Failures of Imagination: The Missed Promise of Transformative Lockdowns

I have been concerned about the long run, and specifically, how it seemed to be rarely discussed early on in the various forms of “lockdown” and social distancing policies around the world. That media and government leaders seem to only now be seriously turning to this question strikes me as about 4 to 8 weeks late in most of the rich world. Every new government deadline for a policy seems to be treated and discussed implicitly in society as ‘…and after that, things will be normal’, despite many signs to the contrary, and even the views of people when directly asked. There’s a good reason for this dissonance between what people think when asked to directly analyze a question, and their hopes for what we will do when ‘some semblance of normal returns’.

I’m hardly the first to point out that we are wasting time here, we have wasted valuable time only thinking about the exit strategy at the end of the lockdown. But, this is to be expected. Most governments have been reticent to open up this process in any serious way to civil society for deliberation and shared imagination. Rather, most countries have kept this process very high-level(few places more than the Netherlands, where I live). However, as I have written elsewhere, centralized authorities composed of government and narrowly credentialed experted can only process so much information at a time and imagine a limited number of creative solution. The Lockdown took up all it’s bandwidth. No time for what comes after.

Consequently, there is still widespread (though increasingly sinking) hope that we are going to ‘get back to work’ simultaneously existing in the minds of people that believe ‘normal won’t return within 6 months to a year’. This leaves us with the awkward politicians’ designation of this imagined medium-term state as ‘some semblance of normal’; a mythical state that can be all things to all people. That dissonance isn’t helpful in the long run, but it is revealing.

I fear that it reveals a deep ambivalence and lack of confidence in moving away from the status quo that we knew in the face of tremendous uncertainty and world heaving crises. In this respect, it is much like the Great Depression or World War Two (to which this crisis has been compared or implied to likely result in proportional societal changes) and as such it probably requires some gutsy visionary decision-making and strong leadership rather than the political managerialism, trotting out of yesterdays solutions whether it be pure Keynesianism or Denmark Style Socialism, or the base populism which all seems to stand in for vision and leadership these days.

But because we aren’t considering the long run, I think that there are potentially severe economic dangers looming as I discussed here, a series of blind spots in our analysis and unimaginative policies on offer among those who see a crisis they can’t let go to waste. Folks like Umair Haque extoll accurate the ‘unprecedented’ nature of this economic and social moment, and then procede to offer extremely ‘precendented’ views on how to solve the problem. His favorite is WWII-style Keynesianism.

What do I think a visionary policy would have been or could be?

Let’s Start with Some — I think — Uncontroversial Priors:

There are a few things that we need to keep in mind when talking about this crisis in the long term (some of which I already laid out in Part I — but to save you having to remember it or read it):

  1. We do not know how readily and for how long individuals who get the Corona-virus develop immunity. At the time of this writing the WHO had just announced that there was ‘no evidence’ of immunity resulting from infection. The family of corona viruses have patterns that range from weeks of immunity to a couple years of immunity. We probably will not know until studies like that currently being done by RIVM are completed in 18 months or so, by which point, we will hopefully have a vaccine or at least some powerful treatments. So, any attempt to use herd immunity as a way out of this — which still takes a very long time if you don’t just let it run and try to save lives and your medical system — is a gamble. Even if you develop elaborate supposedly economy-saving plans on the basis of herd immunity in the Netherlands under current treatment conditions it will take two years, according to a team of modelers or between 1–7 years under a variety of assumptions.
    The winning side of that gamble is that we have a high number of deaths and debilitations but afterwards we can go back to normal. Losing that much of certain segments of the population will destabilize industries and markets for some time, sure, but life afterwards can largely return to handshakes, Tinder dates, and brunches. In the Netherlands that should cost between 60,000 to 120,000 lives in a country of 17million. Yay.
    The losing side of that gamble is 12–18 or more months of high death rates during waves of outbreak, killing fewer only as the vulnerable populations are wiped out, and subjecting the rest of economy to one where many of its employees are regularly down for 5–10 days with viral pneumonia. This is hardly the great economic health the ‘we need to balance the economy and lives’ people were promised, and at the end we don’t even get herd immunity for our efforts because we either have a vaccine or we discover that the immunogenicity of the virus is too low or short lived to grant it.
  2. So far, there are no treatments that radically reduce the symptoms of the virus or speed up recovery. There have been some promising signs. But until they come to pass and are scaleable, the math is clear when combined with point 1 that herd immunity doesn’t get us out of this fix anytime soon either.
  3. Even if one country or region like The Netherlands or the U.S. State of Washington can get control of the virus through wide testing and quarantining after reducing the number of infections drastically, our ‘normal’ way of life and ‘healthy’ economic function still rely on trade and travel. That means that the rest of the world also needs to have its outbreak under control. And, as of now, the Global South where most of the raw inputs for our advanced industrial economies come from is just at the beginning of this thing. They will not be done until well after the Global North.
  4. Our economy cannot go on this way with more shutdowns. We are expanding risks to our supply chains, risking inflation, supply shortfalls, and massive investment uncertainty (the hallmarks of great depressions), and a challenge to pushing demand, since people are unlikely to return to restaurants and other proximate businesses as they did before while the virus still circulates.
  5. Our society cannot go on this way. It is incredibly disruptive and dangerous for people to be sitting around unproductively, beset by financial risk, total planning uncertainty, inadequate schooling for the underprivileged, inadequate protection for children who are in unsafe situations, and idleness that leads to alcoholism and other forms of even worse abuse of substance and people. People are avoiding hospitals and dying of heart disease and strokes and other ailments.
  6. On the upside, our environment absolutely can go on this way with some modest changes in consumption.
  7. And most ominously (and I can’t stress this enough): This is actually a pretty mild outbreak. And, in all likelihood more are coming. We have had near misses, but this one got us. The long run is going to have more pathogens, directly proportional to how intensely we continue our current status quo patterns of economic and environmental development.

