cheers for the superiority of a totalitarian system?

But South Korea is the world’s number one when it comes to testing, which is critical for controlling the virus. Taiwan has slowed its spread. In Iran, though, a harsh theocracy whose tentacles reach deeply into society, new infections are on a steep rise. So totalitarian systems aren’t necessarily super-efficient, while supposedly chaotic democracies are hardly doomed.The price of what Xi calls a “people’s war” is horrendous. To boot, Beijing’s strategy can be pursued only by a totalitarian state, but not by a democracy. Essentially, the state has locked up half a billion people, most harshly in and around Wuhan.

It dispatched armies of enforcers to guard the access to residential compounds and to restrict movement within.
The regime deployed digital surveillance systems no liberal polity would or could countenance, and rightly so. The government tapped into data from state-run mobile companies as well as from payment apps that record “who, when, and where,” so that fugitives can be traced and collared. Regime minions intrude on what is known in the West as “my home is my castle” to record body temperatures, presumably hauling suspects off to detention facilities—for their own good, of course. Tech companies have developed apps with a kind of traffic light. “Green” is good, “yellow” is a warning, “red” is bad. Guards use the color coding to block movement at railroad stations and traffic nodes.

The darkest side of the “people’s war” is sheer repression. Ren Zhiqiang, a prominent Beijing tycoon, had been blasting Xi for extinguishing free speech. Too bad for him that he now ran afoul of an all-out Party campaign to quash criticism about the government’s fake- or no-news strategy. Ren accused the state of having accelerated the epidemic that had claimed innumerable lives. He might as well have committed treason. So, Ren has suddenly disappeared, which is a swift way to silence “enemies of the people.”

State control of information is a bridge to oppression democracies must never cross. Freedom of expression is among the holiest of holies in a liberal polity. An indispensable check on arbitrary power, free media also happen to be eminently useful in national emergencies, exposing error, mismanagement, and falsehood. It was the absence of free media in China that enabled the regime to muzzle the whistleblowers of Wuhan at such a murderous price.

How are those bungling democracies doing? Italy has virtually copycatted China’s anti-virus warfare, practically locking down the entire country. Spain has followed, as has France—though with a 15-day limit for the time being. Other EU members will surely go the same route. They are successively dismantling “Schengenland,” the EU’s borderless realm, reasserting national control. Yet such constraints are being imposed without the totalitarian tools of the Chinese. In deploying the powers of the state, Western governments have illuminated a peculiar advantage of democracies.

To combat crises, they need not resort to police-state tactics. If governments communicate truthfully with the people, the ruled do what needs to be done voluntarily. Look around the democratic world. People self-quarantine at home and stay away from large crowds. They accept curbs on their freedom such as closed bars, restaurants, theaters, and stores except those establishments that sustain life in deadly times: food, drug, and pet stores (animals have to eat, too). They keep social distance and walk alone rather than in pairs. […]

It could happen here, too—which is all the more reason to resist the authoritarian temptation. What are the antidotes? All emergency measures must come with a sunset clause. Protect the freedom of the press at all costs. Set new dates for postponed elections now. Keep holding officials accountable. Secure the separation of powers. The rule is to persuade, not to impose. Defy the pied papers who stoke panic and hysteria in order to deconstruct the liberal state.

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5) Matt Ridley: We Are About To Find Out How Robust Civilisation Is
The Spectator, 20 March 2020

There are no good outcomes from here. The hardships ahead are like nothing we’ve known. But in the long run, we will get through this.

On Sunday, lonely as a cloud, I wandered across a windswept moor in County Durham and passed a solitary sandstone rock with a small, round hollow in the top, an old penny glued to the base of the hollow. It is called the Butter Stone and it’s where, during the plague in 1665, coins were left in a pool of vinegar by the inhabitants of nearby towns and villages, to be exchanged with farmers for food. The idea was that the farmer or his customer approached the rock only when the other was at a safe distance.

Four modern coins were on the rock, anonymous offerings to the spirits of the moor. Never once in my six decades did I expect to be back in a 17th-century world of social and physical distancing as a matter of life and death.

There are no good outcomes from here. Many people will die prematurely. Many will lose their jobs. Many businesses will go under. Many people will suffer bereavement, loneliness and despair, even if they dodge the virus. The only question is how many in each case. We are about to find out how robust civilisation is. The hardships ahead are like nothing we’ve known.

The British government has been unusual in ramping up its social distancing measures, rather than rushing them all at once. This resulted in a good deal of bafflement and criticism, some of it justified. The driving motive was concern that a resurgence of the virus after its initial suppression would be a disastrous outcome, because people would not allow themselves to be curfewed twice, so the timing had to be right. But the vicious experience of Italy has changed everything. So when the darned models revealed that a single ‘managed’ peak here leading to eventual herd immunity might kill 260,000 people and overwhelm the National Health Service, the strategy shifted from ‘delay’ to ‘suppress’.

