A penny for your thoughts? Einstein thought them worth far more. He used “thought experiments” to explain the nature of relativity and the universe. Einstein would ask, what if? What if you use established principles and relate them to scenarios that can’t be experimented upon, or do not yet exist? Let’s apply some thought experiments of what might have been – and what might be – for Covid-19.
A. The US Confronts the Virus
On January 18, 2020, Secretary of HHS Alex Azar tells the president he needs several hundred million dollars for health worker’s protective equipment. An extraordinarily virulent virus in China may well challenge the entire American health care system. No time can be wasted.
The president recognizes this fearsome risk as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and win re-election. He lets Azar go and do “whatever it takes” to prevent the virus from invading the U.S.
Azar asks Dr. Tom Frieden and former CDC directors for advice. Hundreds of CDC former staffers in epidemiology and virology fired, quit, or pushed into early retirement are invited back to Atlanta. Their job is to return to the CDC’s traditional role – leading and coordinating the global fight against viral epidemics.
Their advice is to “panic early,” put in immediate preventive measures as epidemics work exponentially. To not offend the People’s Republic, secrets meetings are held with Taiwan’s epidemiologist vice-president, to learn more about what has happened on the Chinese mainland. American scientists cooperate with Taiwanese and Australian authorities to construct a diagnostic test for the virus based on the full genomic map released by China in early January.
On February 2nd, Rachel Chu of the University Washington reports cases of the novel virus appear to be spreading through Seattle. Officials at FDA and CDC who tell her such work is illegal are told to stand down. Community spread in Seattle means the virus has probably reached the entire West Coast. Understanding the risks, the president convenes meetings with West Coast governors to rapidly lockdown. He points out the uncertainties but describes how hundreds of thousands of lives might be lost without rapid action.
Religious groups sue to continue their rituals without restriction. As in Taiwan, face mask manufacturing machines are placed by CDC and military personnel into US factories as the Defense Production Act is invoked to make sufficient protective equipment. When new cases are discovered in NY, the eastern seaboard is locked down.
Refusals to live with lockdown requirements from a “non-existent threat,” and “a medical hoax” lead to rioting, and new disease transmission. Millions refuse to wear masks, saying it violates their freedom and religious liberty. Senator and doctor Rand Paul, exercising in the Congressional gym with full knowledge he is infected, is vigorously reprimanded by the Senate. At the end of the day, the CDC and WHO push back a global epidemic. Serious economic disruption of three months is following by a V-shaped economic recovery, as the U.S. led viral tests are distributed to a grateful world.
This is of course a thought experiment (gedankenexperiment) for the U.S., though not so much for much of humanity. Vietnam has a new winter viral outbreak, as does Australia, but so far report 0 and 7 deaths per million respectively, compared to the U.S. semi-official, rising count of 465.
B. Sweden Decides Not to Go It Alone
Prime Minister Lofven is first seduced by Sweden’s plan to create “herd immunity” for a novel coronavirus. Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell and others explain the virus is highly contagious, but mainly kills the elderly. Put old folks in lockdown, but allow the rest of the country to go on with only social distancing, and the young will build up immunity that will spread and eventually protect the entire population.
Others caution against this approach. They explain that coronaviruses constantly mutate, and herd immunity may last no more than one season. There is also no proof that reaching herd immunity will be quick. It may take several years for the virus to move through Sweden’s dispersed rural regions.
Lofven listens to the opponents, and orders a lockdown patterned on that of Norway. This changes the calculus of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who disregards his advisor’s advice to keep those over 70 isolated at home for four months while business “continues as usual.”
In the end, Sweden achieves a death rate similar to Norway’s, 47 per million, rather than its present 567. Britain, having locked down at the same time as Germany, seems a similar death rate, one-sixth of its present fatalities. The prime minister never goes to hospital, nor does his health minister become ill. Negotiations for Brexit become smoother as European nations recognize their common needs and goals.
C. Effective Vaccines Arrive
By the end of 2020, several new Covid-19 vaccines prove effective and well-tolerated. In an attempt to help others and jump-start the world economy, the U.S., the EU, and China pool resources to create vaccine production and distribution centers on every continent except Antarctica. A worldwide virtual concert portrays celebrities getting their jabs and immediately launching into song. Within eighteen months 4 billion people are inoculated. Economic growth surges. People feel safe again.
Covid-19 has demonstrated that lack of imagination is lethal. Most militaries perform war games. They need to know how to deal with future uncertainties to save many lives.
Those types of thought experiments are required now.