Garbage in, garbage out

Many of you might remember the early days of computer programming when the mantra was “garbage in, garbage out.” That needs to be applied to today to computer models predicting the severity of the coronavirus. A few examples should suffice.

The authors of an op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post admit as much when they quote Anthony Fauci saying “Models are as good as the assumptions you put into them” at the end of an article in which they expose how sketchy the assumptions are that have been put into such models as the one out of University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that Fauci and others have been relying on.

One of the factors that is not included in any of these models that viruses mutate. A study from China (which of course would need to be replicated) found thirty strains of the virus that causes COVID-19. The author writes, “Sars-CoV-2 has acquired mutations capable of substantially changing its pathogenicity.” The implication of that finding is that the reason some people who are otherwise healthy get very sick and die while others are asymptomatic might be that the strain they came in contact with might be more virulent.

The models are being used today to justify extreme social distancing including shutting of all but “essential” businesses in most states. Suggestions that some states and counties can ease these restrictions have been met with outcries, claiming to do so invites more deaths. The problem with that assertion is that unless one knows FOR CERTAIN the number of people who have been infected by the virus the fear of tens of thousands of additional deaths is not backed by fact.

Some recent evidence suggests more people have had the virus that previously known, including people who had mild cases or who are asymptomatic. But the bottom line is we don’t have sufficient answers to make clear-cut policy decisions. As a result, governors and other elected officials are playing safe––not wanting to be blamed for causing deaths.

Unfortunately, there is a price to pay for being overly cautious in terms of millions of people’s livelihoods. The longer the country is shut down the harder it will be to get back up and the longer it will take. The exact price also cannot be calculated because we don’t have those answers either.

We do know there is a limit to how long the federal government can print money and distribute it to everyone in the country. One factor is that the debt even at zero interest will have been repaid. Another more immediate factor is that printing more money could result in rapid inflation––which coupled with scarcity of certain goods will have its own social cost.

My advice to governors is not to take the entire burden on yourself. With the assistance of your legislature and executive agency personnel, set broad guidelines for when certain types of businesses can reopen in each county of your state. That way when deaths occur you can deflect the blame and justify the policy. Some states are facing bankruptcy. It’s time to fight that war as well as the one brought about by the virus.

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