The government is now effectively admitting that even if drastic curfews lead to successive waves of the disease, that may be the least worst outcome. It is still a daunting prospect. Successive waves mean successive curfews and successive body blows to the economy. If we clamp down hard now and the infection rate drops, then we might be able slowly and cautiously to restart the economy in the summer but have to clamp down again when the virus resurges. Each time we do this, it will be more painful, but at least the health service will be that much better prepared, with more intensive-care beds, more isolation facilities, more ventilators, more and newer testing kits, more data on the efficacy of repurposed drugs.

Moreover, each time the virus re-emerges, there will be more immune people to help look after the sick. Once you’ve had the disease, and assuming the immunity you acquire is long-lasting (not yet certain), then you are in a special category of person who can be employed — or volunteer — for what would otherwise be risky work, and for looking after older people. Each wave of the disease can then be less awful.

One side-effect of the government’s step-by-step approach is that the people have got ahead of the authorities. Lots of people have been volunteering to give up gatherings, work from home if they can or travel less before being asked to. The chorus of complaint last week on social media that the government was not doing enough is a sign that people are now telling the government what to do — which is how it should be in a democracy. A prime minister is being criticised for not ordering us to do things, but ‘advising’ us. Better than the other way round. As the libertarian thinker Douglas Carswell put it on Monday: ‘Treat people as responsible adults and they will behave more responsibly.’

Until this year I thought this kind of infectious pandemic could not happen today. The defeat of infectious diseases as a cause of death has been so complete as to seem invincible: plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, measles, polio, whooping cough and many more eradicated or nearly so. The failure of terrifying new animal-derived viruses like Hanta, Marburg, Sars, Mers, ebola, swine flu, bird flu and zika to cause more than a local or temporary interruption of the march of progress left us complacent. (Only HIV went global.) The advance of science allowing the rapid reading of the genome of the new coronavirus gave us false confidence: we would know how to beat it by the time it got out of China. It seemed that only the most innocuous of common colds, and milder forms of flu, seemed capable of remaining ubiquitous. And coronaviruses are a common cause of the common cold, so (despite Sars) they seemed like pussy cats, not tigers.
It turns out that I and many others were badly wrong. The human race has been playing epidemiological Russian roulette all along. It has taken Mother Nature a long time to put a bullet in the right chamber, combining high contagion with asymptomatic carriers and a significant death rate, but she has done it.

We now know that we should have been building far more preparedness for such an event. The World Health Organization has been asleep at the switch. The Wellcome Trust did well to establish a Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation in 2017 in partnership with the Gates Foundation along with the Indian and Norwegian governments, but it should have been started much earlier.

Against many risks, excess precaution is a mistake, doing more harm than good by preventing innovation — but not in the case of threats that can explode exponentially from small beginnings. Apart from Singapore, which built a special hospital after Sars, and South Korea, which geared up to test people and gather data on a huge scale, the world had done far too little to get ready for this possibility. Everything now is catch-up. And we are trying to catch the fastest runner of them all: an exponential curve.

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6) Terence Corcoran: The Soaring Costs Of COVID-19 Pandenomics
Financial Post, 20 March 2020Serious precautions and preventive measures are necessary to fight COVID-19, but the costs could prove to be massively out of scale with the risks

The global economic experiment in pandemic control continues to expand, nation by nation, economic sector by economic sector, worker by worker. Governments are getting the headlines: In Japan there is talk of US$260 billion in government action. The U.S. is said to be aiming for US$1 trillion in new spending. Canada announced $82 billion in direct and indirect spending. France $550 billion. Spain $150 billion.

And so it goes around the globe, and where it will end, nobody knows. At his news conference Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau threw more measures into the mix when he noted the “massive” losses in the value of the pension assets of Canadians. He promised Ottawa “will be taking measures.”

Once the mandated global economic lockdown is ended, likely months from now, more massive national stimulus will be called for to allegedly stimulate the growth needed to pay down mounting government debt. I will leave it to professional economists at one of the banks to run up a tabulation of the trillions of dollars that governments have and will be committing to the cause of fighting the pandemic that their earlier negligence helped to create.

Whatever the total government spending number, it will be dwarfed by the dollar value of the damage done to the world economy by the collective actions of the world’s political leaders as they orchestrate the greatest deliberate peacetime attack on economic activity.

The U.S. economic slowdown — if slowdown is the right word for the precipitous declines in activity — is already underway. China’s growth rate is cratering, Europe is right behind.

The stated objective of the economic shutdowns is to stop the spread of a disease that could kill hundreds of thousands of people. But hundreds of thousands die every year from other causes that do not prompt a mandatory economic shutdown. The World Health Organization, one of the orchestrators of COVID-19 pandenomic programs, estimates that 1.35 million die annually from traffic accidents around the world, including nearly 40,000 a year in the United States and more than 2,000 in Canada.

Annual flu season kills between 365,000 and 650,000 globally a year, according to the WHO. The 2018 U.S. death toll from the flu reached a record 80,000 and in Canada up to 3,500 can die from flu.

The point here is not to diminish the threat posed by COVID-19, but to highlight that the world is an unsafe place for millions of people who die every year from existential events without triggering a global economic shutdown.

The Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald recently noted the obvious. “We did not shut down public events and institutions to try to slow the spread of the flu. Yet we have already destroyed $5 trillion in stock market wealth over the last few weeks in the growing coronavirus panic.”

Serious precautions and preventive measures are necessary to fight COVID-19, but the costs of the new pandenomics could prove to be massively out of scale with the risks.

Excessive economic costs have been linked to viruses in the past. A 2008 World Bank paper cited by U.S. medical columnist Darren Schulte examined the economic costs of fighting previous viral outbreaks, including the SARS coronavirus event in 2003. The paper estimated the GDP loss from fighting SARS in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan at $13 billion in 2003 dollars, a large number considering there were only 7,000 cases and 700 associated deaths.

The cause of the GDP losses were associated, first, with the voluntary adjustments made by individuals and businesses who altered their behaviour to avoid the SARS risks. But there was a second cause. “The distinctive feature of these episodes is that although they ultimately result in relatively little illness and death, they entail large economic costs which are primarily the result of excessive preventive behaviour by individuals and (on occasion) governments.”

By imposing travel bans and other measures that interfered with trade and other activity, governments added to the costs that exceeded the costs of dealing with the disease itself. In the current exercise in pandenomics, the economic costs of fighting COVID-19 will be staggering.

Once the COVID-19 economic shutdown has ended and recovery is underway, the measurable final GDP costs of fighting it will run to many trillions of dollars and will be accompanied by incalculable burdens borne by individuals and companies.

The trillion-dollar figures will be defended on the grounds that hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.

It could also be said, however, that these same lives could have been saved if Ottawa and the rest of the global political establishment had heeded earlier warnings of the risks of pandemic. The online Blacklock’s Reporter this week referred to a 2006 Health Canada study that clearly described how the pandemic could sweep the country. Did anybody read the study? Or were the bureaucrats too busy drafting climate-change preparedness plans?

7) WSJ: Rethinking The Coronavirus Shutdown 
The Wall Street Journal, 20 March 2020 No society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its economic health.

Financial markets paused their slide Thursday, but no one should think this rolling economic calamity is over. If this government-ordered shutdown continues for much more than another week or two, the human cost of job losses and bankruptcies will exceed what most Americans imagine. This won’t be popular to read in some quarters, but federal and state officials need to start adjusting their anti-virus strategy now to avoid an economic recession that will dwarf the harm from 2008-2009.

The vast social-distancing project of the last 10 days or so has been necessary and has done much good. Warnings about large gatherings of more than 10 people and limiting access to nursing homes will save lives. The public has received a crucial education in hygiene and disease prevention, and even young people may get the message. With any luck, this behavior change will reduce the coronavirus spread enough that our hospitals won’t be overwhelmed with patients. Anthony Fauci, Scott Gottlieb and other disease experts are buying crucial time for government and private industry to marshal resources against the virus.

Yet the costs of this national shutdown are growing by the hour, and we don’t mean federal spending. We mean a tsunami of economic destruction that will cause tens of millions to lose their jobs as commerce and production simply cease. Many large companies can withstand a few weeks without revenue but that isn’t true of millions of small and mid-sized firms.

Even cash-rich businesses operate on a thin margin and can bleed through reserves in a month. First they will lay off employees and then out of necessity they will shut down. Another month like this week and the layoffs will be measured in millions of people.

The deadweight loss in production will be profound and take years to rebuild. In a normal recession the U.S. loses about 5% of national output over the course of a year or so. In this case we may lose that much, or twice as much, in a month.

Our friend Ed Hyman, the Wall Street economist, on Thursday adjusted his estimate for the second quarter to an annual rate loss in GDP of minus-20%. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s assertion on Fox Business Thursday that the economy will power through all this is happy talk if this continues for much longer.

If GDP seems abstract, consider the human cost. Think about the entrepreneur who has invested his life in his Memphis ribs joint only to see his customers vanish in a week. Or the retail chain of 30 stores that employs hundreds but sees no sales and must shut its doors.
Or the recent graduate with $20,000 in student-loan debt—taken on with the encouragement of politicians—who finds herself laid off from her first job. Perhaps she can return home and live with her parents, but what if they’re laid off too? How do you measure the human cost of these crushed dreams, lives upended, or mental-health damage that result from the orders of federal and state governments?

Some in the media who don’t understand American business say that China managed a comparable shock to its economy and is now beginning to emerge on the other side. Why can’t the U.S. do it too? This ignores that the Chinese state owns an enormous stake in that economy and chose to absorb the losses. In the U.S. those losses will be borne by private owners and workers who rely on a functioning private economy. They have no state balance sheet to fall back on.

The politicians in Washington are telling Americans, as they always do, that they are riding to the rescue by writing checks to individuals and offering loans to business. But there is no amount of money that can make up for losses of the magnitude we are facing if this extends for several more weeks. After the first $1 trillion this month, will we have to spend another $1 trillion in April, and another in June?

By the time Treasury’s small-business lending program runs through the bureaucratic hoops—complete with ordering owners that they can’t lay off anyone as a price for getting the loan—millions of businesses will be bankrupt and tens of millions will be jobless.

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