Thursday, October 1, 2020
Home COVID-19 That’s enough social science experimenting, set the people free

That’s enough social science experimenting, set the people free

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CITIZENS of the United Kingdom should no longer acquiesce to being treated as human subjects in a grand social science experiment. A social science experiment that has been designed by public health officials who have utterly failed in their duties to prepare the nation for the arrival of a deadly virus. It is a serious mistake to allow the unit responsible for government failure to dictate how to ‘solve’ a problem that is in large part their fault.

Infectious disease experts in the UK and throughout the world have not only miscalculated the preparedness of the national health system, they have also vastly overestimated the deadliness of the virus once it landed on our shores. The original forecast from the Imperial College model was 500,000 dead. Now we’re being told that UK deaths from the virus are unlikely to exceed 20,000 and could be much lower.

Similarly, in the US, the original projection of over 2million American deaths has been reduced to 60,000. Both in the UK and the US, the most recent mortality projections and case fatality rates fall within the range of the annual flu.

It is equally astonishing that infectious disease experts, using models that are capable of producing epic forecast errors, now have the audacity to wave a flag of victory. Their claim is that the draconian social distancing measures they recommended necessitated an enormous downward modification in their projections.

Any astute observer knows that it is far from obvious that extreme mitigation efforts, such as lockdown, are the ‘cause’ of the slowdown in mortality. There was no randomised controlled experiment to make this case seem the slightest bit plausible. Moreover, other nations and states which did not adopt draconian lockdown policies have also witnessed a ‘flattened curve’.

Amongst other examples, all one needs to do is look at the recent mortality figures in Sweden and the Netherlands. These two countries wisely avoided indiscriminate lockdown and have also succeeded in flattening the curve. There appears to be very little public health justification for indiscriminate lockdown and the unprecedented restriction of personal, economic and religious liberties that it entails.

The fact that public health officials in the UK and elsewhere have convinced governments grossly to overreact is not surprising, since overreaction was one of their stated goals. Unfortunately, the mass media, once the guardian against abusive public power, played a key role in sensationalising the effects of the virus while virtually ignoring the plight of the unintended victims of the shutdown.

It has also rarely been acknowledged in the media and public discourse that infectious disease is only one aspect of public health. Current shutdown policies may temporarily suppress the spread of this particular virus. However, even on public health grounds, not just economic grounds, the lockdown cure can be far worse than the disease. There is little doubt that we will see increases in child abuse, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, weight gain, depression and suicide as a result.

The long-term negative consequences of lockdown on public health, deriving from a diversion of scarce resources, adds to the folly. Many clinical trials of non-Covid-19 drugs have been cancelled, leading to heart-wrenching stories of cancer patients learning that their access to experimental drugs has been stopped.

In addition, a large number of non-Covid-19 research operations at universities and national laboratories have been suspended, leading to cancellation of basic and applied research on ailments such as cancer, heart disease, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease and other diseases that kill millions each year.

Another fear is that politicians may now fall for what economists call the ‘sunk cost fallacy’. This may occur because we have followed the misguided advice of infectious disease experts and have made substantial ‘investments’ in maximising social distance at any cost. In our economics classes, we teach our students that rational agents should ignore costs already incurred and pay attention only to future or prospective costs.

In the realm of public policy, a classic example of the sunk cost fallacy occurred in the US during the last phase of the Vietnam war, when many supporters of America’s military involvement invoked the following logic to support this policy: Since the US has invested millions of dollars and thousands of soldiers have perished, any US withdrawal without achieving its objectives would waste these significant sacrifices. Policymakers in the UK may be subject to a similar sunk-cost fallacy as infectious disease experts declare ‘victory’ when deaths attributed to Covid-19 level off.

It is highly likely that infectious disease experts will continue to recommend successive extensions of lockdown until a vaccine is developed in the distant future. We must not be seduced by their specious arguments. The time has come to underweight their recommendations substantially and begin opening up the economy without delay.

There is great merit to social distancing. We are not opposed to the adoption of this practice on a voluntary basis as well as other less costly methods of disease prevention, including increased government expenditures for massive testing and the emergency production of ventilators and hospital space. However, the indiscriminate mandatory aspects of this grand social experiment that will cause long-lasting economic misery and public health problems must be quickly abolished in the UK and across the world. Infectious disease experts should no longer be the sole voice of the people.

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Donald S Siegel and Robert M Sauer
Donald S Siegel is Foundation Professor of Public Policy and Management and Director of the School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University. Robert M Sauer is Professor of Economics, Royal Holloway, University of London; Editor-in-Chief, European Economic Review; Editor-in-Chief, European Economic Review Plus, and Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Economics, Management and Religion. He tweets at @SauerRobertM

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