An Imaginiative Alternative: Transitional Lockdown and the 1.5 meter (6ft) Economy.

To get it out of the way, there will be no return to normal in my view, I generally do not see a way forward that does not imply a future that looks and feels very little like the one that ended on February without major sacrifices of privacy, and potentially democratic stability. More on that later, but even more trivially, many of us just aren’t going to go back to store-bought bread after this. The Sourdough is too delicious, and we have all got our starter doughs and speedy no-kneed recipes on tap now. This and a million other behavior changes (is anyone really going to feel comfortable in a close cramped dark Las Vegas Casino for the forseeable future? Will they have disposable income?) are part of society now. As MacCay Coppins astutely points out, “The things we miss most about our pre-pandemic lives — dine-in restaurants and recreational travel, karaoke nights and baseball games — require more than government permission to be enjoyed.”

I think that largely we, in the rich world, have been and are currently wasting this period of various forms of lockdown and potentially making things worse long run (a cure that isn’t worse than the disease but with unnecessarily grievous side effects) in the insecure hope of returning to normal. More on why that may be is probably left to another post.

What is good, I think is the framing the Dutch government has put on it’s transition plan: ‘The 1.5 meter economy’. I think that is a good frame. I don’t think that the realities go far enough or that it is particularly visionary or long-term, and I think some of the details of their current plan give false hopes: For example, I struggle to see dance clubs and indoor venues recover at any time in the near future, if at all. I believe what we should have been doing for the last 4–8 weeks is building an economy and politics that builds on the following pillars:

  • Building a long-term sustainable 1.5 meter-able (6 ft-able) economy
  • Incentivising localism and regionalization
  • A massive increase in testing and tracing capabilities for Covid and all other pathogens.

Transitioning how we do business, educate, and live

What I propose, in a nutshell is that rather than pay people to remain idle, or to nurse individuals, small businesses, and major corporations through an undetermined period of an inability to pay their bills and hope that we can neutralize this with monetary easing to avoid creating a hyperinflation bomb in our economy, that we should doing something that I think is in principle pretty uncontroversial: We should be taking on debt to invest in our futures by paying people to transition the economy actively to a 1.5 meter, pandemic compatible, more sustainable future. Like how Franklin Delano Roosevelt transitioned the U.S. economic and social apparatus to adapt to the modern age in the Great Depression and World War II through visionary leadership, we should be doing the same now. There was a pre-War and post-War West, and there should be a pre-Covid and a post-Covid West. I for one, would like to see the ‘post’ look at good relative to the ‘pre’ as the post-War world looked to the pre-war one.

