Living with Risk Daily Briefing – May 21

Published on May 21, 2020 / Leer en español

Center for a New Economy

Edited by
Sergio M. Marxuach


Five things you should know today

1) What should reopen first?

Three researchers affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“MIT”) have just published a paper that provides a “framework to help policymakers decide what should open first and which locations should face strict restrictions for longer.”

As shown in the chart above, the authors, Seth Benzell, Avinash Collis, and Christos Nicolaides, used “a cost-benefit analysis to rank each of 26 locations in terms of the tradeoff between relative risk of infection and importance to consumers and the economy. The researchers found banks, grocery stores, general merchandise stores like Walmart, and colleges and universities should face overall lighter restrictions and reopen earlier, while gyms, cafes, and liquor, tobacco, and sporting goods stores should face tighter restrictions and open later.”

The researchers also noted some limitations to their analysis. Their study doesn’t account for linkages between industries, which, depending on their magnitude, could significantly affect demand for other industries. They also did not account for physical and mental health costs that could be associated with lockdowns and noted that geographical variation could affect their results in subtle ways. Nonetheless, this analysis provides policymakers with a good framework that can be adjusted to take into account local characteristics as they weigh their options for the reopening of the economy.

2) First results of Oxford vaccine trial should be available in a month

Professor Sir John Bell of Oxford University announced that the results of a human trial of a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus could be available within a month. According to Professor Bell, about 1,110 persons “are expected to take part in the trial, with half receiving the vaccine and the other half – the ‘control’ group – receiving a widely available meningitis vaccine.”

Many in the medical community see the Oxford vaccine as the best short-term option given that they had a head start on human trials and their vaccine “is largely based on another vaccine they developed for MERS, a coronavirus related to COVID-19.” Nonetheless, the Oxford team is facing some difficulties in carrying on their work. For example, with COVID-19 cases declining in the UK, they may not have access to enough infected patients for a larger trial. According to Dr. Bell, “the researchers had discussed deliberately exposing people to the virus, but the practicalities are complicated, as there is no treatment yet to rescue people if they get sick.”

Finally, if the vaccine proves effective, Dr. Bell and his team still face the challenge of manufacturing and delivering it to market. He stated his team is working with AstraZeneca to improve vaccine manufacturing capacity in the UK, which currently “isn’t where it needs to be.”

3) Massive cyclone hits India and Bangladesh in the middle of the pandemic

Cyclone Amphan made landfall in West Bengal, India, near the border with Bangladesh. According to Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the state of West Bengal, “the whole of the southern part of the state has been affected…It will take three to four days to assess the damage”. Early reports indicate the cyclone has affected electric service, destroyed housing, and severely damaged infrastructure in West Bengal. CNN also reports that:

  • “Amphan became the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal on Monday night, though it has since weakened slightly.
  • Indian officials said that up to 300,000 people in coastal areas are in immediate danger from potentially deadly storm surges and flooding.
  • Evacuations across the region have been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, as authorities attempt to maintain strict social distancing rules.”

Cyclone Amphan is a stark reminder that crises can and do occur simultaneously. Nature will not wait for the end of the COVID-19 pandemic to throw something else at us.

4) FEMA issues COVID-19 pandemic operational guidance for the 2020 hurricane season

Which brings us to the news that the Federal Emergency Management Administration (“FEMA”) has published operational guidelines for the 2020 hurricane season, which will take place concurrently with the COVID-19 pandemic. According to FEMA, this document:

  • “Describes anticipated challenges to disaster operations posed by COVID-19 and describes planning considerations for emergency managers in light of these challenges;
  • Outlines how FEMA plans to adapt response and recovery operations to the realities and risks of COVID-19 to:
    • Ensure prioritization for life safety, life sustainment, and workforce protection, and
    • Maintain the delivery of FEMA’s programs and help to solve complex problems by using whole-of-community disaster assistance to the highest level possible;
  • Allows State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial (SLTT) emergency managers to prepare and plan accordingly based on FEMA’s operational posture and create a shared understanding of expectations between FEMA and SLTTs prior to hurricane season; and
  • Provides guidance, checklists, and resources to enable emergency managers to best adapt response and recovery plans.”

