Much of the current government policy concerning COVID19 presupposes that it is still possible to eliminate the virus from the human population so it will not propagate again.
The current policy of lock-downs, social-distancing, self-isolation, and closing of non-essential businesses will likely extend indefinitely into the future, and very likely will become more strictly defined and enforced. Assuming that the government will ever return to liberties enjoyed before this emergency, that will not occur until people stop dying from the disease for a period of time, or until there are no new cases for a period of time. That period of time is in the range of around 14 days.
For there to be no new cases nor new deaths for that period of time, the virus would have to be eradicated from the human population, similar to what happened with smallpox. Like smallpox, the solution may hinge on finding a vaccine added to routine vaccination schedules. The restrictions are meant to buy time to develop, qualify, mass produce, and mass distribute a vaccine that may not yet exist. As a result, the current lock down policy will last a long time.
A new strategy has emerged recently now that we have taken the unprecedented step of shutting down national economies and forced people to curtail their social interactions. Now that we see that such a strategy is possible, governments are beginning to think we can eradicate this virus by isolating the entire population and just wait for those currently infected to reach the point of no longer being infectious: either fully recovered or dead.
This strategy works in animal husbandry or herd management. Isolate the sick from the healthy until there are no more sick. This can work for humans as well. It just a similar level of oversight and enforcement. Alleged stories out of China where people were locked into their flats from the outside is the eventual extreme of what can be done. Once sealed in and isolated, everyone will have no choice but to wait until the seal is removed from the outside.
We could have followed this strategy a couple weeks ago. If we had done that, in a week or so we might get the all clear and then be reassured that we will never have to deal with this particular virus ever again. No more virus. No more need for isolation. No more need even for medical supplies or vaccine development.
Given the current trajectory with governments committed to their current “flatten the curve” dreams, I would not be surprised to find the population literally locked inside their homes for a month or so to let this virus run out of hosts capable of infecting others.
I do not believe this is possible. Human inter-dependencies are too complex to isolate humans so completely. We still rely on humans to take care of each other. Even healthy, we rely on humans to deliver supplies, collect garbage, maintain infrastructure and supply chains (including the production of food for later this year).
The farmer practice of isolated sick from healthy among animals such as pigs or cattle works because the farmer is of a different species than the animals and that different species is not vulnerable to whatever is ailing the animals.
To follow the same approach assumes that the humans doing the isolating are immune from the humans being isolated. Currently, that is not the case.
If we want to pursue that approach, then the correct strategy is to first identify the population who will need to be providing services for the population being isolated. Secondly, we need to inoculate that first population from being able to spread the disease. Given the lack of vaccines, the best option is to deliberately infect that population and cull out the survivors who will become immune and incapable of spreading the disease. After that point, we can then proceed to lock down the rest of the population with these qualified supervisors. The ranks of the qualified will first decline due to attrition from the initial disease, but eventually be expanded through training newly recovered people who are able to do the required work.
We are doing the opposite of that. We are expending great resources to keep the governors disease free and yet these governors are herding their subjects as if there is difference in susceptibility between the two. Because there isn’t a difference, the project will fail in its objectives even of flattening the curve, let alone the prospects of eradicating the virus.
In the coming months, there will be a progression of exponentially increasing number of new cases and new deaths. It will peak in several months before declining and then the decline will be very slow at first but eventually getting down to near zero after about a year.
I don’t think there is anything we can do to stop this progression in the long term. There will be intermediate periods of pauses but they will not last long. Even countries like South Korea or Taiwan are currently doing well in their responses this will not last long. Eventually it will explode there in a way that their current policies will not be able to handle. Unfortunately, it may explode at much faster rates due to those current practices along with the greatly expanded opportunities for infection.
Two years from now, we will likely be out of the pandemic. The virus will remain circulating but the population will consist of survivors who are either less susceptible of reinfection or less worried about it.
