Lockdowns Were Never A Solution

Illustration from Tom Friedan and Kelly Henning’s C19 test and trace guide.

States began shutting down most of public life back in the 3rd week of March. The economic impact of these measures has been staggering but as they drag on, the psychological impact is beginning to grow as well.

Spread of the disease in the US has slowed, but almost all of our overall decline has occurred in the NYC, New Orleans and Boston areas. Two months into this shutdown, six states (TN, ME, TX, ND, UT, AR) still have an R-value above 1, meaning C19 infections continue to grow. One of them, Texas, also has an enormous population giving the disease plenty of room to run. After two months of lockdown our per capita daily death toll from C19 remains fifth in the world behind only Sweden, UK, Brazil and Peru.

Lockdowns were never meant to end the pandemic. They are designed to buy time, a thin firebreak providing an overwhelmed government a pause to set in place the testing and tracing measures that contain a viral disease. Our lockdowns haven’t failed because people lost patience. Our lockdowns failed because our federal government has not done its job.

Our current CDC Director is an anti-abortion activist who blamed the HIV epidemic on a collection of right-wing scapegoats, including “single-parent households.” Under the leadership of a wider Administration filled with religious nuts, grifters and racists, our pandemic response has been a rolling disaster. However, Obama’s CDC Director, Tom Friedan, is doing what he can from outside the government to steer us toward the only solution.

Working with the Gates and Bloomberg foundations, and with help from Kelly Henning, the former Director of Epidemiology for New York City’s Health Department, they’ve published a guide to testing and tracing for morons accompanied by a New York Times op-ed.

Friedan’s very simple guide lays out the only solution that was ever available in a simple cartoon, using small words in bold type. This model was used for prior outbreaks, like the Ebola crisis in Africa, but it is uniquely effective for viral diseases. Viruses do not replicate outside their hosts. Identify all of the hosts, isolate them during their contagious phase, and the disease will die out. Fail, and the disease will continue to spread. That’s the whole, very simple story of a complex pandemic.

With or without effective treatments, and with or without a vaccine, testing and tracing is our only way out of this disaster. Yes, a vaccine would help, but for comparison consider what it took to (briefly) eradicate measles.

We had a cheap, reliable vaccine available for measles in 1968. We eradicated the disease (briefly) 32 years later in 2000, thanks to mass, mandatory vaccinations and an aggressive contact tracing campaign. 32 years of effort, even with a vaccine that imparts lifelong immunity.

By comparison, we have no reason to think that immunity to C19 lasts very long, and a great deal of evidence that it may be fleeting, perhaps as brief as 6 months. We’ve had influenza vaccines since WW2. How often have you had a flu shot and how often have you had the flu? Lifelong immunity is not available for every illness, and coronaviruses probably aren’t among them. Vaccines will not be enough.

Potential limitations in immunity also mean we can’t count on this disease to simply “burn itself out.” Nobody manages malaria, tuberculosis or meningitis by letting it run through the population and build up “herd immunity.” That’s not how you solve an infectious disease problem, it’s how you build one of those shithole countries that require a dozen painful injections for a visit.

Countries like South Korea and New Zealand which have nearly eradicated C19 have used limited lockdowns as opportunities to build their testing and tracing capabilities. We squandered that opportunity. Now the toll of the shutdowns, along with protests from ideological idiots, is forcing us to abandon even these weak measures. Prior to the lockdowns and mitigation efforts, C19 was spreading with an R-value around 3, meaning each infected person was infecting 3 additional people. Drop these mitigation efforts and we’ll likely see a return to these levels of spread within a few weeks. But what choice do we have?

Lockdowns alone were never going to stop the spread of C19. Lockdowns are not a cure and they cannot last forever. Our incompetent federal leaders did not do their job, allowing our window for implementing a relatively manageable testing and tracing regime to close. Now we’re going to do this the hard way, a painful reminder that politics is always a matter of life and death.

16 Comments

  1. Thank, thank goodness the Democrats are gearing down to help us out with

    *checks notes*

    a guy who tells black people they’re not black if they don’t support him about a day or two after claiming he’ll beat himself.

    Yeah, we have the government we deserve. If we didn’t want millions of our compatriots to die, we’d hire people who could pass a high school oral exam to administrate our country.

    1. EJ

      Were I a cruel man, I would hurl Joe Biden’s longstanding, well-documented pro-segregation views and sexual harassment allegations in the faces of everyone who claimed he was electable.

      I am not a cruel man. I understand that “electable” doesn’t mean “will win elections.” People still describe Clinton as having been “electable”, and she lost the election. “Electable” is a euphemism for “is no threat to oligarchs.”

      Joe Biden is a symptom of the Democrat party being trapped in an impossible situation: it must simultaneously appeal to the donor class (that is, the oligarchs and their retainers) as well as to the voter class, who are becoming increasingly impatient with them. In this situation, a nostalgia for the 90s, back when the oligarchs acted with subtlety and the voters were more tolerant of injustice, is perhaps inevitable; and picking someone who’s a relic of the 90s as a candidate is not that surprising.

      1. https://www.epsilontheory.com/a-new-gilded-age/

        “Does any politically active person you know not grouse about the rise in political tribalism? Do you know anyone who doesn’t think that whataboutism is a scourge, who doesn’t bemoan the loss of a political center, who doesn’t regret the utter polarization of American politics? These are not uncommon observations.”

        […]

        “The only thing that breaks a top-down narrative is action.

