(Bloomberg Opinion) — Around the world, people are itching to end lockdowns. Road traffic is rising in the U.K., while garden centers and hardware shops have reopened. In a handful of U.S. states, hair stylists are back at work and restaurants and movie theaters have opened. Germans are shopping again, although many remain wary of the risks.
That caution is well advised. The example of China, as well as epidemiologic models attuned to the longer-term aspects of the pandemic, suggests that most nations are many months away from anything like normal, even with continued social distancing. In the U.S., realistic scenarios include the chance of a new winter epidemic, as well as sporadic outbreaks further on.
It is a little depressing, stuck at home, to read scientists estimating what may happen with the epidemic in 2021, 2022 and even 2024. But there are good reasons to question the more optimistic forecasts for when it may be safe to end the lockdowns. Models based on simulations of the infection’s dynamics foresee huge uncertainties and risks ahead.
Among the optimistic projections are those from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, cited even by the White House. These suggest safe dates for various U.S. states to begin reopening: May 28 for New York, for example, and June 27 for Georgia. These are based on statistical curve-fitting to data and project when the level of infections may drop to one per 1 million people. Graphs with reassuring downward sloping lines accompany the predictions.
Unfortunately, this picture is almost certainly too optimistic, because the basic model assumes that infection numbers will fall rapidly once reaching their peak. This doesn’t come from the data. The optimistic downward projection is an artifact of the mathematical framework used, which isn’t really designed for projection, as the researchers acknowledge.
There is a similar but improved statistical model that more accurately reflects the great uncertainties in these projections. But it still just assumes a rapid decay in numbers following the peak, and the researchers behind it stress it shouldn’t be used to forecast beyond two to three weeks. Other models based on fitting data with actual simulations of disease dynamics aren’t so optimistic. For example, one suggests that the rate of infections in Georgia may in fact double by early August following the state’s partial reopening and relaxation of distancing rules.
A new age is upon us. For all of the major events of our nation’s history, the engines of our economy and functions of our government have been upended by an invisible foe. The toll of America’s 19-year conflict in Vietnam has already been eclipsed, and markets are reacting with more fear than in 2008. A germ has had more impact on the average American than the largest stories of the last 20 years, including wars in the Middle East, September 11th, and the real estate crash. Cutting across ethnic, income, and geographic lines, the coronavirus has disrupted American life well beyond any edict in a state capital or Washington.
Most of the changes to American life that have emerged over the last two months have been negative. Massive shifts caused by the virus have acted as a mirror for wider underlying trends.
Take the demise of local business. For years, the political mantra has been to support Main Street over Wall Street. But social distancing rules and the internet have impacted our small business’ ability to stay alive. The National Federation of Independent Business reported that their optimism index fell in March by its sharpest rate in the survey’s history. Meanwhile, consumer spending fell by an approximate 18 percent in the first quarter of 2020—despite the major pandemic restrictions happening in just the second half of March. The brick and mortar model is not only running independent stores into the risk of default, but could decimate many of America’s 1,100 malls.
In place of traditional shopping, online sales are the topic of the day. Amazon has seen an unprecedented boom thanks to the crisis. Online grocery sales have nearly doubled, and spending on video games has increased by 50 percent. Overall online sales increased 49 percent since the dawn of the corona crisis. Physical sales outside of foodstuffs have been heaviest among alcohol, increasing by a whopping 75 percent.