Self-Quarantining into Economic Depression

April 5, 2020

After multiple conversations with many respected clients in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, I wanted to broach a subject that has caused some in our nation a shame-storm of criticism. I want to suggest that our public remedy, specifically our one-size-fits-all approach to Coronavirus, will soon have an irreversible impact on our country for 2020 and beyond, and that it risks untold damage to companies and entire industries if we continue on this path much longer—and to the lives of the millions of people who work in them.

Most of you know me as a fact-based analytic. I make recommendations based on evidence, context, the preponderance of the evidence, and the common sense that one develops over 30 years in private practice. Today, I’m again weighing in from that same position, to put the current crisis in a proper context. Some will say that any cost/benefit analysis is insensitive, or that “it places economic progress ahead of human life.” I beg to differ, but I am sure there will be those who are inclined to shame me as they have others.

Let’s look at the facts thus far:

As of today, Sunday, April 5th, the coronavirus has infected 1.25 million people worldwide, with 95% of those infected having mild symptoms. In the U.S., over 8500 people have died “with or from” the coronavirus, a death rate of 26 people per 1 million population. In Sweden, one of the few countries in the world that has not quarantined their entire population, over 400 people have died, a death rate of 40 people per 1 million of population. Incidentally, I say “with or from coronavirus” because one of the more recent scandals in this crisis involves the number of physicians in New York City who are calling TV networks and talk radio stations to say that hospitals there are making no distinction between whether or not coronavirus was the cause of death, or something that complicated a pre-existing condition—either of which could have been the cause of death.

The overwhelming evidence shows that the virus is especially brutal on people who are elderly or already immuno-compromised, overweight, or suffering from diabetes, heart disease, or are in a weakened condition due to recent treatments like chemotherapy. In addition, since these health issues tend to occur in older populations, people over 60 are encouraged to be especially careful in their comings and goings, and avoid unnecessary exposure.  Most of us already know all of this.

Now, let’s put that in some context. The virus has been active in the United States since late January. The original modeling for how many millions of people were going to become infected and die from coronavirus included up to 20 million people worldwide, a figure that even the authors of those original early models have since disavowed.

So, while 8500 Americans have already died from coronavirus, let me share a few other statistics from our CDC regarding the other causes of death in the United States last year: Heart disease killed just under 650,000 people. Cancer took another 600,000. Accidental injury killed another 170,000. Stroke 146,000, Alzheimer’s disease 121,000, diabetes 84,000, influenza and pneumonia another 56,000, and over 47,000 Americans committed suicide last year. These deaths represent the ambient background noise of everyday life in America, totaling over 2.8 million Americans per year, a figure we accept, believing that death is a part of life, that actions have consequences, even as their families celebrate the lives they’ve lost, and the rest of the nation goes about their daily lives.

So here are some questions we need to be asking ourselves:

  • With an ambient 2.8 million Americans dying of various causes already every year, is it worth putting millions of people out of work—with all the accompanying bankruptcies, divorces, defaults, hardships, homelessness, depression and suicides that always accompany a collapsed economy—over what is currently only 8500 people dying with (but not necessarily from) coronavirus? Do we remain locked in our homes, refusing to gather with family and friends or participate in life and economic activity, out of a fear of becoming one of the 170,000 Americans who will die of accidental causes each year?
  • In Sweden, the government has taken the position that the elderly, infirm, and immune-compromised are encouraged to self-quarantine at home for 5-6 weeks, cared for and supplied by their immediate family or a grocery delivery service, while younger, healthier Swedes are encouraged to practice good hygiene and social distancing while at work, school, and living their regular lives. So far, they’ve had only 401 deaths in the entire country. What might Americans conclude from this?
  • On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 701,000 lost jobs through March 12th, a figure that most observers say is but a third of the actual job losses for the month, with five times that figure to come in April, and over 15 million by mid-May. One Federal Reserve regional president just predicted that unemployment could reach 30% nationally, a figure that exceeds the worst rate (25%) of the Great Depression. Q: Do we honestly believe that the markets and the economy will simply brush that off like dandruff on the shoulder, with no long lasting repercussions for families, businesses, and society, once our model-assuming, unelected public health experts gives us permission to resume our lives?  Are we willing to risk the loss of entire industries, millions of businesses that will never reopen, millions more personal bankruptcies, along with permanent job losses at major corporations in every cross-section of the economy?

Our health officials give us mixed messages. On the one hand, “we need to flatten the curve”, continue quarantining and social distancing for many more weeks until we get out of flu season and those infected are able to overcome the invisible killer. On the other hand, they tell us that our immune systems are naturally able to fight off the virus in 95% of the population, and that the resulting antibodies in our “convalescent plasma” are harvestable and even injectable into the bloodstreams of the frail and elderly now in ICU, assisting with their recoveries. If we take at face value the fact that this virus is highly contagious, and that fully half of those who have it are asymptomatic—isn’t it also possible that half of the millions now sitting in home quarantine may have already had it, are in fact now immune to it, and could go back to work?  Presently, we don’t yet have enough tests that can determine this, so continued vigilance is the order of the day.

