The Dangers Of Reopening The Economy Too Soon

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Screenshot of Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 site.

At the moment, we have had over a quarter million deaths due to covid-19. This death toll will continue to rise until the virus infects everyone and causes millions of deaths, or until we defeat it, either by social distancing and contact tracing, a vaccine, a treatment, or whatever tools we employ, including new technologies. I am personally fascinated by the potential of covid-sniffing dogs.

But we have many who are interested in reopening immediately. We have conservatives who live in a denial bubble, who think if they pretend there is no problem, then nothing bad can happen, or that their ideological claim to freedom trumps the reality that preventable death matters. There are those who believe in nonsense conspiracy theories or who think that “the greater good” matters more than human life (pro life, indeed, but only at conception and ending at the birth canal).

The problem with covid-19 is that one person getting infected is not the end of the story. They will typically infect others. The R0 is likely well over 2, which means that, on average, each person infected with covid-19 will pass it along to over two people who would then also pass it along to over two more people until everyone is infected and a few percent die. And the irony is that older voters are more susceptible to covid-19 and they are the most reliable conservative voters. So, Republicans want to destroy their own power base while denying it.

Progressives care more about the lives of conservative voters than conservatives do, even though that makes our lives more difficult as conservatives take away human rights to feed their need for hate. Conservatives also imperil our ability to defeat climate change, which will lead to runaway climate change that could destroy us all, long after the virus is gone.

So, social distancing and technology is being employed with the intention of lowering R0 to less than 1, which would allow the virus to die out, thus eliminating this scourge from humanity. Right now, the death rate is not flattening out because the disease spread unhindered for weeks to months, but with social distancing, we are slowing the rate of expansion. However, compliance has been imperfect, plus people are still infecting those they come into contact with (family members, communal living arrangements, essential trips such as grocery stores, etc.), but we will stop the linear expansion in time. At that point, people could quickly become complacent and call for quick reopening of everything because of the feeling the worst is over. The desire to return to normalcy will grow louder (disregarding the conservative reality denial that is already broadcast incessantly).

But this is a mistake. In addition to the forces that are trying to undo the progress we have made (preposterous “freedom” protests, manufacturing companies wanting to reopen), easy answers, desperation, and motivated reasoning are powerful forces that can overwhelm public discourse. While the majority of the public currently fears reopening too soon, the resolve likely won’t hold when we are close to winning but have not won yet. This virus is insidious and will not respond to feeling the time is right or getting ahead of ourselves. Nor will it respond to minimization or convincing ourselves it is no big deal. We have over a quarter million deaths in a couple months proving otherwise, and that’s with social distancing and testing at a scale we have never done before (and this is still vastly insufficient).

A second wave of the coronavirus would quickly bring us back to where we are now, having to close all non-essential businesses, but we would rapidly end up even worse off as medical resources are overwhelmed and the number of deaths skyrocket from a high percentage of the population quickly becoming infected. Thus, many lives that could be saved by modern medicine would be sacrificed by the lack of medical resources. And the blame game would go nuts, conservatives blaming ever more scapegoats and conspiracy theories gumming up logical discourse. In the USA, conservatives whined about creating “death panels” when expanding healthcare insurance, that doctors would have to decide who lived and who died (instead of the status quo simply murdering anyone not rich enough to spend six figures for routine medicine). Overwhelming healthcare systems with covid-19 cases would in fact create what they lied about, the need to choose who lives and who dies. And we are only beginning to realize what the long-term effects might be post infection, from death by stroke to permanent lung function capacity reductions and far more. If a few percent or more end up with permanent damage that is preventable, it is misery we chose to inflict on them, it’s a tax on healthcare budgets that will last for the next 100 years until everyone dies, and for victims in the USA it’s an albatross that will haunt their lack of healthcare the rest of their lives. The victims once again pay the price for conservative hate and reality denial

Elon Musk wants to reopen Tesla immediately, and while I can imagine why, and could even give reasons why we need more EVs, we must not get ahead of ourselves and give covid-19 another vector to take advantage of. While many have claimed his desire is about money, I personally doubt it. I suspect it’s about being obsessed with getting humanity off fossil fuels. He has pushed through every other force in the universe to get where he is now and we do need over 100 million EVs a year starting yesterday. However, I cannot agree with reopening before the virus is defeated or isolated to small pockets which we have developed the ability to track and eliminate. We are not even a fraction of the way there yet. We have vastly insufficient numbers of tests being done, we have no vaccine, we have no drug treatments, we have no contact tracing, and we would quickly overwhelm available medical resources if a second wave is allowed to occur.

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As I stated in a recent article, the climate emergency is not going to wait for the coronavirus to go away, and coronavirus is not going to wait for the climate. We have reduced carbon in some areas (oil prices dropping below zero) and even reduced electricity to a degree (though, some demand has just moved to homes instead of businesses), but this is only buying us time. If we reduce carbon by 25%, for example, that only buys us 2–3 years, so instead of 10 years to 1.5°C, we would have 12–13 years to 1.5°C. That’s not in itself going to save us.

What we need to be doing right now is attacking the virus with everything we’ve got, doubling down on social distancing and contract tracing, and while medical research is focused on covid-19, we need to allocate more money to it instead of attacking the reality we don’t like. Finally, we need to make plans for the future. While everything feels like it is suspended in amber, it is not. Carbon is still being emitted at unsustainable levels, and once we do get the virus defeated, we will have to reopen our economies, and this will need stimulus. We can be smart and make this renewable energy stimulus instead of oil stimulus. A few pundits have said they think it will be renewable energy stimulus, but at the moment, it’s oil stimulus that is actually on the table. A few EVs won’t change this. A pea shooter vs. an armed tank is no way to fight a war.

Finally, we need to plan what to do with that stimulus, not just create a pot of money but have shovel-ready plans for it. We can rapidly build EV factories (Elon did this just last year). We can build many factories to churn out solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, and we can adopt rapid action plans to retire all fossil assets, starting with the most polluting, which can also include cash for clunkers plans to retire gasoline/diesel vehicles and subsidize EV purchases.

This is what we need to be doing, not trying to reopen before the virus is even on the run from our currently feeble weapons but creating better medical weapons and making plans to improve society so that once we have defeated covid-19, we are also ready to tackle and quickly defeat climate change. The only thing stopping us from defeating climate change is motivation. Let’s change that today.

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Barry A.F.

I've had an interest in renewable energy and EVs since the days of deep cycle lead acid conversions and repurposed drive motors (and $10/watt solar panels). How things have changed. Also I have an interest in systems thinking (or first principles as some call it), digging into how things work from the ground up. Did you know that 97% of all Wikipedia articles link to Philosophy? A very small percentage link to Pragmatism. And in order to put my money where my mouth is I own one (3x split) Tesla share.   A link to all my articles

Barry A.F. has 68 posts and counting. See all posts by Barry A.F.