As reported in the local press, the main challenges for Puerto Rico will be to maintain social distancing measures during the evacuation, transportation, and sheltering of those who live in unsafe conditions or areas; to modify shelters and emergency coordination centers to provide for social distancing; and to provide personal protective equipment to evacuees and emergency personnel.

With the hurricane season in this side of the world just around the corner, this is the time to start planning and preparing for confronting both a strong hurricane and an outbreak of COVID-19 as the island reopens its economy.

5) The town that tested itself

The New Yorker has published an interesting piece on how Bolinas, a tiny hippie enclave north of San Francisco, mounted one of the most advanced coronavirus-testing efforts in America.” The author, Nathan Heller, tells the story of how a “tiny separatist retreat of surfers, artists, drifters, and venture capitalists claimed a place at the forefront of pandemic strategy.”

As Governor Gavin Newsome instituted a state-wide shelter-in-place policy, “in Bolinas, alarm grew. ‘There are a lot of, frankly, aging hippies here whose idea of social distancing is to hug each other a little bit less’, Jyri Engeström, a venture capitalist who has a house in town, said.”

The community, however, organized to have every single resident tested, based on the model of the small Italian town of Vo, “once the site of an outbreak, now home to no new cases, thanks to identification and isolation of every infected resident.” By working together with doctors from the University of California, San Francisco, raising funds through GoFundMe, and volunteers, the people of Bolinas managed to do just that.

Some people may laugh and disregard this story of aging hippies coming together with venture capitalists as some strange latter-day fairy tale, but they have accomplished something remarkable. By late April, “Bolinas would be one of a handful of towns in the United States to offer coronavirus testing to all of its residents and workers. (The others were in San Miguel County, Colorado, and Fisher Island, Florida.) Its self-testing procedures are being studied as a model in countries as different as New Zealand and Uganda; the town is also a key participant in a study of coronavirus spread run by epidemiologists at the University of California, San Francisco”.

Which is more, a lot more, than the Puerto Rico Department of Health, with its multi-million dollar budget, has been able to do.

Quote of the Day

I assure you that we know what to do to bring back our economy – back to life. What we do not know is how to bring people back to life. We will therefore protect people’s lives, then their livelihoods.

—Nana Akufo-Addo, President of Ghana

Note from the editor

As the Puerto Rico economy reopens, its government seems to be taking the position that from now on it is no longer responsible for preventing a rampant outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. That would be a mistake.

As we lift shelter-in-place policies and remove the lockdown executive order, it is up to all of us—citizens, employers, and the government—to avoid a widespread eruption of COVID-19.

  • Each of us has to continue practicing good personal hygiene, wearing masks in public, practicing social distancing, and avoiding crowds and large gatherings.
  • Employers and business owners are responsible for providing their workers with personal protective equipment, implementing workplace safety procedures, and establishing and implementing protocols to protect their clients and customers.
  • The government for its part is still responsible for surveillance and monitoring, testing, data-gathering and analysis, and overseeing compliance with public health guidelines.

The logic is that, while each one of these strategies has its weaknesses, by implementing them simultaneously they will reinforce and compensate for the weaknesses of the others. If any one of them fails catastrophically the results could be devasting. This is especially true if the government fails in its surveillance and monitoring functions because it will be too late by the time patients start to pile up in emergency rooms, given that the virus spreads exponentially.

The virus is still out there. It will not disappear by wishing it away with magical thinking or catchy slogans. Good public health work is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. It is in the best interest of all of us for the Puerto Rico Department of Health to get its act together. The consequences of failure will be stark and quite permanent.

This is the end of today’s briefing.
Stay safe and well informed!