We should be doing this because we have to spend this money anyway, and with climate change and more pandemics coming we cannot afford to leave this crisis as economically (and thus politically) weakened as we are likely to if we keep going on this way. Moreover, if we have to borrow this money from future generations, we should spend it as well as possible for them. The frantic desire to get back to normal is going to leave us weakened for some time and mortally risks our future selves (to say nothing of future generations) for the hope that we can be as much like we were as possible. But, if sufficiently bad environmental disasters or another pandemic hit us while hobbling out of this crisis we will be in mortal danger as a global civilization. We need to think about this in terms of insurance. We are in a very risky place systemically, even without the Corona-crisis.

But to be clear, this view is a far less a top-down affair than was taken during the crisis in the last mid-century. This should be far more bottom up, and favor smaller companies over larger players with a vested interest in the status quo. This should be a regulatory and financial framework within which market forces and individuals ingenuinty and choices shape our future: A programme of financial incentives and transition assistance could be put in place that ends in a fixed period of time (say 2 years), after which no more payments will be given to help businesses or individuals. This assistance would pay people to transition their work and business to one compatible with people keeping a 1.5 to 2 meter distance, and which can — in a aerosol-transmitted pandemic — be turned to be as completely remote and distributed with as little reduction in overall economy activity as possible: An economy that need not shut down but operate at a slightly cooler temperature in the pandemic.

This would mean a future with far more working-from-home in many businesses, far different regulatory regimes and practices for contact industries, far more home-delivery shopping, and a radical de-democratization of many indoor activities.

Large lecture halls at universities should probably be moved online, and in-person instruction return to its smaller and more intensive in scope instruction. Dining, theater, concerts, and other mass events will have to be compatible with far fewer people being able to attend, and thus will radically increase the prices of participation. This will move more activities out of doors to warmer seasons, and require some industries to engage in innovative approaches to accomidate greater distancing or total decentralization in the case of the next crisis.

A second prong of this plan would be stonger regionalization.

Our prior economy rested on a deepening of networks cross geographically without respect to any borders (all borders — mucipal, regional, and national). Total mobility of human capital has been grease in the wheels of the growth of the post-war era, and particularly the last 30. This yielded tremendous efficiencies and the ability to extract high levels of value from local strengths at minimal cost. However, the resulting intensity of activity has not only resulted in environmental dangers, it has made us and our supply chains exceptionally vulnerable to systemic shocks, and made fighting any pandemic exceptionally difficult without massive economic and social costs. It has given rise to forms of social dysfunction, community decline, and lower social trust as well. We can see these trends in agriculture, manufacturing, distribution, the higher education sector, and in countries like the Netherlands (but unlike the United States), secondary and even primary education.

But epidemeological events spread geographically and unevenly. My home county in New York State where I grew up has had 20 confirmed cases and zero deaths the entire crisis to date. But it was under the same conditions as the rest of he state in a response build for downstate New York, the epicenter, until, like, yesterday. The north of the Netherlands, by a combination of luck and adopting a rebellious and more effective strategy at the beginning, when there was still time, has been far more effective in getting the virus under control than the south of The Netherlands. But regional openings and closings are quite difficult because we have such deeply integrated networks. People commute between regions, and businesses often rely on operations in multiple areas. If you open one area, people will flock there bringing contagion with them. This makes establishing ‘zones’ extraordinarily difficult.

Establishing different ‘zones’ that can be put under different conditions, and locked down or opened up if necessary is a key tool to not only fighting this pandemic, but every pandemic. This idea of ‘green zoning’ has already been discussed elsewhere as a key tool for openning countries in the event htat no vaccine or treatment can be found.

Moreover, we know that more localism is less carbon intensive, and there is good reason to believe that it is better for us politically and sociologically. Most of us have experienced in lockdown the deepening of our local networks. That’s a sign that this is a social level that is resilient in a crisis, and we should probably be strengthening that and making localist life more pleasant with policy and adaptation. I know my community of the Hague (Ypenburg) has nearly everything needed for a vibrant life in a pandemic — easily accessed green space, large stores that are accessible without going through too much closed spaced high density places, and reasonable sized dwellings across income groups. I am confident that any study would find that psychological and other well-being measures are far higher here than in other parts of the Hague characterized by transient populations, high density, small apartments, and a lack of open green space. I sometimes look with bewilderment at people who say in ZOOM meeting with horror that ‘this can’t happen again! Society will crumble!’ While there are inconveniences in some respects, in other respects I have been living my best life. We can limit those inconveniences and strengthen the model that has demonstrated itself to be more resilient.

