The biology of this particular virus means we have already passed the point where lockdowns and measures of that kind can resolve the situation. If that strategy is followed you will delay the evolution of the virus into a milder form and when it returns (as it will, because it is now established in a reservoir of people around the world) the effect will be as bad as it was the first time or even worse because of the disruption caused to systems by the first wave. There are literally hundreds of cases in history that historians have studied where that strategy was followed, always with that result if the pathogen was sufficiently infectious to have spread to a large part of the planet’s surface. People will self isolate but if they do too much that will be bad because it will stop the virus spreading through the population. What you want is for as much of the population as possible to be exposed to the pathogen but in a spread out fashion so there isn’t a huge peak that has all kinds of bad systemic and social effects. You want the pathogen to spread widely so as to speed up its evolution and to speed up the population’s acquiring of resistance. If the spontaneous response of individuals was to self-isolate to the degree that that doesn’t happen then that is very bad news because it means that the pandemic will be more long lasting and will have much bigger effects because of repeated waves. What that leads to eventually, inter alia, is flight as people try to flee the infection which is the last thing you want. This is a case where being rational at the individual level does not produce a benevolent aggregate outcome. There is not one single case in history where spontaneous social isolation has successfully contained an epidemic.

This is from a Facebook comment by Stephen Davies, the Head of Education at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. Stephen gave me permission to post.

I’m not enough of an historian or epidemiologist to know whether this is right. It just sounds reasonable. And I’ve read enough of Stephen’s work to know how careful and thoughtful a thinker he is generally.

My wife and I have been “socially distancing.” That’s easy for us to do: I rent an office in downtown Monterey and there is little traffic in the hallway and my wife is a free-lance editor who works out of our home. We also went out to lunch every Saturday and we didn’t do that yesterday. But maybe the optimum is for some of us to go out. I thought I was doing the right thing and now I’m not so sure.