‘Really worth a new Great Depression?’

Ari Schulman asks something we’re all asking: “What’s the plan?”:

How long is this going to last? As terrible as a pandemic would be, is averting it really worth a new Great Depression? What is the endgame?

As a pandemic loomed, the country moved in remarkably short order from shrug to shutdown. Understandably, some are already questioning the wisdom of this move, noting how little information we’re acting on and the devastation the shutdown is already wreaking on the economy. The New York Times grants shutdown skepticism the frisson of “taboo.”

Much of this skepticism still misunderstands just how devastating the pandemic would be — not only in lives lost but in damage to the economy. The skeptics are wrong in the near term. For now, we have no other choice. But they are right that this cure cannot be tolerated for long. And they are right too that there is no consensus on when the shutdown will have achieved its aim, or on when the benefits will no longer outweigh the costs. …

The shutdown is not a plan; it is a hasty but necessary retreat. Its purpose must be to shrink cases, and ramp up our infrastructure, enough to switch to more targeted suppression measures.

We already have a gold standard for fighting epidemics: early identification of symptomatic patients, contact tracing, isolation of those infected and exposed, and widespread random sampling of the population to detect new outbreaks among unidentified contacts. Only by identifying and isolating the sick can the healthy get back to work.

The crucial lesson is that we need not endure mass closure for the duration of the pandemic. We are only stuck doing it now because we were caught with our defenses down, failing to implement the normal methods early enough.

This is not a hypothetical point: South Korea managed to control its outbreak without ever resorting to mass closures. It did so through a combination of massive testing, rigorous contact tracing, and isolation of the infected. Not only were people with symptoms tested and quarantined, but authorities went through considerable effort to track down people who may have been in contact with the sick and test them as well.

We may need to borrow methods from South Korea, Israel, and Singapore, which have accepted a level of surveillance that is incompatible with the “old normal” of American life, but which may need to be tolerated for a year or two if we are to lift the shutdown. It is urgent for our national leadership to offer a clear vision of what the “new normal” of post-shutdown life will look like, how we will balance its requirements against civil liberties, and how we will achieve it as quickly as possible. …

As we near the end of the shutdown’s first week, public resolve seems firm. But without a clear vision from our leadership, the problem is not so distant as a shutdown lasting a year and half, but a backlash arriving much sooner. Conversely, we can endure the pain and hardship of this phase for much longer if we all know how it will end.

[But t]he problem in the near term is not whether the plan for victory is too costly. It is whether we have a plan at all. The chief priority of our leadership must be to offer us this vision before the end of the shutdown period they have defined — a week from now — arrives.

I can’t imagine Americans tolerating the sort of surveillance state that other nations have adopted, partly because China is the greatest example of the 21st century technological surveillance state and theirs is not an example liberty-minded nations would seek to emulate. At the same time, if we have no national strategy for returning to normal while at the same time we quarantine and shut down the economy, it’s possible we’re adopting a “worst of both worlds” approach to this pandemic—where we get none of the positive benefits of aggressive mitigation and all of the costs of economic self-destruction.