The Covid-Shutdowns are Actually a Great Civics Lesson

by Malte Skarupke

Currently much of the country is shut down to stop the spread of the coronavirus and there is very active debate about how soon we should open up again. Some people say as soon as possible, others are saying immediately. Those might sound like similar viewpoints, but “as soon as possible” might be anything from two weeks to two months, depending on who you ask. There’s also a lot of debate about how deadly a second wave would actually be if we opened up the country with few or no restrictions. What percentage would get the virus? How many of those would die?

Uncertainty about all of those numbers is slowly decreasing and it seems like the reopening will happen sooner rather than later.

But I want to frame the debate about how it’s actually a great civics lesson. It shows how the government is really of the people, by the people and for the people, and how it can only do things that the people allow it to do. It also neatly shows how we need the government to do things that everyone wants to happen, but that they can’t make happen on their own.

First of all imagine that the government had tried to do a shutdown like this at any other time. Telling most businesses and offices to close, forcing mass-unemployment, and the people who don’t lose their job have to work from home. It simply couldn’t have happened. There would have been mass-protests immediately. Not like the current situation where everyone followed along and then after a month you start getting a few small protests.

But with a situation like in early March, it was easy. In fact the government resisted shutdowns for a long time, probably longer than it should have. On March 17th, Governor Cuomo of New York said “No city in the state can quarantine itself without state approval. And I have no interest whatsoever and no plan whatsoever to quarantine any city.” Three days later he announced the shutdown which went into effect two days after the announcement.

Let me describe the situation that led to such a rapid change: The first two strategies to contain the virus had failed (1. early control with contact tracing like in Taiwan and South Korea, 2. “flattening the curve” which would have worked for a flu but not for the coronavirus) and the only other strategy we had as a reference were complete shutdowns like in Italy and China. Once the virus is out of control, we don’t know another way to contain it. And the numbers were really scary. Italy and China had case fatality rates of more than 5%. We knew those were too high, but we didn’t know by how much. (but some estimates were pretty close already)

It’s hard to remember the uncertainty of that time. And with that uncertainty people get scared, and we knew that a shutdown would work for a fact because the virus spreads through humans. So people were asking for the only certain thing. Eventually the government had to oblige. If there hadn’t been a shutdown and things would have gotten really bad, any politician in power would soon have been out of power. This is obvious in the US because the politician would lose the next election, but this was also the case in China: If they hadn’t gotten the virus under control, that would have been a threat for the party. (Brazil’s president is already struggling because he hasn’t gotten the virus under control, and Russia will also be interesting since it looks on track to be the country with the second most cases after the USA)

I also want to point out that this shutdown could only happen with the government. No matter how much people want a shutdown, they can’t make it happen. You can’t force all stores and offices to close. But the government can. (but only if people want it to. It can’t do it against the will of the people) As an example: even if you’re the owner of a store and you think a shutdown should happen, you may still be unable to close your store. Because maybe you’re concerned about the livelihood of your employees or you would be unable to pay rent and would be forced to close the store forever. But a government shutdown forces everyone to do the same thing at the same time, and then collectively we can find a way to deal with the fallout.

This way of thinking also makes it clear what will happen next: The shutdown will go on for exactly as long as people want it to go on. Maybe a week or two more, but if public opinion changes and you say “OK we’ll open in four weeks” instead of “we’ll open in two weeks” you’re going to be very unpopular soon. And it does look like public opinion is changing. Yes, people are voicing plenty of bad reasons for public opinion to change, but there are also good reasons. But I’ll get into that debate in a separate appendix to this blog post, for now here are my observation on how people are behaving:

In my neighborhood, the East Village in New York, the streets have gone back to being pretty much as busy as usual. On a nice spring Sunday like today or last weekend, Tompkins Square Park was full of people. In fact all the sidewalks and streets in the neighborhood were full of people. They were still keeping a bit more distance and lots of them were wearing face masks, but it feels like the shutdown is already over. When people behave like this, that means it’ll be over soon. Doesn’t even matter what the governor says. Just like he said that there would be no shutdown on March 17 and then was forced to announce a shutdown a few days later. He has been hinting that he might be extending the shutdown past May 15th for part of the state. But it’s not really up to him and he might just be forced to change his mind on that.

