Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Follow-up II: COVID-19 reactions doing more harm than good?

with 4 comments

I really had not intended to write more than the one text on COVID-19; certainly, not to go beyond the second text.

However, the continued reporting forces me to make at least two additions:

Firstly, there are already signs of coming lasting negative side-effects of the counter-measures being reported, affecting lives not just temporarily (as e.g. the failure to complete a sports season might, or a temporary stop of schooling): Businesses are going bankrupt, people are being let go, and the consequences for individuals could be dire. Recent reports include claims that the Swedish* taxi business is in trouble, with many minor operators threatened by bankruptcy. German* handymen are suffering a severe drop in business, and some might go bankrupt. The already troubled German* and somewhat international restaurant chain Vapiano has been brought to insolvency by the drop of customers, and some two (?) hundred restaurants might close permanently. It can safely be assumed that such problems will grow more common if e.g. do-not-travel and do-not-leave-your-apartment advisories are extended.

*I mention the nationality for the sake of precision—this is what was reported. The likelihood is very high that a similar situation is arising in other countries.

Such issues, obviously, in addition to the less permanent problems already reported, like businesses temporarily shutting down or reducing their activities, temporarily suspending employees, etc. (Which can all be bad enough in their own right.)

Not only is the damage to the overall economy considerable; not only will many individuals, including e.g. single low-income parents, be hard hit; but we will see lives outright ruined, including livelihoods lost, personal bankruptcies, and deaths by suicide and heart attacks. It is true that the death toll through the counter-measures might not be that impressive, but it will be there, and no-one seems to take it into account. Generally, cf. earlier texts, there seems to be no understanding of concepts like opportunity cost.*

*Apart from what has already been mentioned, consider e.g. the potential negative health effects of remaining in an apartment without ever going for a longer walk or engaging in other exercise, never having sun exposure, whatnot. This too will include even premature deaths, if not as short-term as COVID-19 might.

Secondly, the approach of many politicians is disturbingly totalitarian, presumptuous, and “parental”, illustrating a recurring problem with current politics (even COVID-19 aside): The people are children, we are the adults. Too many are too stupid to “get the message” that we noble politicians send. As long as people stay at home, there will be no curfew; if they do not, there will be—with harsh punishments for violators.* Etc.

*Cf. e.g. parts of a German text on NRW, the German Bundesland where I live.

Not only is this attitude disturbing in it self, but the speed with which a comparatively minor problem can lead to immense reductions in civic rights and whatnots, how citizens can be straitjacketed, well, that is horrifying. This is neither the Black Death nor an invasion by a foreign power.

In both cases, we have to additionally remember that COVID-19 is not a unique, once-every-hundred-years problem. Within the last twenty years, we have had countless-will-die claims about SARS, “swine flue”, and “bird flu”, and possibly some others that I do not even recall. This not to mention more localized outbreaks of more dangerous diseases, e.g. Ebola. If the current reactions are taken as a template for future threats, the long-term effects on public life will be radical.

Disclaimer: I stress again that I am not against counter-measures. The point is rather that many counter-measures are out-of-proportion; that most of the positive effect could be reached less intrusively; and that the reactions are odd in comparison to other, more damaging, sources of death.

Excursion on risks through international travel:
An interesting aspect, and a potentially large problem, is how infectious diseases can jump from country to country so much faster and easier today than e.g. a hundred years ago. This is a point where long-term counter-measures might make great sense. Exactly which are beyond the scope of this text, but (international) possibilities might include a switch to teleconferencing over personal meetings in business and a severe reduction of “mass tourism” (especially, the pointless sun-on-the-beach and visit-foreign-bars types; while keeping more cultural view-buildings-visit-museums tourism open). Such measures might also have positive effects on e.g. the environment (but could prove problematic for local businesses).

Excursions on hoarding and negative effects on myself:
As of now, I have seen little of negative effects, in part because I tend to spend much more time in my apartment than outside it even during a normal month (but, knock-on-wood, chances are that the counter-measures, e.g. closing of this-and-that, will affect me more strongly in the near future). However, I have now twice found that the store I visited was out of toilet paper, once as early as around 8 AM. If I fail again on Monday, this could end badly. This brings me to the topic of hoarding—widely decried as irrational and pointless in the current situation. From an overall societal point of view, this might well be true, and I would certainly prefer it, if people had not hoarded toilet paper … However, the irrationality depends on the reason. For instance, it is currently likely irrational to hoard because “businesses are crashing and X will be not be available for the next few months”. In contrast, it is not necessarily irrational, if game-theoretically and societally unfortunate, to hoard because “all those irrational hoarders could leave me without X for weeks, so I better stock up while I have the chance”. Then we have scenarios like “if I do get sick, I might not have the ability to go to the store, so I had better build up my buffers of X, just in case”. An interesting border-line case is formed by “I intend to do whatever the politicians say, so I stock up on everything non-perishable now so that I can minimize my future store visits.

I am puzzled, I admit, why specifically toilet paper would be among the priority items for the current hoarders—it does not strike me as an item with an unusually large supply problem and we do not have a “I need to survive for six months without interruption in my atomic bunker” scenario.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 22, 2020 at 12:51 pm

4 Responses

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  1. […] above was intended as an excursion to [1], but slipped my […]

  2. […] is an interesting parallel to my recent texts on COVID-19 (e.g. [1]), where (at least until now*) most of the damage in e.g. Germany has been caused by overreactions, […]

  3. […] toilet-paper situation continues: I again failed to find any and have, five minutes before starting this text, started on […]

  4. […] with things that I began to say as early as March 2020, or roughly ten months ago. (See [1] and [2], as well as quite a few later […]

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