This process would take the longest of all the suggestions here, but it has also already begun as we see in our deepening local networks. Our support of the local take-out place, community Whatsapp groups, and sharing of sourdough starters. Suddenly, we are looking more to our neighbors. Moving forward policy to incentivize and reenforce that should help it along. Just help the process that has already emerged.

What this would look like is more geographically constrained schooling, and financial incentives to live close to one’s place of employment, and commuting by bike. It would require slow changes in infrastructure in housing (home offices and more space per inhabitant would become a must) and roads. We should become less intensively automobile and long distance mass transit dependent, and more local transit and bicycle dependent.

A final prong is Test, test, test and trace trace trace.

I think we are vastly unvaluing the power of a powerful testing and tracing ublic health authority.

With businesses and schools more geared towards local 1.5 meter/6ft life after a period of more intense lockdown that have brought infection rates very low, the final step is widespread random testing and supported isolation of the positive-testing patients. If the above is successful, the resources required to contact trace manually via interview and investigation would be much higher than in a pre-Covid world, but would likely be manageable. I genuinely don’t get why every government isn’t engaged in a frantic World War Two style conversion of whatever resources it needs in order to create greater testing capacity? It seems impossible that during a World War Czech’s could develop war planes from textile machinery, the U.S. could move from de-militarized to the greatest military on Earth in three years, and Britain could convert every resource into the war effort but we can’t build labs and testing capacity? That seems like a small ask in comparison and it would be a major investment in our future to do so.

Most critically, increasing testing and tracing infrastructure needn’t just help us now. Like the 1.5 meter economy it helps us long-run for the next pathogen. Moreover, it will help us with current pathogens that are bad for us and bad for the economy. There are many contagious diseases that we have never had the incentive to develop this infrastructure for, but once we have this infrastructure for the Novel Coronavirus we can use it to help fight those pathogens too. We could reduce the amount of medical resources we spend over here, by spending more on testing and tracing over there all the while insuring us against the next bad bug to emerge from a wet market or American factory farm.

Moreover, by developing this capacity we will learn a great deal about how these pathogens spread from the detailed qualitiative investigations that would be taking place en masse, which should yield new insights into how pathogens spread that can be deployed against other pathogens and new ones too. This would further aid the refinement of our behavior and the institutional structure underpinning the 1.5m/6ft society.

The Payout

We do not get a return to normal from this, if normal is described as the pre-Covid world, but what we get instead is avoiding major restrictions of our liberties that are implied in geotagging the population with apps, we avoid the necessity of further draconian lockdowns and the threats to liberty, prosperity, and well-being that they imply, we get a greener environment, more vibrant local communities, and massive opportunities for the way bottom up ingenuity and entrepreneurship deal with the crisis rather than top down social planning. It makes all of our activities more economically productive as we move. We would have been reopening from the day that we went into lockdown while building in resilience to any future waves. Rather than paying people to do nothing in the hopes of putting the pre-Covid world on ice to be thawed out for a pre-Covid after Covid world, we pay people to transition their activity to be productive in this new reality. Thus, while our theoretical max output in the economy will be lower than our max output in a pre-Covid world, our realized economic vibrance will be higher in the eventuality of second waves of this pandemic or the next pandemic.

As an added bonus, this approach moves us forward on social, environmental, and epidemiological challenges.

What we lose will be things we are probably going to lose anyway without a vaccine, and which will in all likelihood struggle anyway to recover for long after — large festivals in cramped spaces and other activities that are simply not compatible with limiting mass infections. Like it or not, behavior changes have already begun, and while some may be itching to return to Las Vegas casino many will simply no longer have the taste to do so or won’t risk it again.

So what we need is some imaginative leadership to move us out of the highly centralized, optimized, globalized, mass-scaled industrial model of the post-WWII era to the decentralized, anti-fragile, distributed networked, human-scaled post-industrial model of the post-Covid world. It’s a vibrant world with lower growth, cleaner air, and more accessible opportunities for more people to matter in thier more vibrant communities. What we lack is some imagination and our Covid-Era’s FDR.

The featured image is of Franklin Delano Roosevelt accessed from Wikimedia commons

And earlier version of this piece appeared on The Corona Kremlinologists, blog project.

Liberal Arts College Professor who works on statistical and scientific approaches to politics, Decision-making and political institutions, and philosophy.