        “That isn’t to say that knowing doesn’t matter. Knowing matters to you. Knowing matters to how you live your life, how you perceive and process information and how you make decisions in arenas where you do possess some modicum of control. But knowing won’t bring about change in what you know. And we all know, y’all.

        “We have allowed ourselves to become an army of whimpering John Mayers, a few hundred million people waiting on the world to change. People waiting for the truth to come out and break the hold of the governing political narratives that we all know are stupid. That don’t make sense. That don’t serve our interests.

        “Here’s an idea: Stop waiting and leave.”

      2. Were I a cruel man in the 1930s, I would hurl FDR’s longstanding, well-documented privileged upbringing and complete ignorance of the plights of the working class in the faces of everyone who claimed he was electable.

        Would anyone here like to take the position that it was a mistake to elect President Roosevelt? Anyone?

        Snark aside, EJ’s summary, with all respect, is a perfect distillation of why modern-day Democrats are weak. They’re obsessed with winning a moral and/or policy argument rather than actually winning elections – which is fantastic if you want to be president of a debating society; not so much if you want to change the course of a nation. And yes, often times that means making concessions and appealing to people that you’d otherwise never associate with.

        Franklin Roosevelt had to contend with racist Southern Democrats for all of his presidency. Abraham Lincoln himself put personal feelings aside to say that “we are not enemies but friends” and reached out a hand to a traitorous Confederacy to heal a broken nation.

        And they did so not because they condoned abuse or immorality, but because they took the long view of a distant horizon that they knew the country must keep marching towards – and their tolerance and patience helped steer the country towards progress that was eventually made, even if they themselves never lived to see it done.

        No one can know the future, and no one can know what kind of a President Joe Biden would be. That’s on us – not just to show up in November, but to stay involved, be citizens and never relent for a moment until the abuses that this moment have shown a spotlight on are dealt with.

        Be a citizen. No whining. Stay involved. Vote.

      3. EJ

        I’ll tell you what, Ryan, I’ll offer you a bet.

        Biden looks like he’s going to ignore your advice about working with people he dislikes, and is picking Klobuchar as a VP because she passes his centrist purity test (as opposed to doing what you suggest and choosing, say, Ilhan Omar.)

        If Biden wins the presidency, I will give him my sincere best wishes, will give him the genuine benefit of the doubt, and will back him in his endeavours. I will do these things because him winning the election will be the acid test that my current ideological position is wrong and yours right, and therefore I should adopt your ideology because mine evidently doesn’t work; and adopting this ideology would lead me to do these things.

        In return, if Biden loses the presidency, I would like you to concede that this was the acid test of my ideological position being right and yours being wrong; and therefore you should adopt my ideology because yours evidently doesn’t work.

        I am relatively sure that I will not have to pay that forfeit; and for your part I hope you’re relatively sure you won’t have to either. One should have the courage of one’s convictions, after all.

      4. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” – Abraham Lincoln

        Being right doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed to win, EJ, but it does mean that we should aspire to bear the burden of our convictions, even as we understand that we may lose.

        Your bet is respectfully rejected. Right makes might, not the inverse. That’s how Trump thinks.

      5. EJ

        I respect that position.

        You have beliefs that matter to you, and you will not compromise on them even if they lead to defeat. I admire this. Earlier you described this position as “[being] obsessed with winning a moral and/or policy argument rather than actually winning elections.” Rather, I see this as understanding that if you need to compromise your morals and forget your policies in order to win the election, then you didn’t win the election in any meaningful way. Your phrase “we must hope that right makes might” is a good way to express this.

        I sincerely wish your side good fortune, all the more so because you seem to lack certainty in their victory. Biden is clearly better than Trump.

      6. “Would anyone here like to take the position that it was a mistake to elect President Roosevelt? Anyone?”

        Roosevelt could speak in complete sentences in the service of civic values and responsibility, not bludger and trip his way through the service of mealy-mouthed passing the buck. Voting for Biden v Trump isn’t voting for Roosevelt v Hitler, it’s closer to voting for W. Bush v. Berlusconi.

  2. I stand by my original statement that 1% will die by the time this is all over. To put that on context Belgium, the worst hit (or at least the most accurate), has a death rate of only 0.08% at the moment. The U.S. is reporting 0.03%, but obviously, it is higher than that. That is 3.7 million dead in the U.S.

    There are how many photos like this on the web today?
    https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/24/us/ozarks-missouri-party/index.html

    All sane people state a vaccine is not available until 2021, at the earliest. Yet already a ton of state governments are stating they cannot, will not, shut down a second time, and virtually no small business that survived the 1st wave can afford the costs of 2 restarts.

    So, when you factor in the lack of social distancing, the economic pressures, the political pressures, and the fact that many states will censor infection and death rates (that is outside of general incompetence), I see no reason to believe that 1% will not die before any vaccine is widely available, and actually administered.

    1. First, let’s clarify a detail. The real mortality rate isn’t the #dead/#currentlyinfected. The mortality rate is #dead/#recovered. By that metric, the mortality rate for the disease so far in Belgium is well over 30%. In the US it’s a little less than a quarter. The numbers are probably a little softer than that result because of lapses in testing and the # of people who carry an asymptomatic infection, but that’s still the master stat. That total is only 2% in S Korea, but that makes sense when you consider that they managed to contain it from spreading wildly, and they captured a larger percentage of the total infections in their #’s thanks to effective testing. But that’s probably the lowest it could possibly go, and it’s probably too late to keep the mortality that low in the US.

      Not everyone will get the disease, even with completely uncontrolled spread, but this virus seems to have a remarkable ability to proliferate. 1% may be conservative, since we still have no plan to contain its spread.

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