Earlier, I discussed the need to be smart about how to segregate society to optimize the response to this epidemic. This epidemic is growing rapidly with no evidence yet that quarantines will slow it down. I find very unlikely that China’s recent reporting of stagnation of new cases and deaths are accurate. The evidence of an epidemic turning into a pandemic is proof that quarantines can not contain this problem. Quarantines may help slow the spread but I doubt it. I suspect this theory would be disproved definitively by the end of March.
As of mid March, we are persisting with the present policy of quarantines for everyone including those with no symptoms but had history of contact with someone who was infected. While the numbers have been small enough so far, I expect by the end of the month, major portions of the USA will have regional-wide lock-downs keeping people in their house through police enforcement. If that happens, we will see a decline the available workforce for performing in-person services including medicine, policing, municipal services, and retail supply chains. This may even extend to up-stream supplies such as farming that needs to start preparing the crops needed for the next harvest season.
In recent years, among the YouTube channels that I regularly watch are two channels, each run by an armed-forces veteran, but with nearly opposite perspectives.
One is a channel focused on comics, but many of his videos includes his experiences in the military with a recurring theme of being engaged with a mission and of enjoying the bond of a unit that is loyal to each other. It has been a pleasure watching him develop his dream to start a career in comics, launching a publishing company, and eventually publishing a comic adaption of the Expendables, one of his favorite franchises.
Personally, I have not seen a single Expendables movie, which is not saying much because I don’t watch any movies. Despite that, I loved the concept from the first time I heard of it. These are older men, albeit with extensive combat experience, taking on jobs so difficult that they are not expected to return from them. They take on the task with that knowledge and apparently beat the odds, at least in the movie version.
The other is a channel focused primarily on relationships between men and women with the conclusion that men should avoid such relationships (at least long-term ones). I watch most of his videos starting a long time ago, but I especially enjoyed his “Live from the Lair” series of recollections of his experiences in the military. He definitely has a wide variety of experiences. Many of these involve injuries to himself or his buddies, many of the survived injuries being very serious, yet the survivor (himself included) would go on to be productive in a way that continues to earn respect from his groups. One of his recurring explanations is the indestructibility of young men, especially men in their early 20s. They bounce back from their injuries and come back as useful as before, perhaps in some other role.
Using the comic book analogy, both of these perspectives define groups of heroes, people fight the battles so the rest of the population can sleep peacefully at night. These two categories of heroes are indestructible young men, or expendable but skilled old men. Both benefit from forming a cohesive unit loyal to each other and committed to some cause.
In this time of national emergency (or even a global emergency), we need to let heroes be heroes. These are the indestructibles and the expendables. The challenge is filtering for the ones qualified for these designations. They have to have these qualities, but they also have to be effective at their jobs. Military training and advancement appears to be very effective at filtering these for the most challenging missions.
In the confrontation of this pandemic, we have data. While the goal of the data gathering is to get accurate values for transmission rates, incubation periods, infectious periods, time to recover, and outcomes, so far this data appears to have such low confidence that arguments about this being a minor issue are about as likely as this culminating in the loss of a major fraction of everyone living today.
Meanwhile, there is better data about who is getting seriously ill or dying. The risks of these complications rise rapidly with people over the age of around 50 or who have bodies compromised by other conditions such as heart or respiratory diseases. On the other hand, people in their 20s or younger, are not likely to get seriously ill. They may not even notice being infected at all, or if they have symptoms the symptoms are mild enough so as to not interfere with their daily lives. In the pandemic scenario, the indestructibles will be found among this young cohort, and the expendables will be found in the older or sicker cohort.
As in the stories related above, these designations are not absolute. Some of the indestructibles and some of the expendables do not return. The broader theme though is true, most will return and with news of mission accomplished. We should allow the same basic story to play out when it comes to responding to the pandemic.
We need to allow the indestructibles and the expendables to fully contribute each in their specialized way. Some may help directly in the medical fields, but most will be involved in keeping up the logistics of keeping society running smoothly. This is analogous to the military scenarios were most of the manpower is engaged supporting the few on the front lines, yet all are at some elevated risk compared to staying at home.
As in military conflicts, the strategy for a drawn out engagement lasting more than a couple days depends on a robust logistics. I doubt this pandemic is going to be over in a matter of days. In fact, I doubt it will be over any time this year. As a result, we need to keep up the logistics.
To avoid complete catastrophe we need our own heroes. Instead of confronting the possibility of injury or death from martial actions, our heroes will confront the possibility of being infected, or of having to work through their tolerable symptoms, and continue doing their work.
The people doing necessary work across the entire economy will work at the risk of picking up the disease and of spreading the disease with people they are in close contact. For the younger people, they are likely to self-cure, thus the exaggerated label of indestructible.
The real societal question we face with this pandemic is what do we do with the older people, or the people who live their daily lives with preexisting medical conditions that elevate the potential of serious or fatal complications. The current quarantine strategy prioritizes in favor of convenience for this vulnerable population at the expense of the productive contributions of the less vulnerable or more willing to volunteer for hazardous duty.
The mainstream consciousness is on allowing the vulnerable to live their lives interrupted by keeping away the potentially infectious. This is based on the premise that eventually the epidemic will cease and on the promise that we’ll enjoy hearing the stories of the ones who lived through it without inconvenience.
The more likely scenario at this time is that a lot of vulnerable people will get the illness, many will have the complications that will overwhelm the medical systems, and many will die. If we continue to quarantine our potential heroes, the situation will be far worse with rapidly declining medical capacity or even a rapidly declining carrying capacity for the entire population.
We need to let our heroes do their jobs. Doing their jobs requires getting the vulnerable out of the way of being infected by the heroes. The heroes doing their jobs inevitably will be picking up the infection. They will be heroes because they are the indestructible who will not need medical assistance, or they will be the expendables who volunteer to take the risk. Just as in the war stories, we will more critically challenge the expendables to prove to us that they can actually do something that no available less vulnerable person would be able to do.
We have a large reservoir of young people who can continue to do their jobs keeping the economy running. Society should be understanding allowing those who feel threatened to retreat from their engagement until conditions improve. However, society should welcome those who do not feel threatened and are willing and able to continue to work.
Society should not be quarantining these young people, often under police enforcement, just because they may spread the illness to the more vulnerable. Instead, we should let these young people continue to live their lives unimpeded even if they have symptoms and test positive for the disease. To keep things running smoothly, society should let the less vulnerable to go about their lives without the fear of their infecting the vulnerable.
The eventual solution would be to inconvenience the vulnerable with social and workplace isolation, even if they are not infected, for the benefit of everyone. The opposite policies being pursued now will be at the detriment of everyone. History will look back in horror at our self-inflicted culling resulting from the hubris that we can solve this without inconveniencing the elderly or the ones pre-existing conditions.