Covid Interventions: What Failure Means

In this series of posts I’ve been trying to understand the dynamics of the coronavirus epidemic in the US, mostly by drawing inferences from aggregate data and analyses. Humans aren’t naturally equipped to deal with macrolevel ecological events that are systemic, complex, and probabilistic. In effect I’m encountering the epidemic abstractly, occupying and modifying a  simulation in an effort to to achieve ever-closer correspondence to the actual reality being modeled.

Public health interventions, intended to slow or halt the spread of the virus through the population, also serve as a source of data. At times I’ve concluded that these interventions have failed. From within the simulations, failure is a technical term: the intervention didn’t significantly alter empirical trends in variables targeted by the intervention.

In common parlance failure is a value judgment, an assignment of blame. I readily acknowledge that my preference is for the US to bring the epidemic to a halt, minimizing the deaths and illnesses the virus wreaks in the populace. Sheltering in place, social distancing, masks, surveillance, contact tracing — these interventions have demonstrated their effectiveness in dramatically reducing contagion when implemented in other countries. These interventions have also worked here in the US, but only sporadically and incompletely. That America has not achieved more widespread reductions of infection and death is in large part due to an inability to implement demonstrably effective interventions with greater rigor and persistence. The interventions have failed on strictly empirical grounds: they have not achieved the results that were intended and that have been achieved elsewhere. From my perspective our failure to subdue the contagion is also a failure to uphold the good of the American society at large.

I acknowledge that I’ve narrowed my methodological and ecological focus to epidemiology, segmenting off as externalities other important systemic factors like economics, politics, societal norms and habits. I’ve also concentrated primarily on US national considerations, using data from other countries primarily as a basis for empirical comparison. I’m aware that I’ve limited my explorations, bounding them inside tightly delimited parameters.

I also acknowledge that it’s possible, both methodologically and ethically, to regard intervention itself as a failure, a cure that’s worse than the disease, while conversely interpreting the abandonment of these interventions as success.

In a free society, the general good consists principally in the facilitation of the pursuit of unknown individual purposes.

Thus reads the first sentence of Friedrich Hayek’s 1976 The Mirage of Social Justice. In principal, a Hayekian conspiracy is an oxymoron; the idea is to avoid conspiracies of any sort, any collective intentional effort to override the spontaneously emergent socioeconomic order, be the conspirators communist or capitalist or populist. Following this provocative opening salvo, Hayek immediately pulls his punch with a second aphorism:

It is one of the axioms of the tradition of freedom that coercion of individuals is permissible only where it is necessary in the service of the general welfare or the public good.

And yet, Hayek observes, in most societies the general welfare or the public good has typically been construed as coinciding with the interests of the ruling class. And it’s impossible for a utilitarian government to maximize the aggregate sum of individual gains while minimizing aggregate losses, says Hayek, because a central planning body can never have enough information at its disposal to know what everybody wants and how to deliver it.

The most important of the public goods for which government is required is thus not the direct satisfaction of any particular needs, but the securing of conditions in which the individuals and smaller groups will have favorable opportunities of mutually providing for their respective needs.

Confronted by the corona epidemic, what government response best satisfies the general welfare and the public good? What conditions need to be secured for enhancing opportunities to provide mutually for our needs? A Hayekian libertarian might argue that the best policy is the least invasive one. Let the virus run its course, weeding out the old and infirm en route to herd immunity while restraining runaway contagion just enough to prevent the medical system from being overwhelmed.

Hayekian right-wingers aren’t the only flat-curvers out there. Economic shutdowns eliminate jobs, disrupt supply chains and cause shortages, further exacerbating the stratification of wealth not just in this country but worldwide. Again, the cure might be worse than the disease if preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths by disease can be achieved only by throwing tens of millions of the economically precarious underclasses under the trolley. The epidemic itself can be regarded as symptomatic of a more virulent systemic corruption, a natural consequence of capitalist control over everything from housing to job security to food distribution to health status to medical care to nursing homes.

On April 19 — a day that witnessed 2,600 American covid fatalities, a week when Trump began his victory lap signalling the imminent end to a fairly intensive national lockdown  — I wrote a post acknowledging my expectations as to how the epidemic would play out in this country. The empirical models and proposed interventions for quelling the epidemic would be systematic, rational, empirical, probabilistic, open-ended. However, the actually existing reality on the ground would manifest itself more as artifice and deception, a staged performance of an imaginary reality, a Show Trial: farcical, arbitrary, paranoiac, predetermined, irresistible, decadent. My general conclusion as to the likely effectiveness of interventions to stop the epidemic in the US: no reason it couldn’t happen, no way it ever will.

Meanwhile I’m having a hard enough time figuring out how many people have been infected and whether the daily numbers are going up or down…



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