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; but that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily a victory. Generally speaking, quantifying direct outcomes from various causes in our societies, isn’t 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 other effects, 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; those who, on paper, don’t appear as a direct consequence of the lockdown. We can be sure based on previous data that among those effects there are, and there will increasingly be, a spike in suicides, poverty, crime, alcohol and drug abuse-related deaths.

Because the question is: 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?

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 tried to list above. Those questions are just a few examples, but the list is 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. They’ll say things like “I know, I know, but it’s the price to pay for saving all those lives in the past!”, not realizing the cost exceeds the value. 

The COVID-19 crisis is a nasty one. Nothing positive can come out of a pandemic, no matter what, or how hard you 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 a 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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