Herd immunity was never a feasible option
Bryan Caplan has a post on Covid-19 that is full of sensible ideas. But I disagree with one of his claims:
18. Alex Tabarrok is wrong to state, “Social distancing, closing non-essential firms and working from home protect the vulnerable but these same practices protect workers in critical industries. Thus, the debate between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy is moot.” Moot?! True, there is a mild trade-off between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy. But if we didn’t care about the vulnerable at all, the disease would have already run its course and economic life would already have strongly rebounded. Wouldn’t self-protection have stymied this? Not if the government hadn’t expanded unemployment coverage and benefits, because most people don’t save enough money to quit their jobs for a couple of months. With most of the workforce still on the job, fast exponential growth would have given us herd immunity long ago. The death toll would have been several times higher, but that’s the essence of the trade-off between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy.
From my vantage point in Orange County, that just doesn’t seem feasible. People here are taking quite aggressive steps to avoid getting the disease, and I believe that would be true regardless of which public policies were chosen by authorities. Removing the lockdown will help the economy a bit, as would ending the enhanced unemployment insurance program. But the previous (less generous) unemployment compensation program combined with voluntary social distancing is enough to explain the vast bulk of the depression we are in.
In many countries, the number of active cases is falling close to zero. In those places, it will be possible to get people to return to service industries where human interaction is significant. Speaking for myself, I’m unlikely to get a haircut, go to the dentist, go to a movie, eat in a crowded restaurant, or many other activities until there is a vaccine. (Although if I were single I’d be much more active.) If I were someone inclined to take cruises, I’d also stay away from that industry until there was a vaccine. I’ll do much less flying, although I’d be willing to fly if highly motivated. For now, I’ll focus on outdoor restaurants (fortunately quite plentiful in Orange County) and vacations by automobile. Universities are beginning to announce that classes will remain online in the fall.
If you think in terms of “near-zero cases” and “herd immunity” as the two paths to normalcy in the fall of this year, I’d say near-zero cases are much more feasible. Lots of countries have done the former—as far as I know none have succeeded with the latter approach. Unfortunately, America has botched this pandemic so badly (partly for reasons described by Bryan) that it will be very difficult to get the active caseload down to a level where consumers feel safe.
Don’t get me wrong, both the lockdown and the change in unemployment compensation create problems for the economy. But they are not the decisive factor causing the current depression. If the changes in the unemployment compensation program were made permanent, then at some point this would become the decisive factor causing a high unemployment rate. But not yet.
BTW, I am not arguing that it wouldn’t be better if people had a more rational view of risks, as Bryan suggested in a more recent post. This post is discussing the world as it is.
Here’s a selection of countries with 35-76 active cases (right column), followed by a group with less than ten. Many are tiny countries and some have dubious data, but not all.
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