As of today, there are 0 daily new cases of coronavirus in the entire 60 million-big region of Hubei.
The diagnostics would keep going up for a couple of weeks, but then they would start going down. With fewer cases, the fatality rate starts dropping too. And the collateral damage is also reduced: fewer people would die from non-coronavirus-related causes because the healthcare system is simply overwhelmed.
Suppression would get us:
Right now, the UK and the US have no idea about their true cases. We don’t know how many there are. We just know the official number is not right, and the true one is in the tens of thousands of cases. This has happened because we’re not testing, and we’re not tracing.
The measures from this section (testing and tracing) single-handedly curbed the growth of the coronavirus in South Korea and got the epidemic under control, without a strong imposition of social distancing measures.
The US (and presumably the UK) are about to go to war without armor.
We have masks for just two weeks, few personal protective equipments (“PPE”), not enough ventilators, not enough ICU beds, not enough ECMOs (blood oxygenation machines)… This is why the fatality rate would be so high in a mitigation strategy.
But if we buy ourselves some time, we can turn this around:
Put in another way: we don’t need years to get our armor, we need weeks. Let’s do everything we can to get our production humming now. Countries are mobilized. People are being inventive, such as using 3D printing for ventilator parts. We can do it. We just need more time. Would you wait a few weeks to get yourself some armor before facing a mortal enemy?
This is not the only capacity we need. We will need health workers as soon as possible. Where will we get them? We need to train people to assist nurses, and we need to get medical workers out of retirement. Many countries have already started, but this takes time. We can do this in a few weeks, but not if everything collapses.
The public is scared. The coronavirus is new. There’s so much we don’t know how to do yet! People haven’t learned to stop hand-shaking. They still hug. They don’t open doors with their elbow. They don’t wash their hands after touching a door knob. They don’t disinfect tables before sitting.
Once we have enough masks, we can use them outside of the healthcare system too. Right now, it’s better to keep them for healthcare workers. But if they weren’t scarce, people should wear them in their daily lives, making it less likely that they infect other people when sick, and with proper training also reducing the likelihood that the wearers get infected. (In the meantime, wearing something is better than nothing.)
All of these are pretty cheap ways to reduce the transmission rate. The less this virus propagates, the fewer measures we’ll need in the future to contain it. But we need time to educate people on all these measures and equip them.
We know very very little about the virus. But every week, hundreds of new papers are coming.
The world is finally united against a common enemy. Researchers around the globe are mobilizing to understand this virus better.
How does the virus spread?
How can contagion be slowed down?
What is the share of asymptomatic carriers?
Are they contagious? How much?
What are good treatments?
How long does it survive?
On what surfaces?
How do different social distancing measures impact the transmission rate?
What’s their cost?
What are tracing best practices?
How reliable are our tests?
Clear answers to these questions will help make our response as targeted as possible while minimizing collateral economic and social damage. And they will come in weeks, not years.
Not only that, but what if we found a treatment in the next few weeks? Any day we buy gets us closer to that. Right now, there are already several candidates, such as Favipiravir, Chloroquine, or Chloroquine combined with Azithromycin. What if it turned out that in two months we discovered a treatment for the coronavirus? How stupid would we look if we already had millions of deaths following a mitigation strategy?
All of the factors above can help us save millions of lives. That should be enough. Unfortunately, politicians can’t only think about the lives of the infected. They must think about all the population, and heavy social distancing measures have an impact on others.
Right now we have no idea how different social distancing measures reduce transmission. We also have no clue what their economic and social costs are.
Isn’t it a bit difficult to decide what measures we need for the long term if we don’t know their cost or benefit?
A few weeks would give us enough time to start studying them, understand them, prioritize them, and decide which ones to follow.
Fewer cases, more understanding of the problem, building up assets, understanding the virus, understanding the cost-benefit of different measures, educating the public… These are some core tools to fight the virus, and we just need a few weeks to develop many of them. Wouldn’t it be dumb to commit to a strategy that throws us instead, unprepared, into the jaws of our enemy?
Now we know that the Mitigation Strategy is probably a terrible choice, and that the Suppression Strategy has a massive short-term advantage.
But people have rightful concerns about this strategy:
Here, we’re going to look at what a true Suppression Strategy would look like. We can call it the Hammer and the Dance.
First, you act quickly and aggressively. For all the reasons we mentioned above, given the value of time, we want to quench this thing as soon as possible.
One of the most important questions is: How long will this last?
The fear that everybody has is that we will be locked inside our homes for months at a time, with the ensuing economic disaster and mental breakdowns. This idea was unfortunately entertained in the famous Imperial College paper:
Do you remember this chart? The light blue area that goes from end of March to end of August is the period that the paper recommends as the Hammer, the initial suppression that includes heavy social distancing.
If you’re a politician and you see that one option is to let hundreds of thousands or millions of people die with a mitigation strategy and the other is to stop the economy for five months before going through the same peak of cases and deaths, these don’t sound like compelling options.
But this doesn’t need to be so. This paper, driving policy today, has been brutally criticized for core flaws: They ignore contact tracing (at the core of policies in South Korea, China or Singapore among others) or travel restrictions (critical in China), ignore the impact of big crowds…
The time needed for the Hammer is weeks, not months.