On the COVID-19 Crisis

Some tentative conclusions based on my reading of epidemiological models and qualitative reports:

1. The most effective strategy so far involves a combination of widespread testing, social distancing, elevated hygiene, and tech-enhanced contact tracing. If these steps are done well, lockdowns might be fully avoidable. This has been the strategy of Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong.

2. Many if not most countries simply do not have the resources for widespread testing yet, and may not have the political will for invasive social monitoring.

3. Given the situation, lockdowns should be understood as a way to buy time for manufacturers of testing kits, and for vaccine and treatment researchers. For both economic and psychological reasons, lockdowns cannot continue indefinitely.

4. Vast sections of the world may have to practice periodic lockdowns, until either (i) governments are ready and willing to enforce widespread testing *and* contact tracing, or (ii) a vaccine or effective treatment becomes widespread. Privacy concerns and economic concerns will have to engage in a direct debate if this stage is reached. Also, lifting a lockdown prematurely can cause a bounce-back of the infection rate.

5. A lockdown does not necessitate economic collapse or starvation: countries, provinces, and communities can do a great deal to ensure money and food reach people. The policies enacted in the UK and Denmark guarantee 75-80% of wages, and preserve crucial employer-employee relationships, enabling a speedier return to employment. And even a poor country like India always has vast amounts of foodgrain in storage (which often goes to rot). International cooperation is needed to ensure distribution and prevent wastage. Protection of farmers is also essential. Cash crop growers will be particularly badly hit by the almost inevitable collapse of demand for non-essential products.

6. Some form of basic income is essential for workers in what is known as the ‘gig economy’ in advanced countries, and the ‘unorganized sector’ in poor countries. An additional challenge in poor countries is that many people still do not have bank accounts.

7. Given that the economic consequences of the shutdowns are already being felt, there is little to be gained for the time being in speculating about whether governments have overreacted in the recent past. Governments clearly underreacted in January and February, but there is nothing we can do about that now. Having convinced ourselves of this, we might ease our anxieties a little by leaving detailed analysis of should-haves, would-haves, could-haves and might-haves for the post-crisis reckoning, and focus on what is in front of us. Less what-ifs and more what-nows.

8. The very concept of over- and under-reaction is too blunt an instrument when planning actions in the present. Each region and polity faces unique challenges, so there cannot be a one-size-fits-fall response to the pandemic. Instead of a one-dimensional ‘scale of reaction’, the key for the present is the alignment between responses and the specific circumstances they are responding to.

9. The crisis now is not just the coronavirus, but a causal web that includes our prior reactions to it. This is inflammation at the level of the body politic.

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