If everyone were to follow my advice, the epidemic would be stopped cold. The problem is that the effect on the US economy would be equally devastating. There is a very thin line between keeping the population healthy and causing an economic disaster.
The recommendations that regard personal hygiene should definitely be followed, but the others involve making difficult decisions. Avoiding crowds is recommended for personal safety, but if no one shops or goes to restaurants or theaters or hairdressers, those will quickly face bankruptcy, go out of business and drag their landlords and suppliers along with them.
Contagion travels like quicksilver and the stock market reacts accordingly. Italy is a case in point. As of today, February 28, almost 900 people in Italy have tested positive since the first case was announced on Feb. 21. Almost all the cases are clustered about Milan, a major city in Lombardy, a region in the North.
At the end of January, a Chinese tourist couple fell ill, tested positive, and was put in isolation. None of the people they had been in contact with tested positive. All flights to and from China were banned.
Then on Feb. 18, “Patient One,” a 38-year-old man, took himself to a hospital, but wasn’t tested because he hadn’t been to China. He was surrounded by other sick patients. He returned home, then back to the ER the following day because he felt worse. He was diagnosed with the Coronavirus on Feb. 20, but by then he had infected at least eight people. On Feb. 23, the Italian government cordoned off the “Red Zone,” forbidding travel in or out of the towns where the outbreak is located. Many residents were commuting to the city for work.
Though there are no known cases in Milan, the financial capital of Italy is a ghost town. The streets are deserted as anxious people stay home and workers telecommute. Schools, universities, museums, bars, restaurants, hairdressers— all closed. Most Italians are rabid soccer fans, but in the North, games are being played in empty stadia. Worried by the effect these closures are having, the authorities have declared that schools, museums and other public places will reopen on Monday, a week short of the recommended 14-day quarantine.
It’s almost impossible to navigate the strait between the Scylla of economic wreckage and the Charybdis of a decimated populace. It took less than a week for the paralysis in the industrial North of Italy to bring the third-largest economy of the Eurozone to the brink of recession. Worldwide, panic and the pandemic have caused the disruption of supply chains, postponement of travel plans and cancellation of major events, bringing the global wipeout to $6 trillion.
And yet, most people have no reason to panic if they wash their hands frequently and keep their distance from people with respiratory disease. Even if they do contract COVID-19, healthy people seem to recover without ill effects.