God from the Machine is a plot device from ancient Greek theater whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected, unlikely occurrence. The function of deus ex machine is to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to either bring the tale to a happy ending or act as a comedic device, much to the surprise of the audience.
With coronavirus, when you do more social distancing, you get less transmission. When you do less, you get more transmission, writes Holman Jenkins in the WSJ.
Almost all countries are pursuing a more-or-less goal, not a reduce-to-zero goal. Sweden expects a higher curve but in line with its hospital capacity. Sweden’s neighbors are not avoiding the same deaths with their stronger mandates, they are delaying them, to the detriment of other values.
A Pessimism Plan
Mr. Jenkins commends a plan by Avik Roy and his colleagues at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. The Foundation calls it a “pessimism” plan:
A vaccine won’t be developed. An effective treatment won’t soon materialize. Universal testing will not quickly scale up. Infection won’t be found to confer lasting immunity.
Hope Is Not a Strategy
We can hope for success in these areas, but betting our national survival on hitting a hole-in-one may be a plot device (deus ex machine), and, as Mr. Jenkins points out, it is certainly not a strategy.
The most important thing the government can do now, advises Mr. Jenkins, is to give people the information they need to resurrect the economy.
The World Health Organization’s Maria Van Kerkhove, on return from Wuhan, said flatly the disease was not spread in casual interaction but in close family and institutional settings. Hendrik Streeck, the virologist leading an investigation of a severe outbreak in Germany’s Heinsberg district, found similar results. He saw little evidence that shopping or even touching contaminated surfaces posed a significant risk to a well-advised public.
In China, a study of 318 clusters (involving 1,245 patients) found 80% involved transmission in the home, 34% in public transportation. Only two people were found to have been infected in an outdoor setting. In Hong Kong, where people practice good social distancing, lockdowns haven’t been needed to keep hospitals from overflowing.
Much remains to be found out: aerosols vs. droplets, the effectiveness of masks. Hand washing is probably a good idea but doesn’t have a lot of peer-reviewed science behind it. This is information the public needs as it resumes work and socializing in defiance of those single-variable thinkers who imagine civilization will put itself in a deep freeze until a vaccine materializes.