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When Will the Pandemic Cure Be Worse Than the Disease?

As government mandated lockdowns to combat the coronavirus pandemic affect a rising share of the global population, fewer will die of COVID-19, as well as other transmissible diseases. But how should we weigh those benefits against the costs of unemployment, social isolation, and widespread bankruptcies?

MELBOURNE/OXFORD – As of today, almost half the world’s population, nearly four billion people, are under government-mandated lockdowns in an effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

How long should the lockdowns last? The obvious answer, to paraphrase UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is until we’ve “beaten” COVID-19. But when exactly will that be? Until not a single person on Earth has it? That may never happen. Until we have a vaccine, or an effective treatment? That could easily be a year away, perhaps much longer. Do we want to keep people locked down, our societies shuttered – restaurants, parks, schools, and offices closed – for that long?

It pains us to say it, but US President Donald Trump is right: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the disease.” Lockdowns have health benefits: fewer will die of COVID-19, as well as other transmissible diseases. But they have real social and economic costs: social isolation, unemployment, and widespread bankruptcies, to name three. These ills are not yet fully apparent, but they soon will be.

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