Shutdown: That Which Will Not Be Seen

It’s easy to hypothesize how the economic shutdown is effectively saving lives. The declining numbers of cases from coronavirus are, indeed, most likely a direct consequence of our preventing measures, such as masks and bans on gathering. But that doesn’t mean we should call it a win. Generally speaking, quantifying direct outcomes from various causes, is nowhere near as simple as it seems. What long term effect will the lockdowns produce?

As Frédéric Bastiat reminds us in his famous essay “Things which is seen and things which are not seen”, an event produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; in other words, “it is seen”. The others, on the other hand, emerge only subsequently; “they are not seen”.

Unlike the number of cases from COVID-19, what is not easy to hypothesize (if not nearly impossible to quantify) are the future effects and ramifications of the lockdown; those effects who, on paper, don’t appear as a direct consequence. We can be sure based on previous data measuring the relationship between economic recessions and mortality, that among them there are (and there will increasingly be): spikes in suicides, poverty, crime, alcohol and drug abuse-related deaths.

Because questions we should ask ourselves are: how many people will have their psychological stability threaten and pushed to its breaking point because of the recession, or due to the sense of isolation and despair during this lockdown? Or how many, when they’ll learn they’ve lost their job, will start using drugs and one day die of an overdose? How many will attempt suicide after having gambled away their last cent in the hope of fixing their problems? How many will they simply drink themselves to death, or cause a car accident? Cancer victims, diabetes, heart diseases, and domestic abuse; will they all increase as a consequence? And how much poverty and inequality will we need to experience, before crime alone will become a bigger cause of suffering than this epidemic alone?

Chances are that depression and poverty caused by the inevitable recession alone, will trigger a series of effects that will be almost impossible to quantify; a far larger cascade than the one I’ve hinted at above. Those are just a few examples, but the real, complete list would look a lot larger; the real wave nearly unquantifiable. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to put our finger on it, not as easy as we can spot the so-called flattening curve on our current graphs. Most people will suffer the wave, but they’ll never realize what caused it. They might even look back and call this a win. “I know, I know, but at-least we kept our elderly safe back in the days!”. They won’t realize the cost exceeds the value. 

The COVID-19 crisis is a particularly nasty one. Nothing positive can come out of a pandemic, no matter what, or how hard we try. But it is safe to assume that by now, if we don’t want to make the future worse by prolonging this unprecedented shutdown, we should hit reverse as soon as possible, or that series of hypotheses will become an unavoidable reality. “That which is seen” is scary as it is, but “that which is not seen” could be far worse than most of our graphs can predict, and that few of us can even imagine.


by: Mark Granza

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