Part of the Coronavirus Conventional Wisdom Has Become Too Pessimistic

Part of the Coronavirus Conventional Wisdom Has Become Too Pessimistic, by Josh Barro.

If you lock down society to beat the epidemic, and succeed in drastically slowing new infections, but then go back to what you were doing before, the epidemic can just come raging back. …

That beating this epidemic will not be a one-and-done thing is an important realization; it’s good that the president leveled with people on Monday in saying he expected disruptions to persist into July or August. …

But, for the first time in a while, I think part of the coronavirus conventional wisdom has become too pessimistic. Yes, the fight to stop the spread of the virus is going to have to be ongoing unless, and until, we develop a vaccine or highly effective medical treatments, which is to say for at least several months. But the nature of the disruption does not have to stay constant.

It is necessary now to close schools and businesses, and tell people to drastically reduce social contacts in a way that is economically devastating to many businesses and workers. But there is a trade-off: The better we get at interventions to identify and isolate specific people with the virus, the less we should need to rely on interventions that isolate the entire population.

We are seeing this already in other countries: South Korea and Singapore have been successfully addressing their coronavirus epidemics with less extensive social-distancing measures than are currently seen in Italy, France, and parts of the U.S., in part because of their effective testing and surveillance regimes. The Financial Times reports today on the town of Vò, Italy, which successfully stopped its local outbreak though a strategy that involved widespread testing of the population and isolation of those who tested positive, even as the rest of Northern Italy did not fare so well. …

At some point, the massive shutdowns we are undertaking in much of the U.S. (and ought to be undertaking in more of it) should make it possible to sharply reduce the rate of new infections to a point where widespread testing and monitoring can become a cornerstone of a strategy to prevent uncontrolled outbreaks … This would not mean a complete end to the need for social distancing measures, but it could allow for a reduction in their intensity.