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World

The Coronavirus Forces Countries into a No-Win Situation

People in Tokyo, Japan, watch a screen showing Japan’s prime minister declaring a state of emergency, following the coronavirus outbreak, April 7, 2020. (Naoki Ogura/Reuters)

As mentioned yesterday, the general sense is that several Asian nations have handled the threat of the coronavirus more effectively than the United States has, through a variety of different decisions: an earlier response, much more widespread testing, much more widespread use of masks, strict home quarantines, and cell-phone tracking and other invasive tracking measures that some Americans would likely oppose.

But some unnerving new reports indicate that even the Asian countries don’t have this virus beaten, and are seeing new flare-ups.

In Japan, Hokkaido prefecture announced a new state of emergency, about a month after it lifted the previous state of emergency. Singapore just had its biggest jump in a day, an outbreak that is believed to be linked to migrant workers. Governments in Taiwan and Hong Kong believe that their recent surges are driven by travelers returning home. Even if you believe that all of China’s official numbers are wildly inaccurate, on Sunday the Chinese government reported the highest number of new cases in five weeks. Even if that regime is downplaying the severity of the outbreak, they’re either downplaying it less or adjusting their numbers to acknowledge an indisputably growing number of cases.

The upshot is that no government on earth has figured out just the right way to balance the reopening of their economy with reducing the spread.

The debate about how long to continue the current measures, and when to “reopen” the economy operate on the assumption that there is some sort of happy medium that allows more Americans to get back to work, while minimizing the risk of a faster spread that overwhelms ICU beds and hospitals. U.S. policymakers may soon have to confront the really dire scenario, that there is no happy medium — that changes designed to increase economic activity (and human interaction) will inevitably increase the number of cases in a bad way, and that there is no way to keep the pace of the spread slow really economically destructive quarantine measures.

There is this probably particularly American mentality that if we just study a problem long enough, and are somehow smart enough, we will inevitably discover some option that creates a win-win scenario that avoids both the terrible health consequences (more infections and more deaths) or the terrible economic consequences (a depression that forces all kinds of businesses large and small into bankruptcy). The coronavirus may be presenting the countries of the world with a no-win situation.

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