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Economists Should Recognize the Undesirability of Pursuing Corner Solutions

Here’s a letter to Max Roser, proprietor of Our World in Data; I thank Jay Bhattacharya for constructive feedback on an earlier version of this letter:

Mr. Roser:

I’ve long admired your website Our World In Data. It’s a remarkably rich mine of important information. Thank you for creating and maintaining that site.

But I write today in puzzlement. On your page “Daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases” there appears this statement: “Only if we end the pandemic everywhere can we end the pandemic anywhere. The entire world has the same goal: cases of COVID-19 need to go to zero.”

Cases of Covid-19 need to go to zero? Really?

Given that we humans have lived for millennia, and continue to live, with diseases caused by countless dangerous pathogens that have become endemic, what’s so special about Covid-19 that makes it one that we must literally eliminate? Even the bacteria responsible for the massively lethal 14th-century outbreak of the bubonic plague still exists and causes some infections.

Through deliberate efforts, humanity has so far succeeded in completely eradicating all of two contagious diseases – and one of these, rinderpest, affected only even-toed ungulates. The lone disease that we’ve completely eradicated that was of danger to humans is smallpox (the infection-fatality rate of which, by the way, was 30 percent – multiple times higher than any estimates of the IFR of SARS-CoV-2). Yet contrary to what your statement implies is impossible, smallpox was eliminated in many an ‘anywhere’ long before it had finally, by 1980, been eliminated everywhere. The United States, for example, was free of smallpox by 1952 despite this disease still breaking out for a few more decades in Africa.

Also unlike smallpox – the only reservoir of which was humans – SARS-CoV-2 has animal reservoirs, thus making complete eradication of this virus practically impossible.

Smallpox, in short, is a one-off case. Complete elimination of any disease typically makes no more sense than would, say, complete elimination of household hazards, of auto accidents, and of workplace mishaps. Any one of these outcomes is perhaps physically possible, but the cost of its achievement would be obscenely high. So too would be the cost of completely eliminating Covid-19.

You’re an economist. You understand that, at least after a certain point, the greater is the protection against some disease, the less valuable are additional amounts of such protection. And at some point, the benefits of additional protection become worth less than the costs of obtaining it. Further, you also know of, and applaud, the great benefits of economic growth – benefits that include improved health, and that would thus be jeopardized by pursuit of the wealth-destroying policy of zero Covid.

Even in the unlikely event that governments would pursue a zero-Covid policy without continuing their draconian restrictions on human freedom, what gives you the confidence that you obviously have to believe that the benefits of achieving this particular corner solution – that is, complete elimination of Covid-19 – would be worth the crushing costs of doing so?

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

P.S. The CDC several years ago discussed the economic considerations of disease eradication – considerations that render Covid an unfit candidate for eradication.