If you’re worried that this might be too soon to end the shutdown, what can you do? You actually need to influence public opinion, because that is what really decides this. Alternatively you can perform a tactical retreat and instead of stopping the reopening, you can argue about how it happens. Like maybe beaches and parks are safer to reopen since recent data seems to suggest that outdoor infections are rare. It could also be fun to allow restaurants and shops to open and set up tables outdoors, in the streets, turning the city into a giant outdoor restaurant. (don’t remember where I heard that idea, it’s not mine)

Back to the topic. In summary the civics lesson is this: The shutdowns could only happen because the people wanted it to happen. But even though the people wanted it to happen, they would have been powerless to make it happen without the government. And the shutdown will end as soon as people want it to end. We have other recent examples, where the government was forced to follow the will of the people. Like how gay marriage was legalized even though both parties were against it. Or how marijuana is slowly being legalized. Or how even the republicans had to pass criminal justice reform after everyone agreed that the US system was over the top. The government doesn’t always work like this, there are plenty of examples where it goes against public opinion, but if the public has a strong opinion about a point, the government can only go against it for a limited amount of time.

Appendix: Should we reopen? My part of the Conversation

I personally am in favor of ending the shutdown, because it doesn’t seem to be working. I mean I am pretty sure that it’s slowing down the number of deaths, but that wasn’t the promise when we started the shutdown. In early March there were two remaining strategies: “flattening the curve,” which aims to spread out how long it takes for everyone to get the disease, or a “China-style lockdown” that causes enormous economical damage, but with the promise of ending the virus quickly. (it was already too late for the third strategy of early detection and suppression)

Now it seems like we are doing a mix of both strategies: Doing a lockdown in order to flatten the curve. Which makes no sense at all. To discuss that fully, lets formalize the strategies that we could have pursued:

Strategy 1: Business as usual

This is the easiest to do for the government: Pretend that this is just a flu and try to go on with business as usual. Brazil is trying it.

  • Terrible death toll, probably would have been millions in the US
  • Terrible economic outcomes due to many deaths as well as widespread fear and uncertainty

Strategy 2: Early detection, intervention and isolation

This is what every country tried to do at first: Detect the first cases and isolate them, preventing further spread. Try to find out who they came in contact with and order those to stay home as well

  • Few deaths
  • Little impact on the economy
  • This is apparently very hard to do. It worked in a few places like Taiwan and South Korea but in most places it didn’t. The US screwed it up particularly badly, but even countries who did better at this ultimately failed. There were even countries where this worked at first and who later got hit by a second wave, like Singapore.

Strategy 3: Flatten the Curve

In this we try to do strategy 2 for people who have tested positive, and everybody else has to live with a bit of reduced freedom. Large events are canceled, people should wear face masks and avoid close contact. This is what we tried to do in early March to avoid a shutdown.

  • Slightly reduced number of deaths: The health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed, but still lots of people die since everybody gets the virus eventually
  • Slightly bigger impact on the economy since people should go out less, but not a large impact overall. It’s also a problem that flattening the curve spreads out the timeline, causing the measures to last longer.
  • This is also hard to do: Convincing people to behave well didn’t work. The US failed badly at this. The advice in early March was things like “wash your hands often” or “stay home if you’re sick” or “don’t touch your face,” all of which sounds terribly naive now. We even discouraged people from wearing face masks. The strategy seems to be working in Sweden though.

Strategy 4: Quarantine Lockdown

If nothing else works and the virus is completely out of control, a lockdown is guaranteed to help. The virus spreads through people, so preventing people from coming in contact will quickly drop the number of new infections.

  • Much reduced number of deaths. The virus can be almost completely eliminated in a couple weeks.
  • Massive economic damage, but luckily it’s only for a short amount of time.

