Friday, May 29, 2020

The Incredible Value of Living

When talk turns to survival and infection rates in the pandemic the focus is usually on death and how much the economy is damaged so that a relatively small percentage of the public might be spared.  That's the Jason Kenney approach. It's the Republican orthodoxy also.

Paul Krugman says there's more to it.
America is now engaged in a vast, dangerous experiment. Although social distancing has limited the spread of the coronavirus, it is far from contained. Yet despite warnings from epidemiologists, much of the country is moving to open up for business as usual.

...Now, money matters: There is a clear relationship between income and life satisfaction. But it’s not the only thing that matters. In particular, you know what also makes a major contribution to the quality of life? Not dying.
...both transportation and environmental policy have in the past been explicitly guided by numbers placed on the “value of a statistical life.” Current estimates are around $10 million.

True, Covid-19 deaths have been concentrated among older Americans, who can expect fewer remaining years of life than average, so that we might want to use a lower number, say $5 million. But even so, doing the math says that social distancing, while it reduced G.D.P., was well worth it.

That’s the conclusion of two studies that estimated the costs and benefits of social distancing, taking the value of a life into account. Indeed, we waited too long: A Columbia University study estimated that locking down just a week earlier would have saved 36,000 lives by early May, and a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the benefits of that earlier lockdown would have been at least five times the cost in lost G.D.P.

So why are we rushing to reopen? 
To be sure, epidemiological forecasts are highly uncertain. But this uncertainty calls for more caution, not less. Open too late, and we lose some money. Open too soon, and we risk an explosive second wave of infections, which would not only kill many Americans but also probably force a second, even more costly lockdown.

So why isn’t the Trump administration even trying to justify its push for reopening in terms of a rational analysis of costs and benefits? The answer, of course, is that rationality has a well-known liberal bias.
...The point is that the push to reopen doesn’t reflect any kind of considered judgment about risks versus rewards. It’s best seen, instead, as an exercise in magical thinking.

Trump and conservatives in general seem to believe that if they pretend that Covid-19 isn’t a continuing threat, it will somehow go away, or at least people will forget about it. Hence the war on face masks, which help limit the pandemic but remind people that the virus is still out there. 
One way to put it: Trump and his allies don’t want us to wear face masks but do want us to wear blinders.
Sure, Trump says he wants Americans to continue wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing, and many do, but we also see that many don't. We see crowds, mainly young people, massing on beaches and parks in the United States, in Canada and in Britain. And we have the example of Wisconsin where Republicans persuaded a judge to lift the Democrat governor's lockdown that, over the following two weeks, saw Covid infection levels return with a vengeance at record levels.

We've gone through  two months, 10 weeks of quarantine and we did, to varying degrees, "flatten the curve" and more. That was a huge social investment but we can nullify the benefit by magical thinking that this is over.

There's no end of sophistry coming out of guys like Trump and Kenney and Johnson. If you want to know how to identify a scammer, here's a handy way. They will cite some seemingly minuscule number of the fatalities Covid has caused.  Figures don't lie but liars, do they ever figure.

Here's the deal. No one can give any meaningful statistics for the death toll that Covid-19 will claim. Why? Because we're still in the first wave of this pandemic. Medical history going back to the Black Death shows that pandemics come in two waves, sometimes three. Of those waves, the second is usually the big killer. So, to try to close the books on Covid-19 when we're still not even clear of the first wave is outright deceit.

The stats probably looked pretty good when the first wave of the Spanish Flu passed in the summer of 1918. People couldn't wait to get back to normal. They came out of isolation, stopped wearing masks, all that good stuff, and then they died in droves when autumn ushered in the second wave.

We must also recall that the current stats reflect a period in which most of us were under lockdown - isolation, masks and gloves, disinfectants, handwashing. Those numbers show that these measures worked. They're not a measure of the lethality of Covid-19. That's a lie, a real whopper. While results varied, we flattened the curve. But now, in the name of Our Lady of the Blessed Economy and our endless Culture Wars, we want to lift those restrictions. And we have the example of Wisconsin for what that can mean in only a couple of weeks. The virus has returned there, infection rates higher than ever. That's the price of Hubris. The Greeks knew what followed as Nemesis.

Then there's the specious comparisons of first wave Covid deaths to other causes of death such as car accidents. Car accidents are a freely assumed risk. Even then we go to great lengths to keep deaths to a minimum - radial tires, disc brakes, seat belts, air bags,  anti-skid braking, stability control, and collision avoidance sensors of all descriptions. Yet, no matter how well equipped my car, no matter what precautions I take such as defensive driving or choosing low-congestion routes, there's no guarantee that this won't be the day I get into a head-on with some drunk driver or someone texting. I'm not happy about that but I understand it and I choose to assume that risk.

A final point is that death rates are misleading. It's as though you're either dead or you're fine. That's just not true. Here's an example. My daughter has a rheumatologist. That woman's husband is also a doctor. They have two kids under 10 years old.

At the very early days when Covid started turning up, her husband contracted the virus while treating a patient in hospital. Like many, he was asymptomatic for a while, long enough to bring the virus into their home to infect both his wife and the kids.

It was unpleasant for the kids but they bounced back. The husband wound up in hospital but came through it relatively intact. The rheumatologist, however, wasn't so lucky. She wound up in the ICU on a ventilator and it was touch and go. She's out now but her heart and lungs are damaged, permanently. She's incapable of exertion which is not great for a mother of two young kids. She can't return to work, can't see her patients. She's limited to telephone consults. At some point in the coming months she'll be assessed to determine how long she can expect to live. These jackals who toss out statistics would have you ignore reality.

Here's the takeaway. People who quote stats are bullshitting you. They are giving you bogus "interim" numbers. They're drawing facile comparisons completely out of context. They're working very hard to mislead you. Draw your own conclusions.

Welcome to the Culture War.


the salamander said...

.. 'smartest guy in the room' syndrome mingled or muddled with some sort of hard wired evangel incel smarm. The 'incel' reference is more aimed to Kenney's delight in pontificating about controlling female physiology.. did I mention his expertise in Medicine ? Education ? Resource Extraction ? Legislation ?

Cutting to the chase tho.. Kenney is a boring glib idealogue with a 'to-do' list... which sadly, might be Harper/Novak's wet dream Alberta Firewall manifesto. He has a majority.. and like Harper.. here it comes.. tada.. The Little Chief.. Jason.. He gonna reinvent Alberta !

The Disaffected Lib said...

I wish all we had to confront, Sal, were guys like Trump or Kenney. Unfortunately their delusions have taken hold in a considerable segment of our population and that's what troubles me most.