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A Sober Look at Covid Claims

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Here’s a letter to a regular and much-respected correspondent:

Mr. K___:

Thanks for this e-mail:

Los Angeles is running out of oxygen for patients as covid hospitalizations hit record highs nationwide.

States in West and South have highest shares of residents hospitalized as Los Angeles hospitals turn away ambulances.

Even if we overlook the relevant reality that being hospitalized with covid differs from being hospitalized for covid – and that hospitals have a financial interest in classifying as many patients as possible as being infected with Covid [2] – what are we to make of the facts that you report?

Unless all states have the same share of residents hospitalized, some states will at any time necessarily “have [the] highest share of residents hospitalized.” And it is not now, nor would it ever be, surprising that such states are in the same region. So the first fact reported in your second paragraph tells us nothing of any relevance.

The only relevant set of facts reported in your e-mail is of the crunch on hospital resources in Los Angeles. But what does it mean?

Because southern California has suffered some of the harshest lockdowns in the U.S., one plausible conclusion to draw from today’s crunch on hospital resources in L.A. is that lockdowns do not reduce the demand for medical resources and might even increase this demand.

An additional plausible conclusion – consistent with the first – is that some of California’s pre-Covid policies have contributed to rendering that state’s health-care resources inadequate. As reported in today’s Wall Street Journal [3],

The problem is worse in California in part because its hospitals were ailing before the virus hit. Dozens of hospitals in low-income areas have closed over the past two decades amid financial distress. California has the fewest hospital beds per capita of any state save Oregon and Washington, yet it has many more low-income patients with chronic illnesses.

Blame California’s Medicaid program, which manages to be both too large and miserly. It compensates providers at about half the rate of Medicare and among the lowest rates in the country.

When government seizes from the market the responsibility for allocating resources, the results are nearly always poor, and sometimes calamitous. Making matters worse is the habit of politicians and the media to falsely blame these bad outcomes on what remains of market forces – and then to use these bad outcomes as excuses for yet further government control over people’s lives, with Covid lockdowns being the most draconian of late.

Sincerely,
Don

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