The New York Strategy

What did we do? We tried doing strategy 2, badly. Strategy 3 also failed because we really didn’t know what was necessary to stop the spread. Then we thought we’d do strategy 4, but we kinda didn’t want to, so we waited and then only did it half-assedly. We closed lots of businesses and offices, but people were still allowed to go out and construction continued and lots of people went out for lots of valid reasons. The most empty that I ever saw the East Village was in the first week of the lockdown, and that was maybe a quarter of the usual amount of people. Meaning still lots of people. And since then the numbers have only gone up. For the last two weeks the number of people walking around is pretty much back to normal, which defeats the whole point.

If you read about the China lockdown, theirs was much more strict. The lockdown described behind that link is guaranteed to work. If a lockdown that strict didn’t work, we would have to fundamentally change our theories of how viruses spread. I’m just saying that in case you don’t believe the numbers I’m about to tell you. If you look at the number of new cases in China, you see an immediate rapid drop. We can for example look at the graphs that the Financial Times puts out every day. At the highest point China had roughly 5000 new cases per day, then two weeks later it was roughly 500 new cases per day and another two weeks later it was roughly 50 new cases per day. In New York you are seeing a much slower decrease. Just roughly comparing the numbers, I’d estimate that over the same time period where China divided the rate of new cases by 100, New York only divided it by three. (from 11,000 per day to just under 4000 per day)

So let’s write down the New York strategy:

Strategy 5: Half-assed lockdown

In this strategy you shut down offices and businesses but try to have few restrictions. There are still lots of people going out and the virus continues to spread.

  • Still terrible death toll since most people eventually get the virus.
  • Huge economic damage since you are doing very strict measures and dragging them out for a longer time than you’d get with a strict lockdown.

This combines the bad parts of strategy 3 and strategy 4. You get the large death toll of “flattening the curve” and you get the large economic damage of a lockdown, except you get it for a longer time.

If you look at it like this, I hope it becomes clear that it doesn’t make sense to do a lockdown in order to flatten the curve. It only makes sense to do a lockdown to quickly extinguish the virus completely.

This whole discussion obviously only applies to New York, where something like 20% of the population has already gotten the virus. Other states, where a smaller percentage of the population has gotten the virus, have to do a different calculation. If you can do a China-style lockdown and keep the infection at less than 1%, I think that makes sense. But in New York we probably should have done a lockdown sooner and more thoroughly. (not saying I would have known this at the time. I fully admit that I thought the lockdown was overkill when it happened. In my defense: I trusted the official number of reported cases, which were completely wrong. As evidence you can see that the number of cases multiplied by 100 between March 12 and March 26, a two week period. The virus doesn’t spread that quickly, that’s just the tests catching up to the existing spread. But that’s a whole separate blog post…)

What should we do at this point? I think we have to admit that the lockdown didn’t achieve it’s intended goal. The virus is winning and I am admitting defeat and we can only hope to reduce damages at this point. (this may sound dramatic, but Governor Cuomo already thought the virus was winning in March. I thought he was too defeatist for the longest time, now I’m coming around to his viewpoint) We are also now much better at flattening the curve. People are actually wearing masks and keeping their distance. So I’d give strategy 3 a second chance, while people still listen and while we can still enforce many restrictions. If the choice is between a large death toll while ruining the economy and a equally large death toll without ruining the economy, I choose the latter. If you don’t want to admit defeat, just say “the lockdown succeeded because it bought us time to increase healthcare capacity” or something like that. With the number of people currently out and about in New York, it’s not like we can keep this charade of a lockdown going much longer.

I’ll change my mind if we see a significant drop of new cases in New York over the next two weeks. If the lockdown suddenly starts working by March 15, I would support prolonging it so that we can be sure that the virus is back under control. If it continues to look like we’re just dragging it out, most businesses should reopen. I hate this recommendation because I’m sure it will cost many lives, it’s just that I don’t have faith that the current strategy would save those lives.