Coronavirus is back with a vengeance. After dwindling over the summer, new cases are rising in many countries and reached a record high this week in America. France and Germany are reinstating lockdowns. But however strong the case may have been for the extreme measures of the spring, when the world was flying blind in the face of this nasty virus, lockdowns are neither workable nor desirable in America at this stage.
Does that mean we should throw caution to the wind and return to business as usual, as President Donald Trump seems to be suggesting? Not really. Our best bet at this stage is encouraging millions and millions of adaptations at the individual level that will let life resume, albeit not in a "normal" way. This approach is best visualized by precisely the thing President Donald Trump panned in the second debate: "plexiglass cubes" in restaurants. "Are you going to sit there in a cubicle wrapped around in plastic?" he chided. Yes.
Should Trump get re-elected, we should do our best to ignore him. If Joe Biden wins on Tuesday, he should wholeheartedly back such adaptive responses, staking out a middle ground between doing nothing and putting everyone under lock and key.
If there is any epidemiological rationale for President Trump's "don't let this dominate your life" and go-about-business-as-usual approach, it is that social distancing measures diminish exposure to the virus and therefore come in the way of achieving population-wide herd immunity—a critical mass of people developing resistance and forming a firewall against disease spread.
But this rationale is flawed. No one really knows what percentage of the population would have to become infected to get to herd immunity. Reaching that point might involve an unacceptably high death and sickness rate. It's not even clear herd immunity can be achieved without a vaccine.
Sweden is the closest real-life example of this approach. That Nordic country went maverick and rejected radical shutdowns. It opted only to ban large gatherings while closing universities and high schools. It also urged people to work from home to the extent possible. Otherwise bars, restaurants, primary schools, and retail shops stayed open.
Supporters of the model claim that this allowed Sweden to avoid economic devastation while maintaining a death toll in the European middle—between the U.K.'s high and Denmark's low. But that's misleading, because Sweden's 576.25 deaths per million fatality rate is much closer to England's 682 deaths per million (almost on par with America's 690 per million) than Denmark's 122.88—even though Sweden's population density is only 1/6th that of Denmark's. (Norway, whose population density is similar to Sweden's, has an even lower 52.36 per million death rate.)
Although Sweden's infection and death rate has now tapered off and is in line with the rest of Europe's, that doesn't mean it got things right. Its frontloading of deaths would make sense if it meant saving more lives later. But given that at this stage a vaccine within a year seems likely and therapeutics keep improving, such a strategy, as George Mason University's Tyler Cowen points out, "is akin to charging the hill and taking casualties two days before the end of World War I."
The failure of Sweden's herd immunity strategy doesn't mean that France and Germany's new lockdowns are a rational approach either. France has imposed a national shelter-in-place order requiring people to stay at home. Germany has shut down not just theaters and bars but also all hotels.
Prior to this pandemic, lockdowns had never been deployed, not even during the Spanish flu. They were no part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's pandemic response planning—no doubt because planners intuitively understood that such drastic steps would impose massive economic and health costs of their own. And they have.
Indeed, unemployment in America rose higher in three months of COVID-19 than two years of the Great Recession, with 14 million Americans losing their jobs. Meanwhile, whatever the flaws of the Great Barrington Declaration, a controversial statement signed by 9,000 epidemiologists, economists, and other experts opposing lockdowns, it is dead right that such policies will result in lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings, and deteriorating mental health —all of which will result in more deaths and worse health outcomes that public health stats won't capture for a year. Inadequate tuberculosis treatment alone could cause an estimated 400,000 deaths worldwide.
The lockdowns may have made sense in the spring, when we had very little idea what we were up against and every interaction seemed fraught. But now it is possible to separate relatively dangerous from relatively innocuous activities—and avoid the former until entrepreneurs can come up with innovative business models that make it possible to engage in them safely, precisely the kind of adaptation that hunker-down orders thwart.
To be sure, there might be no business model that could rescue some industries. Contrast, for example, movie theaters with restaurants.
At this stage, the government couldn't pay people to go to the movies (and shouldn't try), because everyone knows that huddling with strangers in a dark, enclosed space for two hours is asking for trouble. Regal Theaters has permanently closed its doors, and AMC, the country's biggest theater chain, is on the verge of following suit.
But the restaurant industry found a way to hang on. Many eateries shifted their operations outdoors or switched to takeout and implemented other safe practices. They mandated masks and switched to disposable or scannable menus to minimize contact. Some even check patrons' temperatures before allowing them in. The industry still experienced a 27 percent loss of business, but the real challenge will be in winter when outside dining becomes difficult in much of northern U.S. Restaurants then will have to scramble and experiment with all kinds of new strategies, including plexiglass cubicles, to remain in business.
Political leaders who pan such innovations are just as unhelpful as government lockdowns. There is enough public awareness to make a more laissez-faire approach to coronavirus workable, provided that the powers-that-be don't actively lead people astray—by encouraging them to attend super-spreading events, for example, or ditching masks.
To get through the pandemic, America needs to encourage personal responsibility and private initiative. Top-down diktats are suboptimal. Silly leaders are even worse.
A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.