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Coronavirus update

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A few thoughts on the situation in the USA as of this morning:

(1) It’s important to keep in mind that we still have no idea at all how many Americans have or have had the virus. It seems safe to say the number is vastly higher than the number of people who have tested positive (nearing 50,000 as of this writing). Whether the true number is five or ten or twenty times that is still completely up in the air. I do think it’s striking that a remarkable number of famous or semi-famous people have tested positive. As of yesterday the total number of confirmed cases was equal about 12 per 100,000 Americans. So the large number of well-known people who have had positive tests — because their social privilege allows them to get tested in the first place — is probably a much better rough window into the actual current prevalence than the official stats. (Here in Colorado huge numbers of people with symptoms aren’t being tested, as tests are pretty much being reserved for people with serious enough symptoms to require hospitalization, and health care workers. And of course VIPs, because America).

(2) Richard Epstein’s insanely irresponsible little essay on this topic is apparently playing a big role in the current push within the administration to pivot to getting back to “normal” a few days from now.

(3) Obviously there’s a serious debate to be had about how severe mitigation and suppression measures should be, and how long they should remain in place. This is by its nature a deeply political topic — science can inform us what the consequences of various courses of action are most likely to be, but the willingness to endure the likely costs of this or that course of action is a normative not an empirical question. The problem here is at least twofold: (1) it’s extremely difficult to enforce anything like a national policy in a country like the USA, because of the large degree of decentralization of health care policy in general, and; (2) any national policy, no matter how good in theory, has to be carried out competently in practice, in order for ex ante cost-benefit calculations to have any value. The odds of the second thing happening with the Trump administration in charge are pretty much zero.

(4) The essentially political nature of reactions to pandemics is captured well by Jerry Falwell Jr.’s decision to encourage Liberty University students to return to campus after spring break, and to order faculty to conduct classes from campus.

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