Sunday, April 4, 2021

Voluntary distancing vs. lockdowns

[Note: this article is still a work in progress]

Lockdowns and libertarianism (3): Voluntary distancing vs. lockdowns

We have all been hearing the term "social distancing" for more than a year, by now, and I am sure that everyone believes they know what it means. For most people, though, that is not true; they may know a meaning, and understand perfectly the concept for which it stands; but they do not understand the full meaning, and all of the underlying concepts. In fact, "social distancing" is a good example of what Ayn Rand used to all a 'package deal' - a label applied indiscriminately to different concepts, to hide or blur the differences between them; in short, to equivocate between them. In this case, the concepts are not only different, but in contradiction. 

The first concept is that of simply keeping a distance from other people, or giving them their own space. It is not only a polite thing to do - more so, ironically, in more crowded societies like Japan - but it is also smart or prudent, given that people have always been able to spread diseases to each other. It becomes even more prudent in a pandemic: If one is susceptible, limiting face-to-face contacts with random others is the easiest and most natural way to protect oneself (as well as one's family, by not passing the disease on to them). Examples include not just staying home rather than going out, talking to friends rather rather than visiting them, working from home if possible. It is an example of people changing their own behavior to manage their risks; a part of the concept - an instance or example - of adults running or managing their own lives, and being free to do so. We can label this concept "voluntary distancing." 

A second, different concept, though, is the one guiding policy in this pandemic. Lest I be accused of misstating it or strawmanning its advocates, let me quote a definition from one of its most influential advocates, social media writer Tomas Pueyo, in his wildly influential medium article, "Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now": 

The only way to prevent [mass death] is social distancing today. Not tomorrow. Today.
That means keeping as many people home as possible, starting now.
As a politician, community leader or business leader, you have the power and the responsibility to prevent this.

Pueyo is not talking not about people managing their own risks, but about politicians and other assorted leaders managing those for them; not of people changing their own behavior, but of those "leaders" changing it for them. It is an instance or example of people not being allowed to run their lives, but of some people claiming the right to run the lives of others. The second covers governments "closing companies, shops, mass transit, schools, enforcing lockdowns..." (to again use Pueyo's words) We can label that second concept "forced distancing" or, to use the shorter term now in general use, "lockdowns."

The two concepts could not be more different. But there are other reasons than equivocation to confound them. In this pandemic, both began at roughly the same time in mid-March. And at least in Canada, public health has relied on both. Every province enacted lockdowns. At the same time the media has been filled with public health messaging, advising people of risks and urging them to take precautions on their own.  It was understandable for non-scientists to view the view both phenomena as one unified response, and to attribute the temporary success of that response entirely to the lockdowns. 

The scientific literature was no help. The only mention of voluntary distancing I could find last spring was an April National Bureau of Economic Research paper, "Voluntary and Mandatory Social Distancing: Evidence on COVID-19 Exposure Rates from Chinese Provinces and Selected Countries," which declared flat-out that 

that voluntary self-isolation driven by individual’s perceived risk of becoming infected kicks in only towards the peak of the epidemic and has little or no impact on flattening the epidemic curve.

That finding could be an anomaly of the situation. It is uncontroversially accepted that voluntary distancing during a pandemic is affected by messaging, on information and best practices, by both public health authorities and the media. In Communist China, though, both public health and the media are under tight government control; and the official Chinese government policy pre-lockdown was Covid denial. Not only did the government not tell its citizens about the coronoavirus: it censored and even arrested those who tried to.   

Despite that, the assumption that voluntary distancing was insignificant, and only lockdown-style inverventions could cut virus transmission, quickly became entrenched in the literature. Neil Ferguson's infamous death model, for example, simply assumed that only government interventions could reduce human contact enough to affect the R (reproduction) number. The same unrealistic assumption appeared in the Flaxman death model from IC in May. The latter, which was published in Nature, has been cited over and over as proof that lockdowns save lives; even the lockdowners' manifesto, the John Snow Memorandum, cited it.


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