Where are the Lockdown Models?

This week, the Institute for Health Metrics and Management (IMHE), one of the most cited COVID data modelers, doubled its projected US death toll. Of course, such a dire change made headlines in all major media—and for good reason. 134k deaths is serious business and reaffirms our focus on the disease.

The model will surely be wrong and revised again over time. But, the projection reflects the current data and informed assumptions of credible experts.

More importantly, it massively impacts public perception. To the average person, a doubling of the death toll suggests we are crazy to loosen things up and get out of our houses. Regardless of government instruction, this data will keep people in some state of lockdown. And it will save lives. Perhaps.

We still don’t have any sense of what is really at stake when we make the choice to stay home and keep the economy closed. We have some vague sense of danger avoided, but what hardship are we causing?

We have many and constantly updated models for the disease like the IMHE version, but where is the model for the lockdown? What is the act of closing down costing us?

The idea that the trade-off is simply one of life or money is just insulting rhetoric. We all know a strong economy leads to more health, wellness and flourishing. And there is no doubt we are running a dangerous experiment by orchestrating a depression-level economy.

Modeling the economy and its real world impacts is loaded with massive uncertainties, but we also don’t fully know the rate of spread (Ro) or the infection fatality rate in our COVID models. We have to make some assumptions based on the reality we have and present some view of our lockdown future.

Where are the economists when we need them to do this work? And how can they help us understand the impacts in relatable terms? The commonly cited forecast of GDP, unemployment percentage, and deficit spending are the statistics of elite bankers and hedge fund managers but mean little to the average person. A rising death toll will always win the mindshare war when trading these metrics.

There are clear and simple implications we need to articulate surround a lockdown including:

Deaths. What can we expect in terms of additional suicide? Drug overdoses? Lost lives due to avoided preventative medical care including biopsies? Spousal abuse? Increased violence and violent crime?

Despair. Long food lines mean hunger and malnutrition—how bad could it get? Family breakdown—how much increased divorce and broken families? Lost skills—how many kids will fall behind in school and never recover or return? Increased petty and small crime—how much civil breakdown will result from desperation? Delayed retirement—how many lifelong savings will be decimated?

Instability. What are the prospects of our democracy in a world of mass unemployment and resource dislocation? What instabilities could also emerge—European Union breakup, revolution in Middle East, a run on the banks in US? What impact will the massive printing of money have on inflation and the reserve status of the US dollar?

There are surely dozens more dangers and risks possible from the lockdown. And, we have past recessions from which to get good assumptions for a model.

Synthesizing all these factors into something simple like projected COVID cases and deaths will not be easy. But, we can indeed project economic deaths, economic hardship and political instability into models and create an overall lockdown forecast. We need this information in stark terms. Not to cancel the lockdowns, but to add perspective. Every decision has trade-offs, but somehow we can only see the direct impacts from one side of the trade—COVID cases and deaths.

We must realize what decisions we are making that we can’t see directly—the harm we are ensuring, the pain wired into our solution. Only then can we have an honest conversation about our decisions and what path to take. It’s too easy to say it’s too soon. Whether right or wrong, that choice doesn’t come without consequences. We have to explore all sides and find the right nuanced decisions to make—not just open or closed, but open or closed in the right way to minimize the negative impacts of both sides of the equation.

UPDATE: Since writing, a group of South African actuaries and economists experts have made an attempt at a lockdown model similar to described above. It is interesting reading. Bottom line, they compare the range of life/years lost to COVID vs. a continued lockdown. Given the age impacts of COVID vs. economic pain, the lockdown outcome shows a much larger loss of life. It’s one attempt at a model. We need more.

Good Reads - May 2020

  1. Follow up info from last week’s comment. Nursing homes remain exposed and deadly. Ventilators increasingly look like the wrong way to provide oxygen.

  2. Really enjoying two books on crime. Sam Quinones book on opioids Dreamland. Fascinating and important. And, Don Winslow’s crime novellas Broken.

  3. The Cannonball Run is back. No costumes or ambulances, just high tech wizardry to avoid the cops. 27 hours driving cross country—a new record. Now would be a good time to break it.

  4. The Carbon Negative Burger. Yes, it’s real grass fed beef. Regenerative style. This one hits close to home to personal projects underway—more to come.

  5. The Rorschach epidemic. Like most things these days, we see what we want to see and politics is at the center. More open minds needed.

  6. Billy Collins classic poem The Lanyard is a Mother’s Day must read.