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An Exchange at EconLog About Covid Policy

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Scott Sumner – prompted by this EconLog post by David Henderson [2] – argues that “the pessimists were correct about Covid.” [3] Not unfairly interpreting David’s post as describing a “debate” between pessimistic Covid modelers (especially Neil Ferguson) and the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, Scott offers his reasons for believing that Ferguson & Co. were correct – and, presumably, for also believing that most of humanity was wise to ignore the Great Barrington Declaration.

David [4] and Phil Magness [5] each, in the comments section, pushed back against some of Scott’s arguments. I chimed in as well, with what’s pasted below (slightly amended). (My second comment below is a response to commenter “Steve” who is displeased with my first comment.)

Comment 1 [6]:

Scott misses two important points in his criticism of David’s earlier post [2]. But before I get to these points, I note that I here ignore – until, in passing, at the very end – the debate over the correctness or incorrectness of competing estimates of the SARS-CoV-2’s IFR. I do so because I disagree with Scott’s suggestion that IFR estimates are central to David’s post.

Now to the two points missed by Scott.

First, he misses the core reason David publicly took issue with Ryan Bourne’s Telegraph op-ed [7]. In that op-ed, Ryan favorably mentions Tyler as someone who, by thinking on multiple margins, avoids the trap into which so many Covid ‘experts’ fall. Yet as David points out, early on Tyler himself inexplicably fell into this very trap. In March 2020 Tyler praised Neil Ferguson & Co. [8] not so much because they encouraged individuals to beware of the coronavirus but, instead, because Ferguson’s predictions and advice were instrumental in determining policy responses by governments in the U.K. and the U.S. Those responses (in)famously featured lockdowns.

Contrary to what seems to be Scott’s belief, the chief complaint that I and many others – including, I’m sure, David – have about Ferguson is not that Ferguson’s models incited individuals to avoid the virus with measures taken voluntarily. Instead, this complaint is centered on Ferguson’s support for lockdowns, and on the sad reality that governments took this reckless advice.

The second point that Scott misses is David’s discussion of the Great Barrington Declaration [9]. David is correct that the GBD – unlike lockdowns and many other government-imposed Covid measures – takes seriously the inescapability of trade-offs. The GBD, therefore, is a much better example of thinking on multiple margins than were Ferguson’s pronouncements and the resulting lockdowns.

Most governments ignored the GBD. And many people – including Tyler – publicly criticized this document. Yet if its authors are correct, then Covid’s IFR and death toll would today be lower than they’ve turned out to be. The reason is that scarce effort and resources would have been focused on protecting the most vulnerable rather than spent scattershot.

We knew as early as March 2020 that vulnerability to Covid increases steeply with age. We knew also that Covid’s risks rise with co-morbidities. Therefore, identifying the vulnerable was relatively easy. And so it’s fair to ask: What’s so outlandish about a proposal to focus scarce effort and resources on protecting the vulnerable without forcing everyone – the vast majority of whom are at very low risk – to spend effort and resources attempting to avoid the virus? After all, effort and resources used to lock down workplaces and schools are effort and resources rendered unavailable to enhance individualized protection of the vulnerable.

How much more effective would mitigation measures have been had scarce effort and resources been focused on the vulnerable? We’ll never know for sure because the counsel offered by the GBD was rejected in all but a few places.

Of course it’s possible that the lockdowns and other one-size-fits-all coercive measures that most of us actually endured outperformed – on the death-toll front – what would have occurred had the GBD been followed. But this possibility is hardly a certainty. Indeed, I believe it to be highly implausible. Regardless, we’ll never know.

Either way, the death toll that we have today, and that Scott uses to estimate Covid’s IFR, is one that arose under policies – and still-prevalent beliefs about Covid – that were influenced far more by Neil Ferguson than by Jay Bhattacharya, Sunetra Gupta, and Martin Kulldorff (the co-authors of the GBD).

Scott defends Ferguson’s unrealized extreme estimates of Covid fatalities by pointing out that these were made for what is now a counterfactual – namely, a world of no measures, voluntary or mandatory, taken in response to the coronavirus. This same mindset should cause Scott and others to be more favorably disposed to the GBD by prompting them to ask: What would the death toll have been in another counterfactual world, namely, a world in which the GBD’s counsel was heeded?

Comment 2 [10] (in response to “Steve” [11]):

Steve:

Who do I misquote? And who do I “smear”? (Note that to express and explain disagreement with someone is not to “smear” someone. This distinction is important.)

As for your claim that I’m mistaken to believe that Neil Ferguson’s modeling played a major role in pushing governments to lockdown, remember that it was Tyler Cowen who credited Ferguson with this effect. I simply take Tyler here at his word – a word that, on this count, I believe to be accurate. (The fact that you and other practicing physicians paid little attention to Ferguson’s predictions is irrelevant to the question of whether or not those predictions played a significant role in prompting governments to lock down.)

Further, you repeat here a mistaken claim that you made earlier about the Great Barrington Declaration – namely, you claim that “no one had ever tried doing what they [the GBD’s co-authors] suggested. No one knew how to do it. To date no one still does.”

I can do no better here than to repeat my response from a few months ago to you on this very point:

In opposition to the Focused Protection advocated in the Great Barrington Declaration [9] – and, presumably, endorsed also by David Henderson [12]you again insist [13] that “We did not know then [October 2020] and largely still don’t know how to protect older people, the immunocompromised, etc.”

And so I again remind you that the Declaration’s three eminent co-authors – Jay Bhattacharya [14] of Stanford, Sunetra Gupta [15] of Oxford, and Martin Kulldorff [16] of Harvard – did indeed offer details on what Focused Protection would look like [17]. The fact that these measures would not have worked perfectly and with 100 percent certainty is true. It’s also irrelevant because no measures to achieve any desirable outcome work perfectly and with 100 percent certainty.

But allow me to offer my own proposal – one that I believe would work quite well – for how we might carry out Focused Protection: Give all vulnerable people hazmat suits to wear, and require negative Covid tests of any and all persons who might come near vulnerable people during those times when the hazmat suits aren’t being worn.

“Outlandish! Ridiculous! Absurd!” you’ll cry. “That’s not only impractical; it’s also dehumanizing!”

Really? Compared to what? Compared to lockdowns and school closures – compared to the terrible consequences of indefinitely severing countless, complex webs of commercial, familial, and social relationships – my hazmat-suit proposal is downright mundane and highly doable.

The relevant comparison for any Focused Protection measures (including my hazmat-suit proposal) is not to life as it was up through 2019. Instead, it’s to a world indefinitely locked down or under the threat of lockdown; it’s to a bizarro world filled with deep distress, depressing isolation, unprecedented uncertainty, and terrible tyranny. I submit that by this comparison, Focused Protection (again, even including a measure as extreme and disagreeable as my hypothetical hazmat-suit proposal) is far more practical and acceptable – and far more humane – than are the cruel measures, as ludicrous as they are odious, that most of humanity has suffered since early 2020.

I submit that humanity had in 2020, and has in 2022, far better knowledge of how to identify the vulnerable and focus protection on them than it had for how to lockdown in a way that possessed even a remote prospect of passing a cost-benefit test.