Assuming the worst, there may be tens of millions of deaths by this time, maybe hundreds. The dead may be include a disproportionate number of elderly or people with preexisting conditions, but there will be significant numbers of people who would otherwise have expected decades of future health if it had not been for this disease. Inevitably, the dead will be scattered randomly across society and the roles they filled. We’ll lose people who we currently trust or admire in their roles. Everyone will have reason to be saddened by the losses.
However, in this time two years from now, the remaining population will be survivors. The mourning for the buried dead would now be in the past, leaving only their statistics to ponder. The remaining population will govern the future. The dead will not have any say in that government.
The future population will draw their attention to their current challenges that arise as consequences from the earlier policies directed at preventing deaths that mostly could not have been prevented. Those consequences include many problems:
- Degradation if not elimination of global supply chains, thus the need to rebuild supply chains but under new fear of trusting distant dependencies
- Limited supplies of food, clean water, working waste removal systems, etc, will lead to starvation, re emergence of previously rare diseases such as cholera, and widespread social unrest
- A less capable workforce due to neglect of developing young talents while we kept them isolated in their homes instead of training them, and due to the death of many of the skilled people now unable to pass down their skills.
- Many of the ones who survived the sickness will now have conditions such as lung damage that needs advanced technologies and advanced economies to support, but those technologies and economies will not be there to help them. Many survivors will never fully recover and their conditions will provide living examples of the results of the sacrifices currently being dealt with by others.
- The general irreversible change in people’s behavior, no longer interested in the pursuits and appetites that we spent so much money catering too. Even if entire industries and urban renewals emerge operational, they will be abandoned because everyone learned new ways to pursue their happiness.
- There will be mass migrations of people world wide as people seek out places where they fill comfortable and as other people make them uncomfortable to stay where they are.
- At the extreme, governments will fall, wars (internal and external) will emerge, and people will find themselves in desperate conditions.
Human-based governments are not well equipped to handle the contradiction we are facing now. We have to make decisions now based on the influential population we have now. As a result, we are unable to consider the needs of the influential population we will have when this crisis is over. Most of the decisions made now will benefit people who will no longer be around when the future has to deal with the consequences. In addition many of those who do survive will be handicapped directly by the policies we made to benefit people who are no longer around.
I write this from my own experience trying to interpret historical crises such as the two world wars, the civil war, the great depression. During learning about these events, I often try to put myself in the place of the people living through the times. When I do, I often find myself doing the same things they did even though now I’m taught that these behaviors led to bad things that could have been prevented. The point is that the preventable bad things were bad things that happened afterwards, often after the actors had died.
The biggest lesson I learn from history is that the future will judge the present based on what was left to them. The future will not have much if any sympathy for the choices we made when those choices did not benefit the future and especially when those choices did not accomplish the goals in the first place.
When I think of modern opportunities for government, I am particularly interested in the new possibilities of making present day decisions directed at immediate crises with appropriate consideration and generosity toward the people who will be left to govern their futures with the consequences we left them.
Modern governments strive to invest in the future during times of good fortunes. Those same governments abandon any such goal during times of crises, no matter how hopeless are their desires for averting that crisis. Assuming that the data about this particular pandemic is accurate, it is likely hopeless that we can avert what is coming. A large fraction of the world’s population will get this disease no matter what we do, and a large fraction of the infected will die.
There will be survivors. Those survivors will write the history books with evidence we left in relevant documents and statistics, as well as archaeology of what we chose to discard so that the future could never enjoy the same. Among the things that will be degraded or entirely lost will be personal liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom to offer new products and services.
Very likely, those history books will not be kind to what we are doing now, because that future population will suffer greatly for our foolish pursuits of goals of complete eradication of this virus, flattening the curve, and preventing deaths, long after those goals were obviously unattainable.
There will be a time, if it has not already occurred, where the best policy would based on accepting that the progress and consequences of this pandemic is beyond our ability to control. At that time, we need to start focusing on what will best benefit the population who will be left to carry on after all of this settles down.