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A file photo of health workers (Photo: Reuters)
A file photo of health workers (Photo: Reuters)

Opinion | This millennium has seen one intellectual failure after another

There is no trade-off between lives and livelihoods because it’s a trade-off between lives and lives

A good topic for all-family dining table discussions is this: is the virus spreading faster than the panic over it? My answer is that the virus is losing. Doomsayers and panic-mongers are still at it. Breaking news of additional deaths, devoid of context and perspective, drop into mailboxes regularly. “America is leading the global death tables," scream newspapers, having overtaken Italy. Breathtaking is the unwillingness to put the numbers in the context of annual influenza related deaths. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US “estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9 million [and] 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 [and] 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 [and] 61,000 deaths annually since 2010".

John Authers of Bloomberg wrote that, in New York, the number of hospital beds actually needed turned out to be far lower than projected. The way the story is spun is interesting. It is projected as a triumph of the experts and that US President Donald Trump would do well to keep listening to experts. Really? Let us get closer to the facts. The information he presents is from the slides that the governor of New York had used in his briefings. In his missive dated 7 April 2020 (Glimpses Of Light), Authers notes that the initial projection for the number of beds required in New York was 110,000. With the implementation of social distancing measures, as expert wisdom asked for, that number was expected to be 55,000 beds. The actual requirement so far has been around 15,000 beds. Something more than social distancing is at work.

Dr. Sekhar Bonu at NITI Aayog drew my attention to some columns added by worldometers.info to its table on covid infections. These are the number of tests and deaths per one million population. Check out the deaths per million among countries that have tested extensively: Iceland, the UAE, Greenland, Norway, Switzerland and Bahrain. Look at that figure in other countries. Testing helps social distancing through targeted quarantines, rather than having to impose blanket lockdowns.

Further, left to experts, Sweden might have been decimated by the virus by now. It has reported 899 deaths. In 2018-19, Sweden, relative to history, had a moderate flu season marked by a milder Influenza Type A strain. Yet, “among patients who received a laboratory-confirmed flu diagnosis, 505 (3.8 percent) had died within 30 days." (shorturl.at/hLPQU).

In a piece for Project Syndicate, Harvard professor Dani Rodrik observes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had continued to downplay risks. By now, Brazil must have paid a heavy price for his “reckless" attitude. Numbers tell a different a story, however. Brazil has had 1,230 deaths, or six deaths per million population. Herd immunity could also be at work here as in Sweden. A new paper from the Johns Hopkins University makes the same point (shorturl.at/jwzS3).

It seems clear that there has been an extraordinary overreaction on the part of authorities worldwide. For years to come, behavioural scientists may be looking for clues to this outbreak of hysteria. I had shared my hypothesis in this column two weeks ago. Lord Sumption, a retired supreme court judge in the UK, writing for the Sunday Times, attributes it to an “irrational horror of death" (shorturl.at/oBDLZ).

This reminds me of the irrational fear of economic recessions at the Federal Reserve, which deploys extraordinary measures at the slightest risk of a downturn in a business cycle. That is a topic for slightly more detailed treatment next week, when we analyse the implications of the unprecedented overreach of the Federal Reserve on 9 April into the market for high-yield bonds. This caused such excitement that US stock markets appeared to celebrate the number of unemployed in the country rising by more than six million with their best weekly performance in 45 years.

For now, let us stay with the intellectual failure of public health experts and their impact on people. We are witnessing a new combination of fear and hubris to go along with the familiar combination of greed and fear. The scale of the response is excessive. Perhaps, there is a larger purpose behind the current pandemic of panic that would become clearer in the decades to come.

Christopher Wood of Jeffries notes in a recent “Flash" dated 12 April: “The world has gone into a collective panic where there is almost a competition to see who can enforce the most aggressive lockdown, almost regardless of the economic consequences." Wood’s observation should be restated. It is not just about economic consequences because that is similar to the false framing of the public-policy challenge of choosing between lives and livelihoods. It is actually a trade-off between lives and lives.

Thus, having been forced into lockdowns, governments have been compelled to come up with extraordinary fiscal and monetary support measures. Some can afford it; some can get away with it, but all have to do it, and soon. Prolonging the economic uncertainty will also have consequences for public health, and authorities run the risk of getting it wrong both ways.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. These are the author’s personal views

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