Suppress, trace, test, repeat

When the Covid-19 pandemic started, it was generally assumed that the only serious policy option was to “flatten the curve”: that is, keep the spread slow enough that the hospital system was not overwhelmed, until either a vaccine was developed and generally available or most of the population had caught the disease giving rise to herd immunity. Both approaches looked likely to take at least a couple of years to work.

In retrospect, this assumption was surprising. China suppressed the initial outbreak in Wuhan, as well as the spread to other provinces, and held case numbers close to zero thereafter. But for a variety of reasons, good and bad, people either distrusted Chinese numbers or thought that the lockdown measures used there couldn’t be applied elsewhere.

It’s now clear, however, that these assumptions were false. Most* developed* countries have applied measures sufficient to reduce Covid-19 from an epidemic to a set of localised clusters. At this point, a full lockdown is no longer needed. Social distancing can keep R below 1 for the general population, so that local clusters don’t grow exponentially. And, as long as the numbers are small enough, contact tracing, testing and localised lockdowns can keep the disease under control.

That’s been the experience in East Asia, Australia and New Zealand and now, it appears in most of Europe. Progress hasn’t been uniform, but no country that’s managed suppression has gone back to uncontrolled spread.

The next step, evidently is reopening borders between jurisdictions where the virus has been suppressed. The most limited form, but still a significant step would be allowing entry subject to 14 day quarantine. That could be relaxed, conditional on returning a negative test. Finally, there’s the ‘bubble’, reopening borders without quarantine or specific testing.

There’s nothing particularly novel in what I’ve written above, but I don’t think the implications have fully sunk in. Indeed, I haven’t thought them through in detail myself. To give just one example, what if the US remains isolated from the rest of the world while travel to and from China is reopened?

  • Sweden didn’t attempt this, the US started but couldn’t persist long enough, and is now completely distracted by the collapse of the Trump Administration.
  • It’s still unclear what’s happening in middle-income and poor countries, where lockdown doesn’t seem feasible. There’s some hope that the disease will be less severe in the tropics where most of these countries are found. Younger populations means less vulnerability. And sadly, there is already such a large toll from endemic diseases and poverty that Covid looks less exceptional.

Would freezing minimum wages help recovery ?

I’ve just responded to a poll of economists, run by The Conversation and The Economic Society of Australia on this question. Here’s my response

No There has been extensive debate on the effects of minimum wages on labor demand. Over the last 25 years, the general conclusion has been that these effects are relatively small.

However, these questions are irrelevant in the current context. The pace of economic recovery will be determined entirely by macroeconomic conditions, including fiscal and monetary policy, continued success in suppressing the pandemic, developments overseas and consumer confidence. In this context, an increase in minimum wages will have a modest positive effect in bolstering demand.

In the longer term, the costs of the pandemic will have to be shared across the community. The crisis has shown that the work of lower-paid people is vital and undervalued, while much (not all) highly recompensed activity turns out to be of marginal importance in a crisis. Those on higher incomes should bear all or most of the cost of recovery.

Results of the poll should be out next week, I think


A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

To be clear, the sandpit is for regular commenters to pursue points that distract from regular discussion, including conspiracy-theoretic takes on the issues at hand. It’s not meant as a forum for visiting conspiracy theorists, or trolls posing as such.

UQ and China

A colleague wrote to me today asking about the case of Drew Pavlou, a student suspended by the University of Queensland for two years as a result of actions in the course of protests against the policies of the Chinese government in Hong Kong. Here’s my reply

I don’t know any more about it than what I read in the papers, but it certainly looks bad for UQ. To the extent that anything has come out about the reasons for suspending the student, they seem to be political stunts that are fairly typical of student activists. A sensible university management would ignore this kind of thing, not make a martyr of the student.
As you say, the more the Chinese regime deteriorates into a personal dictatorship, the more problematic it is to bend (or be seen to bend) to pressure in matters of this kind.

Can we beat influenza

Following my post on pandemic whataboutery, James Joyner had some interesting thoughts, noting that

Interestingly, Quiggin doesn’t circle back to the third example from his introduction: influenza. Will Americans, having been conditioned to lockdowns during this pandemic, be more likely to implement them again for lesser ones? Or will this be a Never Again moment?

I was thinking over a post on this topic when I read that New Zealand is planning to use the testing contact tracing system set up for the coronavirus to stamp out sexually transmitted infections. So, the idea is obviously in the air.

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