Magazine June 1, 2020, Issue

Letters

A healthcare worker outside of Maimonides Medical Center during the coronavirus outbreak, Brooklyn, N.Y., April 13, 2020 (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Lockdown Logic

Messrs. Kupfer and Ponnuru’s “Going the Distance” (May 4) fails to convince. Very few of those epidemiologists, politicians, and pundits who support lockdowns will suffer any serious financial harm as a result of those policies. Meanwhile it is quite otherwise for tens of millions of Americans.

The original justification for the shutdowns was to “flatten the curve” to avoid overwhelming health-care facilities. That goal was achieved weeks ago. The justification for continuing them seems to be the need for testing and so-called contact-tracing. But contact-tracing, even if theoretically possible in a population as large as ours, would be an egregious invasion of liberties.

“Going the Distance” asserts that shutdowns have reduced deaths from coronavirus substantially and implies that continuing the shutdowns will result in further reductions. I am not aware of a scientific basis for those assumptions. It seems equally likely that the shutdowns will have changed only the timing of infections. Kupfer and Ponnuru also state that a premature opening would have substantial costs because it could lead to more outbreaks. “Would” does not normally follow from “could.”

James Bridges
Lafayette, Calif.

The authors respond: Support for lockdowns has not been confined to the lucky and well-off. On April 22 the Associated Press found that only 12 percent of Americans said the measures where they live went too far; 61 percent felt they were about right, and 26 percent said they should go farther. A May 4 Washington Post poll found that the laid-off are more cautious about reopening the economy than everyone else. (A “premature” reopening, by the way, would impose net costs by definition.) Poll after poll confirms the general finding.

Perhaps that is because Americans grasp the intuitive logic behind social distancing. The virus spreads by contact between people; limiting that contact will slow the spread of the virus. As James H. Fowler et al. at the University of California San Diego, Dhaval M. Dave et al. at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Rahi Abouk and Babak Heydari, and several others have found, lockdowns are indeed slowing the rate of infections. Lockdowns imposed after runaway community spread can’t make New York’s results look like Nebraska’s, or Italy’s results like Sweden’s. Hence the fallacy of comparing raw numbers of cases and deaths to try to prove that lockdowns are ineffective.

Slowing the growth rate of the outbreak is still important because the dust has not settled. While no health-care systems in the U.S. have been overwhelmed since New York’s in early March, we are nowhere near the level of immunity to ensure it will not happen again. In the meantime, and since publication, we have learned more about the virus. We know it spreads especially well in dense and indoor environments, not so well outdoors. We know that at least one drug, remdesivir, appears to help treat it. We can test more people than we did at the start. This knowledge has permitted calibrated, gradual reopenings of certain activities and added to the toolkit for treating it. Mr. Bridges appears to agree with us that a massive test-and-trace regime will run into serious logistical and personal-liberty concerns, which tells us that his goal is to safely return to something resembling normal life as soon as possible. So is ours — but we should not overlook the word splitting that infinitive.

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A reader responds to Theodore Kupfer and Ramesh Ponnuru’s article, “Coronavirus Lockdowns: Going the Distance.”

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