Imagine you are engaged in a fight against the alien battle cruiser Briggs, off the Cochran nebula, and you are informed of a civilian vessel in the area. It is in distress and unless something is done to rescue the passengers, they will all die. If you disengage from the battle to save the people on the passenger ship Steve Sailer, you will most certainly be destroyed or captured by the Briggs. If you remain in combat with the Briggs, you will win, but the Steve Sailer will be lost.
Clearly, the intent of the problem is not to test the ability of the captain to solve a problem of fact, but rather one of morality. The choice is to sacrifice yourself, your crew and your ship, the John Derbyshire, in order to save a passenger ship full of people. Or, you let those people die and continue on to defeat the alien enemy. There’s no puzzle to be solved or information to be discovered. The challenge is to arrive at the correct moral decision given the described parameters.
The moral answer is obvious. You and the Briggs are moral actors. Presumably, you are a positive actor and the Briggs is a negative actor. Otherwise, what would be the point of engaging in battle with the Briggs? The Sailer is morally neutral. It could be full of future Hitlers for all you know. You have no way to evaluate fully its moral position, so it does not have one. The only logical answer is to continue to engage the Briggs and let the Sailer perish. It is the only way to ensure a morally positive outcome.
That familiar, but fictional, scenario is useful in thinking about what our rulers should be doing in the current crisis. The coronavirus epidemic has created a scenario for the rulers that has no right answer. There’s no heroic 30-something women in a lab about to formulate a vaccine for the Chinese Flu. There’s no handsome germ detective hunting down the mad scientist that created it. The choice is either bring civilization to a halt for as long as it takes or let the virus run its course.
Now, the “flatten the curve” people will claim there is a third choice, which allows for the virus to run its course more slowly, giving health services more time and resources to treat the sick. This will also buy time for a potential vaccine. There are variations on this, but that is the general idea. We can only evaluate this option, however, once the initial options are fully evaluated. To assume both are unacceptable is to violate the parameters of the problem, so we will evaluate this option last.
The first choice is to do nothing and let the virus run its course. It’s not exactly doing nothing, but public awareness assumes people will assess their risk tolerance and take whatever measures they think make sense. In this scenario, the rulers simply inform the public about the basic ways in which to avoid the contagion and perhaps put resources into the healthcare system. The underlying assumption, however, is that everyone that could get the virus will get the virus over the next year.
What does that mean, as a practical matter? Some experts are saying 50-70% of people will get the virus and up to 5% will die. This is not based in much, other than wild speculation. We have no examples that are similar or facts on the ground to suggest these numbers are probable. Every year the influenza virus infects about 10% of the public, using no precautions against it. Many more people get the common cold each year, but the number that actually get it is unknown.
The fact is, we don’t have an example of a serious contagion, one that kills with any significance, that infects 70% of the public. The Black Plague probably infected 40% of the people of Europe. The Spanish Flu is the best comparison to the Chinese Flu and it infected about 20% of the public. Swine Flu infected about 10% of the people. It is a really good comparison with the Spanish Flu, as both were H1N1 and both killed younger people, which is always a more serious concern.
We actually have a good test of the infectiousness of this particular virus. The Diamond Princess cruise ship was infected and remained in lock-down for two weeks. The people on the ship were allowed to mingle and party while they waited to be set free. The final numbers were 700 infected out of 3,500. That’s 20%. That figure seems to turn up a lot when examining the infection numbers of deadly viruses. Again, the Spanish Flu seemed to hit about 20% of people world-wide and in the US.
Now, we have some parameters to evaluate the first option. The infection rate is probably going to be about 20%, like similar viruses, but it could be the first universally infectious virus in the history of the planet. Everyone gets it. The death rate, based on current data, could be as low as one percent or as high as 3.4 percent. Those experts say the ensuing collapse of the health care system will lift the number to 5%, even though we have no evidence to support that claim.
There you are. The first answer for the ruler in this position is that somewhere between 20% and 100% of his people get the virus and between one percent and five percent will die from it. In the United States, it means between 600,000 deaths over the course of a year to a high of 16.5 million deaths over the course of the year. Here you see why the rulers are panicking about what to do. No one wants to allow millions to die from a virus, no matter what the cost of saving them.
Now, it must be emphasized that all of our experience with this virus and similar virus outbreaks points to the low-end estimate being the worst-case scenario. Other than the Black Death in the Middle Ages, we have nothing worse than those low-end estimates of infection and death. A lot of people really want to believe the high end is plausible, but that’s what it is, a desire to believe. In reality, the worst-case scenario from this virus for the United States is a million additional deaths.
Now, what about the other option? We can quarantine the nation in an effort to slow or even stop the spread of the virus. It means closing down most business, forcing people to stay home and preventing gatherings of people. Whether this is even feasible is a good question on its own. Getting people to stay off the roads in a snow storm is impossible, so this option looks like a fantasy, more than reality. On the other hand, this is more serious. Maybe enough cooperate to make it work.
What does that mean, as a practical matter? First off, it means the economy plunges into an unprecedented depression. We have no examples of what happens when you simply stop almost all economic activity. The stock market will be closed, financial systems will be closed. The use of money could very well cease. Either people hoard cash like they hoard food or it simply becomes worthless in a world where no one is working and all commerce has come to a halt.
In such a scenario, there are two ways forward. One is civil unrest that topples over local authority and perhaps the national government. The other is the imposition of martial law and a takeover of the essential services by the state. Your food market becomes a food distribution center where you get your allotted supplies. That sounds absurd, but how else can you feed 300 million people when the economy has been shut down by a quarantine? There is no other option.
Let’s pretend there is some magical version of this shutdown that both halts the spread and keeps portions of the economy up and running, such that food and essentials are distributed, but we enter a depression. The last depression was a 10% contraction of the economy over a year and 30% over three years. We still talk about that even today as it led to the second industrial war of the century. What happens when the economy contract 50% in a year? No one has any idea.
There are real consequences to an economic collapse. Essential medicines stop being produced and essential services cease to exist. A shortage of insulin would threaten millions in a month. The collapse would take the health care system with it, so millions would be at risk right away. The risk of civil unrest would threaten untold millions, mostly from local police. We simply have no idea what such a collapse would do in terms of death and destruction, because it is unimaginably horrible.
There you have the parameters of the problem. Now, the flatten the curve folks would have you believe that a long vacation of playing video games and watching Netflix will allow us to avoid the stark choices in front of us. Sure, the economy will take a hit, but it will come back just as soon as the virus is slowed down and the miracle cure is ready for human use in a year or two. In reality, they are just wishing away the problem in the hope of violating the parameters of the problem.
That’s why the talk of flattening the curve is actually more dangerous than facing the reality of the situation. The end result will be worse than picking one option or the other, because you end up getting both. No quarantine can last more than a couple of weeks, because people will never obey it, the state can’t enforce it and the society could never afford it. That means we get the full brunt of the bug, plus the full brunt of the effort to shutter civil life for an extended period.
Getting back to the fictional space battle, the right decision is ultimately the one to have the most certain morally positive outcome. The captain of the Derbyshire defeats the alien ship and goes on to be a positive force in the universe. In this case, putting all efforts into maintaining the civil life of the people has a clear set of costs. We can plan for a million deaths. We cannot plan for the unknown economic cost of collapse.
The great Russian leader Joseph Stalin allegedly said “a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are a statistic.” Whether he said it or not is hard to know, but it is both true and something Stalin likely would have grasped. When a ruler is faced with this sort of problem, it is not about saving one life. It is about preserving a people and what makes them a people. A million deaths from the Chinese Flu is terrible, but it pales in comparison to the costs of preventing it.
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