Every now and then I read something that opens my mind and re-frames how I think of the world. Yesterday, Reason.com published Despite Coronavirus, Sweden Refuses To Shutter Businesses and Limit Gatherings, by Johan Norberg, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of the forthcoming book Open: The Story of Human Progress. It is worth re-quoting a lot of it here. “The lights are going out all over Europe, the U.S., and increasingly the rest of the world. Borders are closing, cities are shutting down, and governments are imposing export bans. It looks like one of the first victims of the new coronavirus is globalization. The World Bank has estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the economic damage from epidemics usually comes from aversion behavior, not from disease, deaths, and the associated loss of production. This time, due to the massive scale of the shutdowns, that cost is going to be much bigger.
“Perhaps not in Sweden, though. It’s hard to predict even the next few hours or days, but it is interesting that Sweden—the one European country that did not want to shut its borders, did not close schools, and has not banned gatherings of fewer than 500 people—so far seems to be containing the spread better than other countries have. Sweden did not do this out of libertarian zeal, but because of a tradition of listening to experts and health authorities, who thought it better to track individual cases within the country than to shut everything down. When everybody is awaiting the latest epidemiological data to make decisions, there is less room for political grandstanding and strongman rhetoric.
“There is also a case to be made that the culture of personal responsibility and interpersonal trust makes it easier for the Swedish government to leave the ultimate decisions to the people. When the public health agency recommends working from home and avoiding unnecessary gatherings, most Swedes abide by it, even without putting police on the streets and imposing stiff penalties. That leaves necessary room for local knowledge and personal needs. Individuals, organizations, and businesses can go ahead anyway, if their particular situation makes it especially important that they remain open or move around freely.
“Despite the popular perception, our best hope against pandemic is continued trade and cooperation across borders. Travel bans are mostly ‘political placebo’ as U.K. health researcher Clare Wenham puts it, and the World Health Organization is advising against it, for the simple reason that COVID-19 is already everywhere, but vital supplies and medical equipment are not. It is easy to see the political logic behind bans on the export of essential equipment, implemented by countries like Germany and France at an early stage. You have to serve your own population first, right? But it’s the same logic as toilet paper hoarding, and it has the same result. It forces others to do the same, which means that it is not on the market when you really have to go.
“Wealth, communications technology, and open science have made our response to new diseases faster than ever. In a poorer and more closed world, without mass transportation, microorganisms traveled slower but they traveled freely, recurring for hundreds of years, until they had picked almost all of us off, one by one. Today our response is also global, and therefore for the first time, mankind has a fighting chance. Hospitals, researchers, health authorities, and drug companies everywhere can now supply each other with instant information. They can coordinate efforts to analyze and combat the problem. By organizing clinical trials of therapeutics in many countries simultaneously, they can reach a critical mass of patients they would never have found at home.
“When someone reveals the mechanism of the virus, researchers and algorithms everywhere can get to work on ways of attacking its weak spots. On March 25, not even three months after China admitted a new virus was on the loose, America’s National Library of Medicine lists 143 potential drugs and vaccines against the virus, already recruiting (or preparing to recruit) patients to participate in clinical trials. Globalization might even prevent many pandemics from happening. A 2019 study by researchers at the universities of Oxford and Tel Aviv showed that frequent travel between populations makes us catch a lot of bugs, but also increases immunity against new strains. So apocalyptic outbreaks become less likely. This is the reason why previously isolated populations are most at risk—from Native Americans after 1492 to the swine flu in 2009, when 24 of the 30 worst affected countries were island nations. Human mobility is like a “natural vaccination” says Oxford’s Robin Thompson. The researchers speculate that this might help explain the absence of a global pandemic as severe as the Spanish flu in the last 100 years. That doesn’t help at all when a virus that previously only affected animals mutates and jumps to humans, like the new coronavirus. Then we have no resistance and it can spread quickly.”
Then again, maybe not. Sweden alone had 3,447 reported cases as of Sunday, March 29, with 102 deaths. Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has told Danish public broadcaster DR that his country’s approach is based on the belief that the virus has already spread too far within Sweden. Closing schools, he argues, could increase the risk of children spreading the virus to elderly neighbors. But experts worry Sweden might be setting itself up for a disaster. In March, five senior scientists and doctors criticized the country’s approach in a letter published in Läkartidningen, the journal of the Swedish Medical Association. “Sweden’s strategy for dealing with the situation seems to consist mainly in contact tracking and isolation of the sick,” they wrote. “The strategy can work if there are only a few cases.” It might already be beyond that stage. “More delays and chances can have fatal effects on public health in Sweden,” they cautioned.
Thomas Sowell, fresh and for this morning: (Perfectionist) Progressives think in terms of solutions and conservatives think in terms of trade-offs. (Perfectionist) Progressives ask what it will take to stop the virus, and conservatives ask what it will cost to stop the virus. And further, when conservatives ask what it will cost to stop the virus, the progressives immediately wheel on them, and accuse them of “being mercenary,” of “setting a price tag” on precious human life and, if the progressive involved is a woke evangelical lefty, he will hide his peculiar myopia by using terms like “Mammon.” When you raise concerns about “the economy,” and “lost revenue streams,” he says, you are revealing to the world that idol standing there in a recessed alcove of your heart, like you won an Oscar or something. No, actually The shutdown in California is costing billions of dollars a week in the restaurant business alone. We are talking about people. Conservatives who talk about costs are talking about costs to people. (Perfectionist) Progressives who ignore the costs are ignoring the costs to people. When you call the witch doctor and summon the aerie spirits of real solutions now, you will always be surprised by the appearance of the bill. What’s this? Why were we not informed?