For the cautious among you who would argue that the worst thing we can do is resume our daily lives prematurely—lest the virus come back in a second wave and prove the modelers right—allow me to point out that we already have proof that that won’t happen: There are two economies currently operating in the United States. The first economy is active, working, hiring, and “delivering essential goods and services.” These include people working in food production, energy production, grocery chains, police and fire departments, restaurants operating with curbside pick-up and delivery, gas stations and auto repair shops, insurance agencies, banks, financial institutions, medical offices, pharmacies, marijuana shops, liquor stores, golf courses, and all of our major big box stores and the warehouses at Amazon, Walmart, Costco, Target, and many, many more. These people are social distancing in the workplace, avoiding infection, and thriving amid increased demand, many with help-wanted signs offering bonuses. The second economy constitutes everyone else, waiting in home quarantine while their retail businesses fail, awaiting their first unemployment check, watching the fabric of our economy crumble at an alarming pace, week by week. That first thriving economy is proof that the suffering of the second economy is unnecessary. This virus—nay, our reaction to this virus—has now resulted in our 50 Governors picking the winners and losers of the 2020 economy.

Seven weeks ago, we had the strongest economy in American history. Seven more weeks of this, and our nation will be unrecognizable. As Americans, we have survived many tragedies. Over 618,000 Americans died during the Civil War, and thousands died in other wars for the rights that we enjoy, and for the blessings that their children would inherit. I have yet to talk to a single client in their 70s or 80s, or even younger clients yet to retire suffering from a medical condition, who are willing to risk the loss of the nation they grew up in, over the inconvenience of their own self-isolation for a few more weeks. “By all means, the rest of you should go back to work soon. Even if you catch this thing, 99% of you will survive it. Don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine when it’s over,” they say.

It’s not too late to avoid what’s coming. But we can’t play chicken with an Economic Depression for too much longer.

12 Comments

  • Lee says:

    Great assessment Thom, especially the comparisons to other causes of death and the non-quarantine strategy in Sweden. I agree that ‘we the people’ need to get back to work real soon.
    And I sure hope this whole mess was a miscalculated over-reaction.
    Thank you.

    • Thomas Brueckner says:

      Thanks, Lee. This isn’t about lives vs economics, as some are alleging; it’s about lives vs. other lives. We need to carefully examine the mounting damage we’re asking our fellow citizens to self-inflict on their families’ futures.
      Be safe!
      Thom

  • Melissa Salandro says:

    Excellent work!!

    Jerry has been screaming at the walls for three weeks saying the same thing!

    Well done as always.

    Melissa

    • Thomas Brueckner says:

      Thanks, Melissa! I feel his pain as Laurie and I keep having the same conversation! Tell Jerry to write our congressmen and have a glass of wine.
      All the best,
      Thom

  • Ron Tossell says:

    Thank you! Are you available to run for President? Sadly our ‘connected’, technical society needs you and your reasoning abilities critically. Thanks again for your shot of reason. How can we introduce this to those we pay to lead?

    • Thomas Brueckner says:

      Thanks, Ron. I’m afraid that would require me to deal with Nancy and Chuck on a regular basis, and the daily frustrations would overwhelm my powers of reason in under a month. Since the pen–er, keyboard–is mightier than the sword, I think I’ll stick with blogging.
      Write your Congressmen. Then have a glass of wine!
      Best to you and Nancy!
      Stay safe,
      Thom

  • Bruce Stead says:

    Thom, I found it very surprising that you would take such a stand since your business depends on pleasing your people and telling them the popular thing. Thank God you have forsaken the politically
    correct thing in favor doing what is the absolute right course of action. This is exactly what we need to do at this time and stop over-reacting to the presumed dangers of a small percent of our population which they can easily take precautions to stay safe and, at the same time, permit the rest of us to resume our lives and help to restore our economy. Thanks, once again, for having the courage to tell me and others the truth that we need to hear. Very sincerely, Bruce Stead

    • Thomas Brueckner says:

      Thanks, Bruce. As you may know, we have been deemed “an essential business” by the Governor, because we manage people’s money and they need access to it. This crisis isn’t about “lives vs economics” (as an abstract academic concept), as some are alleging. It’s about lives vs. OTHER lives. At the risk of offending some of our clients, I felt I had a greater responsibility to apply reason to what some have made into a highly emotional issue. If we can’t have civil discourse over such things, what have we become as a society? My core argument is simply that we need to carefully examine the mounting damage we’re asking our fellow citizens to self-inflict on their families and their futures.
      Thanks again for your kind compliments!
      Be safe,
      Thom

  • Phillip A. Durchslag says:

    Well done Thom. I appreciate your greatness in communicating the facts and taking into account all perspectives. Agree with your thoughts!
    Thanks Phil

  • Tom House says:

    Thanks Thom , this 75 year old is still roofing through this crisis, my 50 year old son has just been laid off from a job in the collision repair business he has had for 15 years, my 54 year old daughter is now without work as she runs a day care facility, the financial destruction of this shutdown will take a giant toll to the human spirit.
    I can’t conceive the damage that 3 or 4 trillion of handouts will do to our children’s future.
    God has always blessed this country because of our Judeo-Christian values , I’m afraid as we turn our back on these values our country is in for a rough future.

    • Thomas Brueckner says:

      For the record, Tom House, you’re my hero in the fitness arena! Roofing is not easy work for a 55-year-old, never mind a 75-year-old. You go, young man!

      I’m so sorry to hear about your son and daughter. That’s exactly the point I was making, namely that we need to be very careful via the increasing damage that we’re asking our fellow citizens to self-inflict on their families and their futures. By the end of April, the economy will likely have lost over 15 million jobs, with no end in sight, some of them permanently. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to adapt the approach of countries like Sweden, as well as get our newly-immune, recovered citizens to donate plasma for the frail elderly who are continuing to become infected.
      And God has indeed blessed this country many times throughout its history, and I expect he will continue to do so. The acts of faith, generosity, and selflessness that we’re seeing right now around the country as neighbor helps neighbor, is truly inspirational. We can only pray that it increases as things get worse.
      All the best to you, Judy, and the kids. Thanks for commenting.
      Be safe,
      Thom

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