Funny Things About the Epidemic
By Pierre Lemieux
We don’t yet know whether the spread of the Wuhan virus is a real crisis or not, but as Rahm Emmanuel would have said, we should not let it go to waste. The World Health Organization (WHO) just declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern—a PHEIC in its jargon. One funny thing is that it comes on top of another global epidemic WHO also declared.
Just a few months ago, WHO launched a “new report” on what it has been calling for decades “the global tobacco epidemic.” (“WHO Launches New Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic,” WHO, July 26, 2019). Shouldn’t there be two different words for a communicable-disease epidemic—the protection against which can be viewed as a public good, with many caveats—and an individual’s choice of a personal pleasure? On the other hand, a despised lifestyle choice allows the state to manufacture a crisis justifying its intervention.
I will probably come back to the economics of epidemics in future posts. Here, let’s just try to learn some humor from reactions to the Wuhan virus. Another funny thing stems from today’s WHO press release, which notes quite sensibly:
Evidence has shown that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies may be ineffective and may divert resources from other interventions.
The comment on diverting resources is interesting coming from an international bureaucracy that has spent decades doing just that by fighting non-communicable lifestyle diseases. But just a few lines later, it adds:
However, in certain specific circumstances, measures that restrict the movement of people may prove temporarily useful … In such situations, countries should perform risk and cost-benefit analyses before implementing such restrictions to assess whether the benefits would outweigh the drawbacks.
Notwithstanding the substance of this statement, don’t they know that a cost-benefit analysis is different from a committee meeting and takes months of data gathering, analysis, and expert discussion (and a couple more for a government organization)? Or perhaps I have misjudged them and they are after ways to slow down coercive government interventions, in which case I apologize.
I also find the following pearl in a Wall Street Journal story (“U.S. Confirms First Person-to-Person Spread of Coronavirus,” January 30, 2020):
The head of the infectious diseases division at Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital declared that all the doctors who had been treating coronavirus patients would be allowed to rest and would be replaced by doctors who were Chinese Communist Party members. …
In words tinged with exhaustion and frustration, Mr. Zhang, who is also the senior party leader of his division, said Communist Party members needed to live up to their vows to serve the people. “I don’t care whether or not you’re willing, you’re all going to step up,” he said.
In many ways, epidemics, like wars, are the health of the state. But at least, if we all die, we can make fun of it.